The 1992 General Election in retrospect
Originally published on Conservative Home 7 April 2017
Sunday 9 April 2017 is the 25th anniversary of the general election of 1992, at which John Major won a fourth successive term for the Conservatives, and the largest total of votes for any party in a UK general election. The parliamentary majority was small but adequate, and the popular vote lead over Labour (7.6 percentage points) was comfortable. It was an unexpected triumph, as most observers felt that it was unlikely that any party would win outright and the eve-of-election polls showed the two main parties roughly level in popularity.
I had an interesting vantage point on the 1992 election. I was a student at Nuffield College Oxford, under David Butler, and got to see a number of the campaign’s principal personages at reasonably close quarters through David’s Friday afternoon seminars at Nuffield. Paddy Ashdown to his credit gave a jovial, relaxed seminar even though – as we discovered later – he was deep in legal consultations that day about allegations about his private life. I also had the honour of accompanying David on some of his research trips around the country. One morning we had an early start as we drove up to the East Midlands to have breakfast with Tony Benn in Chesterfield and sniff the political air in the numerous marginal seats in the region. I gained a lasting respect for the judgement of party regional organisers, who were usually realistic if not frankly pessimistic when talking to David about how the election was going. It was clear that both Labour and Conservative campaigns were working flat-out in the Midlands marginals – although there were inklings of change on the way with computers and targeted mailshots, the local campaign looked much more like 1966 than 2015.
When John Major took to his soapbox in Luton, it looked like a futile and old-fashioned gesture, but it may well have been more effective than most calculated acts of image making such as John Schlesinger’s filmed mini-biography of Major. It chimed with people’s existing view of Major as being old-school, approachable and straight, and added a sense that he could be pugnacious when required. Although its effect has been grossly exaggerated by posterity (possibly because Matthew Parris wrote an eloquent little piece at the time), Labour’s mass rally at Sheffield certainly did not help and coming at Labour’s peak in the campaign polls it was a hook on which to hang existing uncertainties about Labour and Neil Kinnock.
A number of myths have also become established about how badly the exit poll performed. It did not predict a Labour majority at any stage. Shortly before close of poll, the main projection flipped to being that the Conservatives would be the largest party but without an overall majority. In those days, exit polling was two-tier; there was a predictive poll to fuel the election night seat projections and a large general opinion poll which measured the voting public’s deeper opinions which was useful for filling broadcast hours when the results were trickling in and in looking back at the deeper reasons why people voted as they did. The big poll was pretty good about the overall result – the Conservatives were 5 points ahead. The seat projection work was off because while it correctly picked up a higher Labour swing in the marginals the baseline was too friendly to Labour, and also that there were systematic errors in the adjustments for unusual constituencies such as those which had changed hands in by-elections since 1987. The projection was also slow to react to the incoming results which were mostly showing better than expected Tory results, although there were some bright spots for Labour such as the gain of Nuneaton on a swing which if produced nationally would have taken the party into government. The Conservatives lost their Party Chairman Chris Patten, who was defeated by the Lib Dems in Bath.
When the last count was completed, the Conservatives won the largest raw number of votes of any party, ever, in British electoral history: 14,093,399. It was a reasonably high share of the vote (41.9 per cent), on a high turnout (77.7 per cent), with an electorate that had grown by nearly 9 million since the previous record was set by Labour in 1951. It seems unlikely that Major’s record will be beaten. While the Conservative vote was high, Labour’s 11,560,484 was also numerically the second-best result the party has achieved since 1974 – only in 1997 has Labour polled more raw votes (although it did so in every election from 1945 to February 1974 inclusive).
The Conservative class of 1992 were regarded at the time as being a set of right wing ‘Thatcher’s Children’. Although it would have seemed extremely unlikely, it was Iain Duncan Smith who rose the highest, with two years as party leader and six as Work and Pensions Secretary. Only one 1992 entrant, Liam Fox, is in the current Cabinet; another, Eric Pickles – translated from Bradford to Brentwood in 1992 – served under David Cameron. The 1992 intake produced no future Labour leaders and only one (brief) contender for the leadership – Angela Eagle. But it formed a solid core of ministers for the Labour governments, with eight serving as Cabinet Ministers between 1997 and 2010 mostly in the middle ranks. Another future Labour Cabinet minister was actually at Central Office in charge of the 1992 Conservative campaign, namely Shaun Woodward. The most senior among the future ministers was, inevitably, Peter Mandelson who had moved from image-making for the party from 1985 to 1990 to fighting for and winning working-class Hartlepool and despite an entertaining story that still does the rounds not being the slightest bit flummoxed by his encounter with mushy peas.
