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Last Updated: Tuesday, 5 April 2005, 09:27 GMT 10:27 UK
1959: Macmillan wins Tory hat trick
Con: 365 seats (49.4% share)
Lab: 258 seats (43.8% share)
Lib: 6 seats (5.9% share)

To Labour's tremendous shock the Conservatives pulled off their third general election victory in a row, and what is more they did it in style.

It was the first time that century any party had managed such success, an achievement made all the more remarkable as the Tories had seen their majority rise with each successive victory at the ballot box.

Prime Minister Harold Macmillan presided over an increasingly prosperous nation, and his 100-seat majority had been helped along with a shamelessly electioneering Budget soon before the polls.

But for Labour, running a better campaign with a more united party than for many years, the defeat stung. The question was now being asked whether Labour could ever hope to win again.


The political landscape had changed dramatically since the lifeless election of 1955 with the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberals all in possession of new leaders.

Suez crisis
Eden stepped down in the aftermath of the Suez crisis
Harold Macmillan took over as Tory leader and PM in the aftermath of the Suez crisis of 1956.

The politically disastrous military adventure in which the British and the French attempted to seize control of the Suez canal by force saw the end of Sir Anthony Eden's brief spell in Downing Street.

Macmillan was a surprise choice as leader, with the public and pundits both expecting Rab Butler to take charge.

But he picked up the pieces and despite a stormy parliament, complete with ministerial resignations and by-election worries, the standard of living for the mass of the people rose.

Labour too was in good shape. Many of the divisions plaguing the party had largely disappeared or had been papered over by the time the election eventually arrived.

The aging Clement Attlee had stepped down not long after Labour's defeat in 1955 making way for Hugh Gaitskell.

But with a consumer society growing quickly it was uncertain how well Labour's traditional values would resonate as the lives of its core voters were changing.


The Tories had prepared the ground well for the re-election campaign - and had already spent 500,000 getting their message out before the starting gun had even been fired.

Macmillan summed up the party's breathtakingly simple appeal to the voters when he remarked casually that the vast majority of the British people had "never had it so good".

Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell
Gaitskell's claim to be the "man with the plan" did not wash with voters
It was a theme picked up by Tory campaign posters bearing the legend "Life's better with the Conservatives - Don't let Labour ruin it."

As the campaign opened the polls put the Tories ahead, but their lead - around 7% - dropped as the weeks passed.

This shift towards Labour, however, was not helped by party leader Hugh Gaitskell. When he promised to increase public spending without increasing taxes his credibility came under serious question.

But on the whole Labour was deemed to have run a good campaign, although Tory support began to rally once more as the polling day of 8 October approached.


Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was a clear asset to the Tories. His personality - gentlemanly and almost Edwardian - was reassuring as was his ability to radiate calm.

He was a clever man and the intellectual superior of most of his cabinet - with whom he had no inhibitions about dealing ruthlessly should he see fit.

Macmillan took a position firmly in the political centre, and bore a passionate hatred of the suffering caused by mass unemployment. It was something he had witnessed at first had in his north eastern constituency in the 1930s.

Like his opponent - Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell - he was Oxford educated, although there the similarities ended.

Youngish at 49, Gaitskell was trailed as the "man with the plan" by campaign posters, but he was incapable of the mastering the arts of intrigue in which Macmillan excelled.

He appeared like a civil servant - and in public at least - had a seemingly cold and arrogant manner which left him somewhat unsuited to the tough job of holding Labour together in opposition.

But he did succeed in the coup of having Nye Bevan back in his team as shadow foreign secretary, leaving the Labour left, for whom nuclear disarmament was a key policy, without a leader after Bevan deserted their cause.

Liberal leader Jo Grimond suited the contemporary mood as well as if not better than his rivals. His skilful use of television reaped rewards when many voters rated him highly as a possible prime minister.

Key issues

With the economy the main issue in the mind of the voters, the Conservatives approach to the election was supremely confident.

The party's manifesto boasted that "we have cut taxes in seven Budgets" and declared sweepingly that it was within the party's power to double the UK's standard of living within a generation.

Entitled The Next Five Years, it was essentially offering the voters more of the same, firm in the conviction they had never had it so good.

It was a rosy picture from which Labour begged to differ, arguing that the gap between the rich and the poor was growing ever wider.

Their manifesto, Britain Belongs To You, attacked Tory "complacency", but the party failed to wrap its campaign issues into a clear theme.

Carrying their colours into the election campaign the Liberals, although upbeat, were painfully frank admitting they could not hope to form the next government.

Pitching themselves to the young, they argued that the stronger the Liberal vote the more the party could do to influence the future government, Tory or Labour.



A young Tony Benn in a 1959 party election broadcast


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