1997 General Election

1997 General Election

Political Parties

Total Votes












1997 Pakistani general election

General elections were held in Pakistan on 3 February 1997 to elect the members of National Assembly. The elections were a fierce contest between Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) led by pre-election Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and the Pakistan Muslim League (N) led by Nawaz Sharif. Sharif benefited from the controversial death of Bhutto's brother Murtaza, a populist leader, a worsening economy, and alleged corruption cases against Bhutto's husband Asif Ali Zardari.

The elections took place after the previous PPP government was dismissed by President Farooq Leghari for matters of national security. Bhutto's government suffered with financial mismanagement, corruption charges, racial tensions in her native Sindh Province, issues with the judiciary, violations of the constitution, and intra-party and family feuds. After the PPP government was dismissed, a caretaker government was formed under the leadership of Malik Meraj Khalid.

The result was a victory for the PML (N), which received most votes ever won by an opposition party at the time. This was the first time PML-N had won an election without being part of any alliance. Sharif subsequently became Prime Minister for a second non-consecutive term. Voter turnout was only 36.0%. [1]

General Election 1997 - Leadership, Image and Policy: the Conservative Party Campaign

John Major became Prime Minister in 1990, following the departure of Margaret Thatcher and a bigger contrast with his predecessor it would be hard to find. However, he had led his party to victory in the 1992 General Election, keeping a small majority, despite many opinion polls predicting a Labour win. He served a full term from 1992 to 1997, and it was far from uneventful.

John Major was mocked in cartoons and on TV satirical shows such as Spitting Image as being grey and uncharismatic. With his small majority, he had struggled to control his backbenchers and some in his cabinet. He was famously recorded describing some of his cabinet ministers as “bastards” and, when some Eurosceptic backbenchers kept rebelling against the whip over votes relating to the Maastricht Treaty, he lost his parliamentary majority by withdrawing the whip from some serial rebels.

Eventually, in 1995, he issued his notorious “put up or shut up” challenge to his MPs and the Eurosceptic MP John Redwood challenged him for the leadership. At this time only MPs got to vote for the Conservative leadership and they rallied around the Prime Minister and he won comfortably.

Although this reinforced his position in the Conservative Party, he continued to be seen as lacking control. At one Prime Minister’s Questions, leader of the opposition Tony Blair said “I lead my party he follows his” and this reinforced the popular image of John Major as a weak leader.

As well as the leader of the Conservative Party having an image problem in the lead-up to the 1997 election, the same could be said of the whole party. It is often said that divided parties don’t win elections, and the Conservatives appeared fundamentally divided in the years leading up to the 1997 election, primarily over the issue of our relationship with the European Union. John Major had to try and keep a party together that included committed Europhiles like Ken Clark and Michael Heseltine and Eurosceptics like Michael Portillo and Michael Howard at the very top of the party.

As well as being seen as divided, they were also viewed as being mired in sleaze.

John Major made a speech about his own conservativism, in which he called on the British people to “get back to basics” which included traditional family values. This prompted the tabloid press to seek out every possible example of Conservative ministers and MPs behaving in ways that deviated from such traditional values. A series of sex scandals badly damaged the party’s reputation. There were also financial scandals, such as the “Cash for Questions” affair, where two Conservative backbenchers were alleged to have accepted payments via a lobbyist, in return for asking questions in the House of Commons. While one of the MPs immediately resigned, the other (Neil Hamilton) and the lobbyist (Ian Greer) sought to clear their names in court, prolonging the story and bringing more evidence to light. This was still an ongoing saga at the time of the 1997 general election, despite having initially come to light in 1994, as a report into the incident was due to report its findings in 1997. It continued to be a major story through the election, because the BBC journalist Martin Bell chose to fight Neil Hamilton to be the MP for Tatton as the “anti-sleaze” candidate. The Labour and Liberal Democrat candidates stood down and Bell defeated Hamilton.

A perception that the Conservative Party was weak, divided, sleazy and corrupt certainly contributed to the election result.

It has been suggested that another element of the Conservatives’ image in 1997, that might have contributed to its defeat, was the idea that it was “the nasty party”. This was suggested by Theresa May in 2002, when she was the chair of the Conservative Party. She suggested that the party had relied on a narrow base of well-off white men and senior figures had attacked minorities.

Not much is remembered of the Conservative Party manifesto of 1997. While John Major described it as “bold” and “far-reaching” there were few eye-catching policies, largely based around a continuation of themes from previous years: giving citizens choice and control and further reducing the role of the state. The most eye-catching policy was probably a tax allowance proposal to encourage traditional nuclear families, where a non-working partner could pass their tax-free allowance to their working spouse. In a society of diverse families where most women worked, this only contributed to a sense that the Conservative Party in 1997 did not represent where the UK was.

General Elections in PAKISTAN – A Brief History

Election is the backbone of any form of democracy. It gives an opportunity to the voter to express his / her acceptance or rejection, and to bring in power the party to whom he / she believes that will work for a better
future and prosperity of the country. Pakistan is one of 167 countries in the world where Democracy is opted as the form of running state affairs. The state of Islamic Republic of Pakistan is being operated under parliamentary democracy. A system of government in which people directly elect representatives to the parliament is known
as Parliamentary democracy. The parliament elects the prime minister from within its members and through the parliament the Prime Minister and his cabinet are directly answerable to the people. The parliament is responsible for making laws and taking other important decisions for the country.


The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) is an independent, autonomous, permanent and constitutionally established federal body. ECP is responsible for organizing and conducting of elections to state upper and
lower houses of the parliament, provincial and local governments and elections to the office of Pakistans President. Furthermore the delimitation of constituencies and preparation of Electoral Rolls also come under the basic responsibilities of ECP. As per the principles mentioned by the constitution of Pakistan, the commission makes such arrangements as are necessary to ensure that the election is conducted fairly, transparently and in accordance with
law. Also these corrupt practices are guarded against The Election Commission which was formed on 23 March 1956, and has been restructured and reformed at various occasions in the countrys history. Under the Article 213 & 216, the Chief Election Commissioner and four retired judges of the High Courts from respective four provinces of the country were appointed by the President, in the manner provided in the clauses (2A) and (2B) of Article 213 of the
constitution. As of present, Justice (R) Sardar Muhammad Raza is the current Chief Election Commissioner. Election Commission of Pakistan has a 5-member panel, out of which 4 members are from each of the four provinces (Punjab, Sindh, Baluchistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) headed by a Chief Election Commissioner.The Commission
transacts its business by holding meetings. All members of the Election Commission have equal status and say in the
decisions of the Commission.

The Independence Act of 1947 made the existing Constituent Assemblies the dominion legislatures with the authority to exercise all the powers that were formerly exercised by the central legislature in addition to the powers regarding the framing of a new constitution, prior to which all the territories were to be governed in accordance with the Government of India Act, 1935. In the first session of First Constituent Assembly, on August 11, 1947 Muhammad Ali Jinnah was elected unanimously the President of the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan, and the national flag was formally approved by the Assembly. On October 24, 1954, the then Governor General Ghulam Muhammad dissolved First Constituent Assembly.

The second constituent Assembly of Pakistan was created on May 28 under Governor Generals Order No. 12 of 1955. The electoral college of this assembly was the Provincial Assemblies of respective provinces. The strength of this assembly was 80 members, half each from East & West Pakistan.