The election had seemed to be a thorough stress-test of the Conservatives’ strength. It took place near the bottom of the economic cycle, after a grim recession in 1990-91 and with little sign that things would turn around any time soon. The election came after 13 years in power, the stage at which the last long stretch of Tory government had ended in 1964, amid a feeling of ‘time for a change’. The Conservatives had undergone the trauma of the overthrow of Thatcher, while Labour was united, shorn of the baggage of 1983 and 1987 and running a highly polished, professional campaign and was hungrier to win than the party had been since the 1960s. And yet, the Conservatives won by a popular vote margin similar to their win in 1979. What would the Tories have to do to score below 40 per cent in an election? Was Britain becoming a one-party dominant state like Japan? It was not for nothing that the British Election Study book on the 1992 election was called Labour’s Last Chance, although the authors prudently put a question mark at the end of the title.
Looking back on 1992, I tend to think – it’s unprovable but I think it’s plausible – that for a lot of voters in 1992 it was a marginal decision. The Conservatives received the benefit of the doubt on that occasion, but it was heavily conditional. Many Tories, and many of us in the analysis business, mistook that for a permanent ascendancy. The public reaction to Black Wednesday in September 1992, and the series of blunders, mishaps and scandals that followed on, was particularly savage and unforgiving because it made people feel stupid for having taken a decision they felt in two minds about anyway. Governments that, as John Major put it in later reflections, ‘stretch the elastic of democracy’ by squeezing out another surprise term of office at a time when the public has basically tired of them, store up wild disproportionate vengeance from electors for next time.
The political and economic cycle being what it is, there are good and bad elections to lose – May 1929 was about the best possible election for the Tories to lose, while the payoff from a narrow win in 1951 was huge. At the time 1992 looked like a good election to win, with the probability that the next election would take place with the economy in much better condition and favourable social and industrial changes further advanced. So it proved, but it did no political good despite Ken Clarke’s ebullient performance as Chancellor.
Comparisons between the campaign and outcome in 1992 and 2015 are inevitable. In both, the polls – and most predictors, myself included in the case of 2015 but not in 1992 – were a poor guide to the outcome; in both the Tories fought a mostly negative campaign contrasting Conservative stability with the ‘chaos’ of the main alternative option being a minority Labour government in a hung parliament. In both, Labour’s leader had been successful in party management but not in convincing the public that he was a Prime Minister in waiting. In both, the economic argument was that we were through the worst and the risks of changing course were not worth taking.
There were some differences, too. Major was actually popular while Cameron was merely tolerated, although conversely Labour had moved on from the legacy of its previous government in 1992. The Conservative manifesto in 1992 was a careful treaty between Whitehall departments, and was largely implemented by 1997, while that in 2015 was more of a starting position for coalition talks. The Liberal Democrat vote did fall in 1992, but the party had clearly come through the worst of its merger-related agonies and was on the way back as an effective, and increasingly anti-Tory, force. Voters in 1992 who did not support the Conservatives were more willing than ever before to cast their votes tactically. It was not enough to deprive the Tories of victory in 1992, but it trimmed the majority down and pointed the way to the landslide of 1997.
Immediately after the 2015 election it seemed plausible to think that the politics of this parliament might follow the 1992 pattern. Labour would pick itself up, dust itself down and become a canny, opportunistic opposition on the Smith and Blair model, reforming the party and its policies and working with the misgivings that people already had about the Tories. In this alternative history, perhaps David Cameron with the help of an energetic campaign from Labour wins the Europe referendum at the cost of chronic, bitter divisions in the Conservative Party just as John Major achieved the costly ratification of the Maastricht Treaty. But Labour members chose a very different path in September 2015 and all changed, changed utterly.
Should Conservative Home readers wish to relive the election night of 1992 – and I for one, dear reader, can see no reason why you might not – the BBC coverage will be shown on the BBC Parliament channel from 9am on Saturday 8 April.