Thursday, 30 June 1983

Thatcher and Friends: Chapter 1 - Thatcher's Fake Landslide

By John Ross

In terms of seats in Parliament Thatcher's election victory of 1983 was enormous. But the Conservatives' 144-seat majority had little to do with real degrees of popular support; it merely reflected the grotesquely undemocratic character of the British electoral system. The Tories won 61.1 per cent of the seats on 42.4 per cent of the vote. The Tory percentage of the vote actually fell by 1.5 per cent from 1979 while their number of seats increased by almost 8 per cent.

Table 1

Table 1 gives the percentage of votes and seats won by the major parties. It also shows what changes that would be brought about by allocating seats in direct proportion to the percentage of votes received. The effect of the 'first past the post' electoral system IS not,contrary to the rhetoric of David Owen and David Steel, that Labour is over-represented in Parliament because it is un-democratically holding on to a lot of seats in the North of England. Labour's proportion of seats in 1983 was slightly, but not massively, above its proportion of the vote. The party which was absurdly over-represented in Parliament was Margaret Thatcher's Tories. The chief effect of proportional representation in 1983 would not have been to reduce Labour representation but to have eliminated a large part of the “hang 'em, flog 'em, lock 'em up” brigade of Tory backbenchers and replace them with up-and-coming members of the SOP-Liberal Alliance.

The decline of the Tory vote

Real political and social trends, and underlying strength, cannot be judged from one election alone however. A 1.5 per cent fall in the vote for the Tory Party on the face of it looks quite a good result given that no government since 1959 has been re-elected after a full term. Its significance only becomes clear when it is seen in the context of the long-term decline of Conservative Party support.

Figure 1 illustrates the percentage of the vote gained by the Conservative Party in every election since its highest-ever level of 1931. An even longer-term curve of Tory support, to show that we have not 'cooked the books' by adopting an arbitrary starting-point, can be found in Chapter 2.

Figure 1

What Figure1 shows, as one would expect, is a whole series of short-term fluctuations of Tory support from election to election, and from victories to defeats. But all these short-term shifts are simply superimposed on a quite clear continuing decline of Tory support. With the exception of 1945-51, when the Conservative vote was temporarily depressed by the colossal post-war Labour landslide, every Conservative victory since 1931 has seen the Tory vote at a lower level than the one before. Each consecutive Tory defeat saw the Conservative vote fall to a lower figure than the one previously (see Table 2).

Table 2

In the 1983 election Thatcher has not succeeded in reversing his long-term trend of Tory decline. On the contrary, her votes in 1979 and 1983 form part of that fall of support for the Conservative Party.

Furthermore this Conservative decline, as we will see later, is not some sort of curious statistical freak but is deeply rooted in long-term social forces. The 1979 and 1983 elections demonstrated the weakness of the Labour Party but also a failure by the Tories to regain popularity - a failure which has profound consequences for the shape and future of British politics.

Three-party politics

Finally, Table 3 shows the decline of the Tory vote in the overall development of the party system. It clearly shows the way in which support for all three major parties in the 1983 election forms a coherent part of their long-term development.

Taking the Alliance first it can be seen from Table 3 that the Liberal vote has been rising since 1955. Taking just the successive peaks the trend is from 3 per cent in 1955, to 6 per cent in 1959, 11 per cent in 1964, 19 per cent in February 1974 and 25 per cent for the SDP-Liberal Alliance in 1983. The Alliance vote is not a six-day wonder but a product of that 30-year trend of rising Liberal support.

Equally, the Labour Party vote also shows a perfectly clear development. The highest percentage Labour vote ever recorded in a general election was 48.8 per cent in 1951 - although the 48.0 per cent of 1966 was only marginally lower.

Table 3

If we look at the findings of Gallup polls, which have been taken since 1939, Labour's highest-ever levels of support were 52.5 per cent in January 1946 and an all-time peak of 53.5 per cent in May 1966. It was after the announcement of the introduction of incomes policy in June 1966 that Labour Party support started the remorseless downward trend from which it has never recovered. The Labour vote of June 1983 is evidently a continuation of that decline.
Taking these trends together then, it can be seen that the votes of none of the major political parties in the 1983 election were determined simply by short-term elements of the situation. The support of all the parties represents parts of coherent long-term trends in British politics. Ripping simply one feature out of the situation - normally, for propaganda purposes, the decline of the Labour Party vote - obscures what is taking place. In reality an enormous political process is under way affecting the position of all political parties in which the development of each individual party interlocks with that of the others.

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