On March 5, 1956, Major General Iskander Mirza became the first elected President of Pakistan. According to the Constitution of 1956, the President was the Executive Head Of the Federation and was to be elected by all members of the National and Provincial assemblies for the period of five years. Legislative powers vested in the Parliament, which consisted of the President and the National Assembly comprising 300 members divided into half between East and West Pakistan. In addition to those 300 seats, 5 seats for women were reserved for each of the two wings for a period of ten years.

President Iskander Mirza abrogated the constitution by declaring Martial Law on October 7, 1958 and dissolved the National and Provincial Assemblies. He appointed General Muhammad Ayub Khan, Commander-in-Chief of the Army as the Chief Martial Law Administrator. General Ayub Khan became the second President of Pakistan on October 27, 1958. He introduced a system of local self-government known as Basic Democracies (BDs) promulgated under Basic Democracies Order on October 27, 1959. On February 14, 1960, President Ayub Khan won referendum and assumed power of Presidency by securing 95.6 percent of the votes and framed a new constitution on March 1, 1962.

1st general elections were held in 1962, under the rule of military dictator General Ayub Khan.
2nd general elections were conducted in 1965 in which parliamentarians were elected indirectly by 80,000 BD members or members of local governments.

85s National Assembly was dominated by the rural landlords. The only change was that the younger generation of landlords had taken over from their elders

3rd general elections were held by Ayubs successor, General Yahya Khan, in 1970, described as the fairest the country had held so far. But in a bitter irony they triggered the countrys most devastating political crisis. Separatist Bengali leader Sheikh Mujibur Rehmans Awami League party swept the vote in the East Pakistan and Zulfikar
Ali Bhuttos Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) won a majority in West Pakistan. In the wake of the crisis, a war erupted between Pakistan and India, with the eastern wing splitting off to become an independent Bangladesh and Bhutto becoming prime minister of the smaller, unified Pakistan in 1971.

4th general elections were held in 1977 by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, but rigging allegations were raised by a nine-party alliance, Pakistan Qaumi Ittehad. General Zia-ul-Haq toppled Bhutto in a coup in July 1977 and promised to hold fresh polls within 90 days that never happened. Zia hanged Bhutto two years later and got himself elected as president in a rigged referendum.

5th general elections of the National and Provincial Assemblies were scheduled in 1985 by General Zia-ul-Haq on non-party basis with a precondition that a candidate must be supported by at least 50 people to be eligible.These were very strange elections. More than 800 important political personalities were arrested in a crackdown before elections. Election campaign was not allowed and a ban was imposed on political parties, processions, rallies and even loudspeakers. 85s National Assembly was dominated by the rural landlords. The only change was that the younger generation of landlords had taken over from their elders. The social background of the new members of parliament can be judged from the fact that 75% of total number of these bodies was big landlords.

The people of Pakistan witnessed a divine cycle of fortune as on August 17, 1988, when General Zia-ul-Haq along with other notables died in a C-130 plane crash near Bahawalpur. Under the constitution, the Chairman Senate, Ghulam Ishaq Khan became the acting President. On October 2, 1988, Supreme Court of Pakistan permitted the political parties to participate in the upcoming elections.

6th general elections were held in November, 1988. Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) under the leadership of Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto emerged as the single largest party by receiving 38.52% votes.

It captured 93 of the 207 directly-contested seats in parliament, which has 237 members. IJI was able to grab 30.16% of the votes, but only 55 seats. After the womens seats were apportioned, the Pakistan Peoples Party controlled 105 of the 237 seats. The PPP formed a coalition-government with the MQM. On December 2, 1988 Benazir Bhutto was sworn in as not only the first ever female Prime Minister of Pakistan but also the Islamic world. The provincial elections, held on November 19, initially resulted in PPP governments in three out of four provinces. However, in Punjab, IJI leader Nawaz Sharif became the Chief Minister.

7th general elections were held in August 1990, after the dismissal of Benazir government. Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif took oath as the new Prime Minister. President Ghulam Ishaq Khan again dissolved the assemblies
on 18th April 1993 and appointed Balakh Sher Mazari as the interim Prime Minister. Supreme Court of Pakistan invalidated the Presidential Order and re-instated Nawaz Sharif as the Prime Minister. However, the political crisis resulted in the resignation of both the Prime Minister and President on July 18, 1993. Moeen Qureshi, a World Bank official, took over the charge as caretaker Prime Minister.

8th general elections held in October 1993. No mainstream party was able to gain majority as PPP obtained 86 seats and PML stood second with 72. At this time late Benazir Bhutto played her cards very intelligently. She defeated Mian Nawaz Sharif with 121-71 margin for the Leader of the House and also elected former PPP Foreign
Minister Farooq Ahmed Khan Leghari as the President. Unfortunately, on November5, 1996, President Leghari dismissed PPPs government.

9th general elections were scheduled to be held in February 1997. Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif took oath as Prime Minister of Pakistan as he acquired a landslide victory by attaining ultimate 2/3 majority in the house.

Still the nightmare was not over as on October 12, 1999 Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif dismissed Mr. Pervez Musharraf, who was the Chief of Army Staff at that time. Mr. Nawaz Sharif could not control the situation as senior Army generals refusedto accept it and the Generals ousted Mr. Nawaz Sharif from power.

On October 12, 1999 Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif dismissed Mr. Pervez Musharraf, who was the Chief
of Army Staff at that time

Chief of Army Staff, General Pervez Musharraf assumed the title of Chief Executive through a Provisional Constitutional Order (PCO) issued on October 14th, 1999. He suspended all constitutional organs of the state including the Senate, National and Provincial Assemblies, Chairman and Deputy Chairman Senate, Speaker, Deputy Speaker including National and Provincial Assemblies and dismissed the Federal and Provincial governments.

The special feature of 12th general elections was the thundering entry of a new player Pakistan Tehrik-i Insaf (PTI) led by the legend Imran Khan

10th general elections were held in October 2002. The Kings party, Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid-i-Azam (PML-Q), a faction of the former Pakistan Muslim League (PML) obtained the largest share of seats, 77 but not the majority. The Pakistan Peoples Party Parliamentarians (PPP-P) stood second by securing 63 seats. Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA), an alliance of six Islamist parties, won 45 seats. Mir Zafarullah Jamali was elected as the Prime Minister of Pakistan by securing 172 votes out of 329, but he resigned on 26 June 2004 and Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain replaced him as the interim Prime Minister, who was later replaced by Mr. Shaukat Aziz.

11th general elections in 2008 are considered as the victory of political and democratic forces for restoration of democracy and continuity of electoral process in the country, but during political campaign in Rawalpindi, the
chairperson of PPP-P, Benazir Bhutto was assassinated on December 27, 2007. Violence erupted, resulting into rescheduling of elections to a new date on February 18, 2008. PPP Parliamentarian emerged as the single largest
party whose total figure reached to 123 seats while the PML-N stood 2nd with 93 seats in national assembly. The former ruling PML-Q (now PML) could manage to win only 53 seats in national assembly. The regional parties like MQM and ANP won 25 and 13 seats respectively, while 19 candidates were elected as independent candidates. In Punjab, PML-N formed the government while Sindh and Baluchistan fell with PPP-P and ANP took over Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.

