Why the Conservatives lost in 1997

Last Saturday, BBC Parliament replayed their coverage on election night of the 1997 general election.  Like their replays of coverage of other elections, such as that of 1979, I found it fascinating.  I was also struck by the explanations offered by some Conservatives of why the party lost.

The tendency is for people strongly committed to a particular ideology or cause to explain failure or success in terms of one’s own prejudices.  (At the moment, for example, some people are incapable of explaining criticism of Dominic Cummings other than through the prism of Brexit.)  Data, however hard, are not allowed to stand in the way of one’s interpretation of what really explains an outcome.  Opponents of a European single currency felt that, had the party abandoned its ‘wait and see’ policy in favour of outright opposition, the election would not have been lost.  Others ascribed the loss to party infighting as well as to various scandals.

These are not irrelevant to the party’s loss in 1997, but they were essentially contributory to the loss.  In other words, they may have exacerbated the scale of the defeat, but they did not constitute the cause of the defeat.  The Conservative Party lost the 1997 general election in 1992 on ‘Black Wednesday’ and the UK’s withdrawal from the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM).  Support for the party slumped in the polls – Labour took a clear double-digit lead – and never recovered.  The party lost every by-election in the Parliament and by the end of the Parliament controlled only one county council.  The events of Black Wednesday essentially undermined the party’s claim – core to its success – of being a party of governance, a safe pair of hands in managing the nation’s economy. Once that trust is lost, it can take years rebuilding it.  It was still impacting Conservative fortunes in the 2001 general election.  Labour found the same thing after the Winter of Discontent in 1979.

Tony Blair was not responsible for Labour’s victory in 1997, though it is possible that his leadership made the size of Labour’s majority even greater than it was.  Conservative infighting, the issue of European integration, and scandal exacerbated the sheer scale of the defeat – the worst since at least 1906 – but the election was already lost.

I should add that this summarises what I wrote at the time in ‘The Conservative Party: “In Office but Not in Power”’, in Anthony King (ed), New Labour Triumphs: Britain at the Polls’. You can read the chapter for the supporting evidence.

About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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3 Responses to Why the Conservatives lost in 1997

  1. Dean B says:

    I’m conscious of the tendency you describe to explain the result in my own terms, but I have to say this doesn’t ring true to my recollections. Just because the Tories went behind in the polls in 1992 doesn’t mean they wouldn’t have gone behind anyway at some point between 1992 and 1997, had the exit from the ERM not happened. The Tories performance in 1992 compared to 1987 indicates a decline was already well underway, and I don’t recall any great act of the 92-97 government that would have led anyone to expect a grateful electorate would have returned them to office, but for the ERM exit. As I recall the highlight of the whole 5 years was something about cones? Interspersed with a string of personal scandals.

    My experience at the time is that the mood in 1997 was overwhelmingly positive, pro New Labour, not anti-Tory, and that it was “time for change”. I believe Tony Blair would have beaten John Major irrespective of the events of Black Wednesday, and rightly so.

    • Lord Norton says:

      Oh well, so much for the data in the chapter. Recollections clearly trump Table 4.1…

      • Dean B says:

        Ha ha. I did at least preface my comment with somewhat of a disclaimer. In any case, accepting the impact of Black Wednesday does not necessarily require one to rule out the possibility that the Conservatives would have lost even if it had not happened. We cannot know what would have happened in the years between 1993 and 1997 had Black Wednesday not occurred, or played out differently. You say yourself that the electorate was looking for a strong leader, and found one in Tony Blair’s election in 1994. The graph at Figure 7.2 in the book you refer to also shows that public perceptions on economic competence, support for Conservatives, and approval of government record were all falling between May 1992 and September 1992, even before Black Wednesday. I don’t think it is particularly controversial to suggest that it is at least possible that the Tories would have lost in 1997 with or without Black Wednesday

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