12th general elections were held in May 2013. The special feature of this election was the thundering entry of a new player Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf (PTI) led by the legend Imran Khan. It is important to know that PTI of Imran
Khan participated in 1997, 2002 elections and boycotted 2008 elections but could not attract the voters. During 2013 elections, the voter turnout was amazingly 55%. PML-N emerged as the single largest party whose total figure reached to 189 seats. PPP Parliamentarian stood 2nd largest party with 44 seats while PTI got 3rd position with 32 seats. KPK proved the base camp of PTI as they formed the first ever government since its inception. PML (N) formed its government in Punjab and Baluchistan while Sindh remained with PPP-P.

General Election 1997 - Introduction

The General Election of 1997 was, what is sometimes referred to as, a change election.

The Conservative Party had been in power since 1979. 18 years is an unusually long period of time for one party to be continuously in power. Since the 1979 election the Labour Party had had five leaders and more than one “reinvention”. In the early 1990s, a popular politics essay question was “Must Labour Lose?” The same was to be asked of the Conservative Party ten years later.

A change election exists when a period associated with the dominance of one party ends and a new period begins (such as 1945, 1979 or 1997). There was not just a minor shift between parties but a landslide victory for Labour.

What is unusual about 1997 is that it was not at a time of economic catastrophe or social upheaval, as in previous ‘change elections’. Following a severe recession in the early 1990s, the following years were characterised by steady growth, low unemployment and low inflation. While voters with long memories might have been punishing the Conservatives for the Exchange Rate Mechanism crisis in 1992, there must have been other explanations for the extraordinary result.

As can be seen from the results, this was a landslide victory for the Labour Party who gained a large majority, at the expense of the Conservative Party who lost more than half their MPs, including a number of “big names” from the Cabinet. The Liberal Democrats also had a good night at the Conservative’s expense while other minor parties had little impact.

1983: divided and conquered

The Conservatives were re-elected by a landslide in 1983, although their vote share actually declined. For much of the time, the government’s policies had been unpopular and divisive. The attempt to target inflation had produced a massive rise in unemployment, and many urban areas had rioted. Then, Argentina invaded the Falklands. Thatcher was able to bask in the glow of military victory, just as the tide of economic expectations was rising.

Meanwhile, Labour had made itself virtually unelectable. It had lurched to the left, promising massive nationalisation, withdrawal from the Common Market and unilateral nuclear disarmament, among other things. It had also split, with a number of its more moderate and popular MPs forming the Social Democratic Party, which promptly entered into an electoral pact with the Liberals.

In the event, the SDP-Liberal Alliance failed to “break the mould of British politics”, and Labour survived as the main opposition party. Nevertheless, the centre-left remained divided for another decade, helping the Conservatives to win in 1987 and 1992, giving them time to roll back the less popular parts of the state.

Why the Tories Lost

The Conservative defeat in this year&rsquos general election is probably the worst suffered by any party since 1931. (The comparison with 1832 is meaningless. The only reliable comparisons are those with elections held under universal suffrage, of which the first was 1929.) Labour, it is true, had a lower proportion of the votes in 1983 and 1987 but on both occasions won significantly more seats. In 1935 Labour won in proportion only a few more seats but had a much larger percentage of the poll. This year the difference between the two parties&rsquo performances was extraordinary. Three hundred and thirteen Labour MPs were elected with more than 50 per cent of the votes cast in their constituencies, 44 (including Tony Blair and John Prescott) were elected with over 70 per cent, and two with over 80 per cent. By contrast, only 14 Conservatives won more than 50 per cent of the votes cast. The most successful Conservative, John Major in Huntingdon, received 55.3 per cent of the vote: the most successful Labour candidate, Mr Benton in Bootle, 82.8 per cent. What is striking is how few MPs from the Conservative heartlands in the suburbanised county constituencies of the South and East Anglia were able to win 50 per cent of the vote.

It has been usual to compare this result with 1945, but the two are not all that similar. Labour probably did better than in 1945 and the Conservatives certainly did worse. Labour won proportionately more seats in 1997 than in 1945 and its lead in votes was larger: in 1945 it was 8.5 per cent ahead of the Conservatives this year nearly 13 per cent. It did not win as high a proportion of the vote as in 1945, but that is probably misleading. A better index is the size of Labour&rsquos &lsquopreferred&rsquo vote: what percentage of the voters would vote Labour if they were all required to choose between the Conservative and Labour Parties alone. There must be considerable guesswork in estimating this figure, particularly as many people would probably not wish to choose between the two parties. But if they did, it is likely that about 54.5 per cent of the population would have voted Labour in 1945, and about 56 per cent (or more) in 1997. The 1997 figure has no equal in Labour&rsquos history. There are, moreover, some important differences in the configuration of the Labour vote. In 1945, for example, Labour&rsquos weakest performances in urban Britain were in Greater Liverpool and Greater Glasgow, because sectarianism was still a dynamic element in their politics. In 1997 Labour&rsquos strongest performances in urban Britain were in Greater Liverpool and Greater Glasgow, largely because sectarianism had ceased to be dynamic. And this change is not confined to the working class: everyone in these conurbations is more inclined to vote Labour. There is no evidence that the fall in turnout harmed the Conservatives more than Labour, though it pointed to a wider political disengagement, particularly in safe Labour seats, which the present electoral system does nothing to mitigate.

The extent of the Conservative defeat is unambiguous. They won 48 fewer seats than in 1945 (though, in effect, more than 48, since the 1945 Commons was slightly smaller than the present one) and 8 per cent less of the total vote. There are two reasons for this, apart from the overall swing to Labour. The first is the success of the Liberal Democrats in England. In 1945 its predecessor, the old Liberal Party, won only six seats in England and only 12 altogether &ndash the remainder were in Wales. This year, however, the Liberal Democrats won 34 seats in England all, with one exception, at the expense of the Conservatives. Furthermore, in 1945 the Liberals and their electorate tended to be more sympathetic to the Conservatives than to Labour. This year the reverse was true. The second reason is the collapse of the Conservatives in Celtic Britain. In 1945, difficult though it is to believe, the Conservatives and their allies won 30 seats in Scotland, four in Wales and eight in Northern Ireland. This year the Conservatives won no seats in Scotland and Wales and they have long since parted company with the Ulster Unionists. The Liberal Democrats and the Celtic fringe thus turned what would in any case have been a heavy defeat into a debacle.

One thing the two elections have in common, however, is that their results were both unexpected. Hardly anyone thought Labour would win in 1945, and while many thought Labour would win this year, hardly anyone predicted (at least publicly) the landslide, though in both cases everything we knew pointed to that outcome. Every opinion poll, every local government election, every Euro-election, every Parliamentary by-election indicated this year&rsquos result. And not just the overall result: they exactly prefigured where the swing to Labour would be greatest, even those constituencies, like Bristol West (William Waldegrave&rsquos seat), where Labour would come from third place to win. Why were we so ready to discount this overwhelming weight of evidence? The obvious answer is 1992 &ndash once bitten twice shy. That is a good reason but there are, I think, two better ones. The first is that the &lsquoidea&rsquo which lies behind Thatcherite and post-Thatcherite Conservatism has triumphed. It is not merely the triumph of the market. The way we think about and describe the world, the vocabulary we use, particularly in public life, has been transformed in the last twenty years. This vocabulary might be self-parodying or absurd &ndash and often is &ndash but it now has no competitor. It has thus been difficult for us even to imagine that the political vehicle of this victorious ideology &ndash precisely because of its victory &ndash could itself be defeated. It is here that 1997 differs most from 1945. Although people were surprised by Labour&rsquos win in 1945, they knew that the &lsquoidea&rsquo with which Labour was most associated had already won: the election simply brought Parliament into line with the mood of the country. In 1997 we can apparently rely on no such explanation.

The second reason is that the Conservative Party was never meant to be defeated. No other party in recent British history has worked so hard to ensure that it created a political system which could not be overturned. The colossal edifice created over the last 18 years was designed to exclude all political competition &ndash partly by persuading people that no other party was legitimate or competent to govern, and partly by restructuring the electorate and the system of government so as to exclude the competition. Most of us were aware of this system and the way it operated &ndash the 1992 election was a spectacular example &ndash and were right to be impressed by it. Less obvious, however, was the instability which finally brought it down on 1 May.

The Conservative defeat was the result not of the ERM fiasco &ndash that was merely the occasion &ndash but of longer-term tensions within both the Party&rsquos ideology and the country&rsquos political system which in the end ground its hegemony to bits. When Mrs Thatcher came to power in 1979 she was an old-fashioned deflationist her &lsquomonetarism&rsquo had no theoretical basis but served only to justify low levels of government expenditure. Furthermore, the deflationary rhetoric &ndash cut taxes, promote &lsquoreal&rsquo jobs, curb unions, eliminate waste, encourage thrift and hard work &ndash was an essential element of her kind of Conservatism. Mrs Thatcher not only believed it, she assumed that the electorate did so as well. The first years of her government were based, therefore, on the assumption that a deflationary rhetoric and accompanying policies would by themselves mobilise the electorate. This was not the case. It is often said as an example of Mrs Thatcher&rsquos &lsquocourage&rsquo that she was prepared to risk unpopularity, even lose an election, to preserve her principles. She would have been an odd sort of politician were it so. She was determined to win, but her government found that the only way it could make deflationary Conservatism acceptable to the electorate was to encourage an increasingly inflationary boom. This was Thatcher&rsquos First Paradox: her government had to follow policies which were simultaneously deflationary and inflationary. More than anything else it was this paradox which drove Thatcherite Conservatism as a political system off the rails.

Such a fundamental political contradiction could not but undermine the Government&rsquos overall consistency of purpose. But the same was true at the level of rhetoric. Rhetorically, Mrs Thatcher and her ministers could not decide whether Conservatism should be &lsquoproductionist&rsquo or &lsquoconsumptionist&rsquo. At its outset, the Government was &lsquoproductionist&rsquo, as it was deflationary. The aim of policy was to rehabilitate the British economy, particularly its manufacturing sector. That was to be done by the old-fashioned virtues: saving, hard work, a restoration of managerial authority, a recognition that you cannot have something for nothing. But the old-fashioned virtues went the same way as deflation, and for the same reason: they were not very popular. The Government&rsquos recourse was a &lsquoconsumptionist&rsquo boom made possible for a time by the receipts from North Sea oil. This was the Second Paradox: a &lsquoproductionist&rsquo rhetoric was made acceptable to the electorate by a consumption boom which violated all the old-fashioned virtues. So long as you were in the right place at the right time, you could have whatever you wanted with a minimum of effort &ndash which is how most of us will remember the Eighties. In practice, moreover, it was easier to encourage consumption than the old-fashioned virtues, and the notion of citizen as consumer fitted well with an ideology which attempted to depoliticise politics and transform the existing relation between the citizen and society: the citizen was to become a client, a customer, a purchaser &ndash everything but a citizen. Even so, the boom of the late Eighties which Nigel Lawson let rip (and which was once called an economic miracle) was defended on &lsquoproductionist&rsquo grounds, though only one thing was clear about the boom: that the British economy, far from being transformed, did not have the productive capacity to sustain it.

The two paradoxes had two &lsquosolutions&rsquo: the first was the recession of 1990-3, from which neither the Conservative Party nor the electorate has yet recovered the second was the fatal decision to enter the ERM at the highest rate against the mark. This decision tells us much about the nature of Mrs Thatcher&rsquos leadership of the Conservative Party. Her political instincts warned her that in directing such a fragile instrument as the British economy the Government needed full freedom of manoeuvre. But she was also a deflationist and the object of entering the ERM at the rate of 2.95 marks to the pound was undoubtedly deflationary. More important, the notion that membership of the ERM would show that we were &lsquoserious&rsquo about inflation was held by preponderant opinion in the Conservative Party, the Treasury, the City and the press. Whatever she thought privately, there was no question of her being able to resist. The whole episode suggests that Mrs Thatcher&rsquos authority was always exaggerated. She remained leader of the Party so long as her leadership was acceptable to the institutions and opinions which matter in the Conservative Party. When her leadership became unacceptable, because too risky, she was removed.

Sterling&rsquos brief membership of the ERM was undoubtedly a disaster for the Conservative Party, not only because the pound was humiliatingly driven out, but because no one, not a minister, not a civil servant, not an &lsquoadviser&rsquo, accepted responsibility for what had happened. Protecting the system was now what mattered most: to resign would be to admit error, and that would reflect badly on the system. This was not forgotten by the electorate: witness Norman Lamont&rsquos fate at the hands of the vengeful tactical voters of Harrogate. A hard fate perhaps, since he was one of those least keen on the ERM and one of those most happy when we left. It is only a pity that he spent such a sizable proportion of the national treasure trying to keep us in. The ERM affair had one other obvious consequence: it almost obliterated the widely-held view that the Conservative Party was &lsquocompetent&rsquo in a way other parties were not. This, in itself, might have been retrievable had it not been for the extent to which the Conservative hegemony was further undermined by three other irreparable contradictions in policy, similar to those which took us in and out of the ERM.

The first was privatisation. There was a strong &lsquoefficiency&rsquo argument for privatisation and a number of the state-owned concerns were unquestionably ripe for private ownership. Many members of the Government, not least Mrs Thatcher and her successor, believed in privatisation on ideological grounds and the argument of efficiency was the one they most often employed. Had this been the only argument they employed, privatisation might not have had such malign consequences for them. Unfortunately, they also believed that privatisation was a way of attaching ever larger proportions of the electorate to the Conservative Party. So was born that craze of the Eighties, &lsquopopular capitalism&rsquo. Popular capitalism was to be to the Conservatives as council housing was to Labour. It was to establish a huge clientele wedded to the Conservative Party by its ownership of shares in privatised state assets. To ensure that the clients purchased shares these assets were often underpriced and, in fact, shareholders lost as citizens and taxpayers as much as they gained as shareholders. But that was not a calculation most popular capitalists were expected to make. Furthermore, shareholding was to effect an intellectual conversion: to make people instinctively anti-socialist and hostile to the Labour Party.

In the long term, though probably not in the short, the attempt to create a popular capitalism failed. For one thing, popular capitalism and dynamic capitalism are almost antithetical. You cannot have both, though the Government would not admit it. For another, most people sold their shares almost immediately, with the result that the number of individual shareholders is today scarcely higher than it was in 1979. The real beneficiaries of privatisation have been the large institutions like pension funds &ndash and their managers, though immensely powerful, do not have many votes. What developed was a &lsquoculture of privatisation&rsquo which the Government largely created but in the end could not curb. Its most obvious manifestation was a general climate of enrichissezvous which affected much of the population but which in particular involved huge transfers to the bankers, lawyers, consultants and &lsquoadvisers&rsquo who handled the privatisation programmes. Significant elements of the British upper middle class not only did extraordinarily well out of privatisation: they had an interest in continuing privatisation. These transfers actually represented large payments by the taxpayer (to the extent that taxpayers were the original &lsquoowners&rsquo of the privatised assets), though it was some time before this was understood.

Privatisation on this scale, something no other country has attempted, swept up the Government and the country&rsquos senior managerial classes into a kind of euphoria. Not only were top marginal tax rates reduced to what were, by our standards, unimaginably low levels all the customary constraints on executive pay were abandoned, with the directors of the newly-privatised industries in the van. There is no doubt that this behaviour was deeply offensive to much of the electorate, even to those who had been a little euphoric themselves. It was partly that, as time went on, they were antagonised by changes in the distribution of taxation which markedly disfavoured them even more perhaps, a strong distaste developed for the money-grubbing of the country&rsquos economic élites &ndash a sense of money not being earned, of people helping themselves to public assets. It seems clear that to many the last stages of Conservative government must have seemed, as was said of Napoleon III&rsquos rule, not so much a regime as a racket. Major was genuinely dismayed at the behaviour of the boardrooms, but by now the Conservatives were in no position to stop it.

This did them great harm. We have long known that working-class Conservative voters &ndash traditionally the Party&rsquos largest single constituency &ndash have reasoned not just that the Conservatives were more fit to govern than anyone else but that they were more willing to guarantee &lsquofairness&rsquo. Unlike the Labour Party, which promoted vested interests (such as trade unions) at the expense of the wider community, the Conservatives stood for balance &ndash they held the ring to ensure that no one interest became dominant. This was no doubt a naive view, but plausible and historically the Conservatives have been careful to ensure that it remained plausible. After 1979, however, they could not and did not do so. &lsquoFairness&rsquo was part of the system they repudiated, since &lsquofairness&rsquo, a pre-occupation with the distribution of wealth rather than its accumulation, was one of those things which had brought Britain to its knees. As a result, the Thatcher and Major Governments were increasingly seen, even by the most naive, as &lsquounfair&rsquo. Just as the Left of the Labour Party in the early Eighties insisted on jettisoning those Labour traditions most acceptable to the electorate, so the Conservatives abandoned that prudence which was essential to their electoral success.

The 1997 election was the first in which the consequences of privatisation had become fully apparent. In 1992 the behaviour of the bosses of the privatised utilities and of the boardrooms more generally was not really an issue. Nor were the failings of the utilities. In the last five years, however, their failings have, if anything, been exaggerated in the public mind. In the old days people did not expect all that much from them because their managers received, so to speak, pay appropriate to the job. Today, when their operations are almost certainly more efficient, their peccadilloes are magnified in proportion to the incomes of their senior managers. Nor in 1992 was &lsquosleaze&rsquo among politicians much of an issue &ndash the word was rarely used. This year it was an issue even though the received wisdom during the campaign was that the electorate was not much moved. But the electorate clearly was very much moved, and it is a measure of the isolation of the country&rsquos political leaders that they did not see it.

The second of these contradictions was rhetorical and ideological. The ultimate ambition of Thatcherism was the restoration of authority to the country&rsquos sovereign institutions &ndash which in practice meant the Cabinet and the central bureaucracy. Its impulse was therefore authoritarian and anti-democratic. But Mrs Thatcher was unwilling to put it in those terms. Just as she was obliged to legitimate deflation by inflation, so she felt it necessary to justify authoritarian government by the rhetoric of &lsquoopenness&rsquo and &lsquoaccountability&rsquo. She never intended, of course, that openness was to apply to the executive &ndash quite the reverse. Openness and accountability were to be imposed on things she did not like. It was inevitable, however, that the Government and the Conservative Party would eventually be judged by the same criteria since Conservative leaders had never and could never publicly exempt the central government from what were supposed to be universal norms. Major got the worst of both worlds: he was unable to surround the doings of his Party with secrecy but got no credit for openness since his heart was seemingly not in it. The Government&rsquos behaviour towards the Scott Report was the best but not the only example of this.

At the centre of the Thatcher-Major Conservative Party&rsquos ideology lay a profound ambiguity of purpose which in retrospect will probably seem its most interesting feature. One powerful impulse behind Thatcherism was the notion of the new start. The old social system with its carefully graded hierarchies and political reticence, its apparent reluctance to disturb vested interests, its overall &lsquowetness&rsquo, was held to have failed the country and demeaned its status in the world. This gave Thatcherism a distinctly critical edge, a willingness to think and say radical things about our existing social arrangements. Mrs Thatcher, after all, described what she was doing as a &lsquorevolution&rsquo. For some, the revolution excited hopes of a thoroughgoing democratic reconstruction. But Thatcherism was also genuinely reactionary: it wished to restore legitimacy to the old hierarchies. Mrs Thatcher was herself hostile to many of the democratic changes that had occurred in her lifetime &ndash largely because they were associated with &lsquosocialism&rsquo. She thus created three hereditary peers (though only one had a male heir) and would, one suspects, have created more had she had the nerve she and her successor were adamant in their defence of the hereditary House of Lords the first act of the classless John Major was to bestow a baronetcy on Denis Thatcher, a title most people had forgotten existed both scattered political knighthoods around with profusion, and not just to keep the backbenchers docile the Thatcherite Conservative Party has been exceptionally reluctant to curb the privileges of the Royal Family they have done all they could to prop up the independent schools and denigrate the state sector they reversed the Conservatives&rsquo flirtation with Scottish devolution and defended the Union to the point of lunacy. By adopting the rhetoric of revolution and the new start Thatcher and Major thus did grave damage to the system they inherited and wished to restore, and incidentally did much to promote a democratic politics. Yet because their ambitions were fundamentally reactionary they were inevitably unable to exploit them. The unintended beneficiaries were Tony Blair and Paddy Ashdown. Yet again the Conservatives had the worst of both worlds.

What Thatcher and (especially) Major wanted to establish was a modernising democracy based on a mobile and meritocratic middle class who would provide the Conservative Party with an unassailable social base. They failed, as their predecessors in the Thirties and Fifties who wanted the same had failed, because their chosen instrument, the Conservative Party, was remarkably unsuited to the task, and because, in the end, their fear and dislike of &lsquosocialism&rsquo and a politicised working class much exceeded their contempt for the traditional ruling class. The result was that the Conservative Party could only promote a mutilated form of democracy and the field was left to the Labour Party. Whether Labour can rise to the occasion is an unanswerable question.

The third contradiction was in economic policy. One of the basic assumptions of Thatcherism was that the British managerial classes could be freed from artificially imposed constraints and so restored to international competitiveness. The miracle was seen as coming from within ourselves. There were some improvements but the overall outcome was undoubtedly disappointing: much of the managerial class, it turned out, was inherently uncompetitive. The Government was therefore increasingly inclined to put its wager on inward investment: success came to be measured by the quantity of overseas investment in Britain. And this investment was thought to depend on &lsquoflexible&rsquo labour markets and low labour costs. The pervasive sense of insecurity that was obviously a factor in the fall of the Conservative Government was one result, a sense which turned to anger when it became plain that low labour costs stopped at the boardroom. Nor did the Conservatives reflect on the curious evolution of their original endeavour. When Mrs Thatcher took office her aim was to transform Britain against the rest of the world: when Mr Major left it the most avowed achievement of his government was to provide cheap labour for foreign businessmen.

How far changes in the Labour Party assisted the Conservative collapse is hard to assess. Obviously a Labour Party of 1983 vintage was unacceptable to the electorate. Here the role of Neil Kinnock is crucial. He could talk the language of the Left and so was able to make the Party see sense. He also rescued the Party electorally at a moment when it might have ceded its second place to the old Alliance. By 1992 Labour had largely recovered the ground lost since 1979, though Kinnock never got much credit for this. Labour owes one other debt to him: he lost the 1992 election &ndash one of the few pieces of genuine good luck the Labour Party has ever had. Tony Blair&rsquos part is open to several interpretations. One is that he was the icing on the cake, that he reduced to zero the apparent risks of voting Labour. There is truth in this, but it is not the whole truth. His personality and manner were clearly attractive to people, and that mobilised some voters who were attracted neither by Kinnock nor by John Smith. Possibly more important, however, was New Labour&rsquos attraction for women voters. Not widely noticed, except by the Labour Party, was the most remarkable feature of the election: that the proportion of women who voted Labour was almost identical to that of men. The importance of this to Labour cannot be exaggerated. Historically, Labour has been much less successful than the Conservatives in mobilising women voters and the Conservatives have been more successful in mobilising women than Labour has been in mobilising men. The reason for the Conservatives&rsquo success after 1951, for example, was that their lead among women exceeded Labour&rsquos lead among men. But all British parties are vulnerable somewhere: the Liberal Democrats found it difficult to find a stable social and regional base Labour has been overdependent on unionised males who work in heavy industry and the Conservatives overdependent on women voters politically conditioned by circumstances which are rapidly disappearing. By breaking decisively with the political culture of the trade unions, with the masculine aggression and exclusivity which many women &ndash not least working-class women &ndash have found very off-putting, Blair made the Labour Party much more acceptable to women voters &ndash a fact that could have profound implications.

This story has many lessons for both major parties, but a couple stand out. Before the election I suggested that the &lsquotabloid culture&rsquo to which the Conservatives, and Labour to some extent, slavishly capitulated was weaker than they thought. The election does not necessarily confirm this view but certainly lends it support. The electorate proved wholly indifferent to the race, gender, marital status or sexual orientation of Labour candidates, even where these were thought to be an issue. And the attempt by some Conservatives to work up an anti-immigration vote was a miserable failure: perhaps not surprising in a country to which there is now almost no primary migration &ndash something they might have remembered. Aligned to the apparent weakness of tabloidism is the Conservative Party&rsquos collapse among the &lsquoeducated classes&rsquo. The great majority of those with university degrees no longer vote Conservative. Whole professions &ndash lawyers, doctors, teachers (at all levels) research scientists (public and private), for example &ndash which were once predominantly or significantly Conservative are now Labour-Liberal Democrat (and more Labour than Liberal Democrat): a change almost as important as the change in the women&rsquos vote. It is important because the &lsquoeducated class&rsquo is growing faster than any other and is by training or inclination hostile to the Conservative Party&rsquos traditional &lsquotabloid culture&rsquo. Furthermore, some of these professions, like doctors and lawyers, have great social influence. The persistent opposition of the BMA, for instance, to the Government&rsquos reforms of the NHS did great harm to the Conservative Party &ndash and will do the same to Labour if the Blair Government abandons Labour&rsquos traditional policies towards the NHS. If the Conservative Party (and Labour) accept that tabloidism is not invincible then the country might in future be spared some of the more shameful episodes of the last few years &ndash like Michael Howard&rsquos tenure of the Home Office &ndash and the Conservative Party could regain some of its traditional support.

The other lesson both parties will be reluctant to learn. The size of the Conservative defeat suggests that the electorate was much more fed up with the system than New Labour thought it was. As Seumas Milne pointed out here (LRB, 5 June), the British electorate remains stubbornly attached to the welfare state and public provision. Indeed, throughout the English-speaking world, where market politics has been most successful, such politics has always been more of an affair of the political and economic élites than of the wider electorate. Everywhere unmandated politicians forced through programmes which the electorate had willy-nilly to swallow. In New Zealand, where the electorate has swallowed more than anywhere else, a popular revolt forced through a change in the electoral system (from first-past-the-post) precisely to stop politicians doing this. In so far as New Labour&rsquos policies were dictated by extreme caution, the Government almost certainly has more freedom than it expected. Both the results and the exit polls strongly imply that voters do want more money spent and are even resigned to the extra taxation which might be necessary. On their side, the Conservatives must learn that the attempt to follow simultaneously self-contradictory policies &ndash to legitimise a &lsquorevolution&rsquo by anything but revolutionary means &ndash must fail. Nor is it possible indefinitely to convince people that society is as the Conservative Party describes it. Reality will reassert itself and has a habit of doing so in nasty ways &ndash it can lose you your seat and even the leadership of your party, or in the case of Michael Portillo, both. The election of William Hague to the Conservative leadership, though doubtless in part a result of personal animosities, does not, however, suggest that the Conservatives are ready to learn those lessons.

General Election 1997 - Gender, Age, Ethnicity and Region

Let's explore key aspects of gender, age, ethnicity and region in so far as they relate to the General Election of 1997.

The exit poll data provides further information about voting behaviour by a range of other demographic characteristics. There are interesting features of voting behaviour by gender, age, ethnicity and region from the 1997 election.

There was, unsurprisingly, a swing to Labour in both genders and there was little difference in the final result (Men: 45% Lab, 31% Con Women: 44% Lab, 32% Con). However, the larger increase in the Labour vote was among women, increasing by 10 points rather than 8. This was partly because there had been a trend in the past for women to vote Conservative more than men.

There are a number of theories as to why women swung to Labour in 97. One is the increase of women working, and particularly working in the public sector. Another (slightly controversial!) one is that Tony Blair was more attractive than John Major. Another was that one factor in the Conservative lead among women was Margaret Thatcher and, as more time passed since her premiership, her impact lessened. Whatever the reason, the Conservative’s advantage with women voters was cancelled out.

The Labour vote increased among all age groups (as might be expected in an election with such a significant swing) but there was a much larger increase among younger voters than older voters. While the Labour vote increased by 12 points for 25-34 year olds and 35-44 year olds, it only increased by 4 points for 55-64 year olds. The 45-54 age bracket saw the biggest collapse of the conservative vote (down 16 points). While Labour were ahead in every age bracket (an unusual result indeed!) this was by a relatively narrow margin for 55-64 and 65+ voters, while all other age brackets had differences in double figures, and the lead for those under 45 was over 20 points. Very nearly half of 18-44 year olds voted Labour, compared with 44% overall (according to the exit poll).

Putting some of this data together, the largest increase for Labour appears to be among young women on low incomes and the largest collapse for the Conservatives among middle-aged, middle-class men and women.

Again, Labour led in all ethnicity categories in the published exit poll, but while this was only a 10 point lead for white voters, it was much larger among minority-ethnic groups. 82% of black voters voted Labour, for instance (compared with 12% for the conservatives). We do not have the data to compare this with 1992, but certainly Labour scoring highly with minority-ethnic voters is a long-term trend rather than a quirk of the 1997 election. There are many reasons for this, including the socio-economic background of some minority-ethnic groups, parties’ historic attitudes to race, immigration and race equality legislation, etc. The data probably disguises some trends, with Asian voters preferring Labour (66%) to Conservative (22%) but breaking the data down further into Indian, Pakistani, etc. or by religion could reveal some further differences.

Traditionally Labour had been strong in Scotland and Wales and the north of England with the Conservatives getting significant support in the south of England, in particular (with some exceptions, such as Labour strength in London and Conservative strength in very rural areas of the north). At first glance, the 1997 election appears to continue that pattern. Labour’s strongest performances came in the North, Wales, the North West and Yorkshire and the Humber, closely followed by London, the West and East Midlands and Scotland. The Conservatives’ worst performances were in Scotland and Wales and they performed most strongly in the South East, East Anglia and the South West. In East Anglia, the South West and the South East the Conservatives got more votes than Labour (although this was only by 1 point in East Anglia).

However, these quite predictable results disguise some interesting regional trends. First, Labour gained and the Conservative vote fell in every UK region. The biggest Conservative collapse was in London where they dropped 14 points. The next biggest, despite their lead, was in the South East with a 13-point drop. These (alongside the northern region) were also the sites of Labour’s biggest vote increases. There were much less dramatic changes in Wales, where Labour was already very strong and the Conservatives relatively weak. Other factors that influenced the results were the strength of third parties, particularly in the South West (the Liberal Democrats) and Scotland (the SNP). In both cases the “third” party came second, with the Liberal Democrats getting more votes than Labour in the South West and the SNP getting more votes than the Conservatives in Scotland.

First Past the Post

The British electoral system is based on the “First-Past-The-Post” (FPTP) system. In recent years, reforms have occurred in places such as Northern Ireland where a form of proportional representation has been used in elections and in the devolution elections surrounding Scotland and Wales. However, for the most part, Britain has used the tried and tested FPTP system.

In the past, this system and the whole structure of elections, created absurd anomalies with the existence of “rotten boroughs” such as Old Sarum, Dunwich and Gatton. Old Sarum was by local reckoning “one man, two cows and a field” and yet returned two MP’s to Westminster! Gatton, a village in Surrey, returned one MP yet had just one voter in it.

The 1832, 1867 and 1884 Reform Acts changed a lot of the more absurd abuses that surrounded the electoral system so vividly described by Charles Dickens in “Pickwick Papers”. However, the principle of FPTP was kept.

What is FPTP and what are the arguments for it?

In a ‘normal’ British national election or by-election (i.e. excluding the newer formats that have been used in recent regional elections for devolution), those who wish to fight an election register to do so. When the election takes place, for example a by-election for a constituency MP for Westminster, the person who wins the highest number of votes within that constituency, wins that election. FPTP is as clear and as brutal as that. Only in the very rarest of cases has a re-count been ordered due to the closeness of that specific result, but in the vast majority of cases, FPTP allows for a clear winner.

As an example a by-election for the constituency of Make-Up. The three main candidates are from the three most prominent national parties. The result is as follows :

Candidate A (Labour) : 22,000 votes
Candidate B (Tory) : 17,000 votes
Candidate C (Lib Dems) : 13,000 votes

In this example, the clear winner is candidate A with a majority over Candidate B of 5,000. FPTP is a cheap and simple way to hold an election as each voter only has to place one cross on the ballot paper. Counting of the ballot papers is usually fast and the result of a British general election is usually known the very next day after polling. Ballot papers are usually simple (though they can drift towards being confusing if the number of candidates is large) and the voter only needs to put one clear mark on their paper which should be easily counted thus removing the prospect of the confusion that haunted the American 2000 election which degenerated into “when is a mark not a mark ?”

The speed of the process usually allows for a new government to take over power swiftly or if the incumbent government wins the general election, allows for a swift return for the continuation of government without too many disruptions to the political life of the nation.

FPTP has created within Great Britain a political system that is essentially stable as politics is dominated by just two parties. The chaos of the political systems of Italy and Israel is avoided using FPTP. Minority governments have occurred in the UK using FPTP, but the life span of those governments was limited. In recent years, governments have been strong as a result of the clear mandate given to it using the FPTP system.

In a constituency, one MP is elected and therefore, the people of that constituency will know who to ask or pursue if they have a query etc. In a multi-member constituency, in which a number of parties are represented, this would not be as easy.

As the above example shows, FPTP questions the whole issue of “democratic elections” in that the majority will of the people within one constituency may be reflected in the electoral outcome. But in overall terms, if more people vote against a candidate than for him/her, is this democratic in terms of popular representation in Westminster?

In the example above, 22,000 voted for the candidate that won that election but 30,000 voted against the winner. In recent years, national or by-elections have frequently thrown up the instance of the winner having more people vote against him/her. Therefore, that victor cannot claim to have the majority support of the people within the whole constituency concerned. Therefore, the total popular mandate for the winner does not exist. A counter-argument against this is that one of the over-riding beliefs in democracy is that the winner should be accepted by all and the losers should have their concerns listened to by the victorious party.

The same is true at a national level. If the national government does not have the majority of the nation behind it (as expressed in the final votes for that government) it cannot claim to truly represent the people of that nation. In 1951 (Tory) and in February 1974 (Labour), the nation voted in governments that had less people vote for them but won more seats than their opponents. Neither government could claim to truly represent “the people”.

In the 1997 election, the victorious Labour Party gained 43.2% of the total votes cast and won 63.6% of seats at Westminster. The combined number of votes for the Tory and Liberal Democrats represented 47.5% of the total votes (nearly 4% more than Labour) yet between them they got 32.1% of the seats available at Westminster.

In the 2001 election, Labour got 43% of the total popular vote whereas all the other parties got 57% – yet Labour maintained its very powerful position in Parliament with 413 MP’s out of 659. The same trend was seen with the 2005 election result.

It can be claimed that such a percentage of votes should not have given Labour such large Parliamentary majorities – but the workings of the FPTP system allows for just such an occurrence. In fact, no government since 1935 has had a majority of public support as expressed through votes cast at a national election.

Lord Hailsham once referred to this system as an “elective dictatorship” in that a powerful government can be created with overwhelming Parliamentary power which can usually push through its required legislation – but with only a minority of the country supporting it.

An argument put forward against FPTP is that it might put people off of voting in an election for a minority party as they know that their vote will be wasted. This discriminates against minority parties who will lose out as a consequence of this. It is possible that minority parties might have greater political support than their election figures show.

FPTP has discriminated against the Parliamentary power of the Liberal Democrats at national elections. Both the Tories and Labour have benefited from the system.

At the 1997 national election, the Liberal Democrats gained 16.8% of the votes but only got 46 seats. The Tories gained 30.7% of the votes but gained 165 seats. Labour won 43.2% of the votes and gained 419 seats. At a proportionate level, the Liberal Democrats should have got around 106 seats in Westminster if their representation was based on similar support for the Labour Party.

In the 2001 election, the Lib Dems got 52 seats and 19% of the total votes cast. Using the most basic form of proportional representation, 19% of votes cast would equate to about 120 seats in Parliament.

The continuation of the FPTP system can only favour the Tory and Labour parties and work against the Liberal Democrats – so it is argued.

In polls carried out between 1999 and 2000, more than 60% of the people asked claimed that they would favour a system of proportional representation (PR) to make the electoral system more fair and the results more representative. But would a party in power that benefits from such a system introduce something that could only damage its own political power?

Be nice to people on the way up, as you’ll meet them on the way down.

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‘Occasionally late at night at a Labour Party conference … the cry can still be heard. “Where,” a plaintive, maudlin voice will ask, “did it all go wrong?”’

So wrote the future New Statesman editor Anthony Howard in 1963. Then a rising star of political journalism, Howard had a confident answer to this melancholic cry - things went wrong for Labour on 26 July 1945, the day the party was elected to power on a landslide. Surprisingly, perhaps, for modern readers, the reputation of Clement Attlee’s government at that time was pretty poor. So far as many Labour party activists were concerned, Attlee’s was a record defined by compromises, lost opportunities and what was by the early 1960s an apparently unending period of Conservative rule.

Or perhaps it should not surprise. It is now 20 years since Tony Blair led Labour to another of the party’s rare landslide victories. And it is striking how this disregard for Attlee’s achievements finds an echo in how Jeremy Corbyn supporters regard the government elected on 1 May 1997. Some even believe Labour’s present troubles began on the fateful day Blair entered Number 10. As poet Michael Rosen has put it, since 1997 it has all been downhill, the Blairites having lost Labour over five million votes. According to the Corbynites, Labour will only recover once it rediscovers its pre-Blairite "socialist" self and puts 1997 behind it.

If a majority view amongst its members, the party’s few avowed Blairites naturally look on matters differently. Labour in 1997 after all enjoyed a 10.2 per cent swing from the Conservatives and won its biggest ever Commons majority, laying the foundations for an unprecedented 13 years in office. This was, according to columnist John Rentoul, because Labour discovered "the eternal verities of the Blairite truth". If matters subsequently went awry, it was only because Labour cast this truth aside by abandoning the centre ground. If the party is to revive, such Blairites believe it needs to return to the strategy that gave it 1997.

Such dichotomous views reflect the entrenched ideological positions in a party both deadlocked and in decline. As a historian of the Labour party and curator of an exhibition marking the 20 th anniversary of the election I have my own thoughts as to which lessons the party should draw from 1997. They are ones neither side in the party may find of great comfort.

1. Winning involves waiting

The most depressing lesson for the party is that Labour only wins a working Commons majority after a prolonged period of Conservative rule. True of Blair in 1997, it is equally so of Attlee in 1945 and Harold Wilson in 1966. If there is any good news for Labour in this, it is that the Conservatives have already been in office for seven years the bad news however is they’re probably less than halfway through their term.

2. Trouble for Conservatives ≠ Labour victory

But if all Conservative governments eventually come to an end, a long-serving Tory administration – even one in deep trouble - is only a precondition for a Labour victory, not its guarantee. Facing a divided Conservative party in office for 13 years, in 1992 Neil Kinnock expected to win. The country was after all in the midst of a recession and John Major’s government was divided over Europe. Yet Labour lost because those whose votes the party needed to win still felt the party was a worse bet than the Conservatives.

3. Offer hope - and reassurance

To win, Labour needs to primarily reassure voters while also offering them some hope. Hope without reassurance does not work. That was why Blair closed down what was traditionally the Conservatives’ most effective avenue of attack on Labour by, most famously, promising to not raise the top rate of tax. So when Central Office warned: "Britain is Booming. Don’t Let Labour Blow It", the slogan had little impact (a similar warning about "Labour’s Tax Bombshell" helped sink Kinnock). This meant that, having lost in 1992 in the midst of a recession, in 1997 Labour paradoxically won during a period of economic growth. But Labour also promised "Things Can Only get Better", that schools and hospitals would improve, while the young unemployment be helped into work. Gordon Brown, the New Labour Chancellor, called Labour’s approach "prudence with a purpose", although it was prudence rather than its purpose the party emphasised in 1997.

4. Know what victory is for

In 1997, Blair pursued one of the most cautious electoral strategies in living memory, one that met with spectacular success. But this led to caution in office. "We have been elected as New Labour," Blair declared, "And we will govern as New Labour." However, even those closest to the new Prime Minister hoped the strategy that underpinned 1997 was part of a process rather than an end in itself.

Writing in 2005, Peter Hyman, who advised and wrote speeches for Blair, argued Labour no longer needed to reassure voters and should start to actively create a "modern social democratic country" by arguing for higher taxes as well as for greater tolerance for minorities and more opportunity for those denied it. Blair had however created a prison for himself. He feared the electoral consequences of such a departure from the strategy that brought him his landslide. So, by the time Labour said it would raise the top rate of tax, it was to help pay for the bailing out of those banks which nearly collapsed during the 2008 financial crisis.

5. Neglect breeds enemies

Be nice to people on the way up, as you’ll meet them on the way down when your victories eventually give way to defeat. In the run up to 1997, Blair took the party with him, but only because he looked like a winner and Labour had been out of office for so long. If nearly 60 per cent backed Blair as leader in 1994 and a similar proportion endorsed his 1995 revision of Clause IV, many retained serious reservations. But instead of trying to keep the party on board, Blair urged the horses ever onwards. Like all Labour Prime Ministers before him, he ignored what was happening outside Westminster and Whitehall, in the constituency parties.

As Hyman argued in 2005: "We have to build a grassroots movement that will sustain New Labour in the long term. We have to use our powers of persuasion." But this was something Blair never seriously contemplated and nor did Brown. Jeremy Corbyn is the greatest beneficiary of this neglect.

6. Just surviving brings rewards

Time is a great healer. A recent YouGov poll revealed that Labour members’ favourite party leader is Clement Attlee. Even supporters of Jeremy Corbyn put Attlee second – after Corbyn. By 2017, the 1945 Labour government had become a thing of myth. Only its achievements, principally the National Health Service, are ever recalled.

Attlee started to come into fashion with the left in the 1980s. Overlooking how his 1940s counterparts attacked it for its moderation, Labour's in-house radical Tony Benn compared the party’s 1983 manifesto with the "openly socialist policy" put to the country in 1945. It might seem unlikely just now, but when Blair is long dead and nobody alive can remember 1 May 1997, some Labour radicals might find themselves invoking the "spirit of 97" and lauding the minimum wage, Sure Start and the £5bn windfall tax on utility companies that helped the long-term unemployed back into work. If Labour still exists then.

Steven Fielding is a professor of political history. He curated the 'New Dawn? The 1997 general election' exhibition, running at the People’s History Museum in Manchester between 25 March and 4 June 2017. Associated with the exhibition is the @newdawn1997 Twitter feed which reconstructs the 1997 campaign day-by-day.

Watch the video: BBC 1997 General Election 2017 Broadcast - Part One