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Last Updated: Friday, 15 April 2005, 09:31 GMT 10:31 UK
1997: Labour landslide ends Tory rule
Tony Blair surrounded by supporters as he goes to Downing Street
Con: 165 seats (30.7% share)
Lab: 419 seats (43.2% share)
Lib: 46 seats (16.8% share)

In 1997 Labour ended 18 years in the political wilderness in spectacular style.

The party returned to power with a parliamentary landslide, winning the biggest majority held by any government since 1935.

Tony Blair's New Labour had gained a staggering 179-seat overall majority in the Commons as the Conservatives were tossed aside by the voters.

The election also saw the Liberal Democrats put in a remarkable performance, more than doubling their number of MPs despite taking a reduced share of the vote compared with 1992.

In the election's aftermath, commentators speculated whether it was at all possible for the Conservatives to overturn such a huge majority in a single election.


John Major had virtually no honeymoon period after his election victory in 1992.

Within months of the Tories' fourth election win on the trot, events were to take place that went a long way to losing them the next contest before it was even on the political horizon.

John and Norma Major are driven away from Downing Street after he lost the election
Norma Major was in tears as the couple left Downing Street for the last time
In September 1992 the pound spectacularly crashed out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism. With the Tories' reputation for economic excellence in shreds, from this stage on Labour was ascendant in the polls.

The whole of the parliament was dominated by open Tory feuding on Europe and this bickering was responsible for the government's defeat on the Maastricht Bill in 1993 as well as for John Redwood's 1995 leadership challenge.

Sleaze, as well as splits, also hit the party with 12 resignations from office taking place over allegations of personal impropriety, among the most famous being Jonathan Aitken and Neil Hamilton.

Labour also had an eventful parliament. John Smith replaced Neil Kinnock as leader, but died of a heart attack in May 1994.

He was replaced by the shadow home secretary, Tony Blair.

Under Blair the "modernisation" process set in train by Neil Kinnock stepped up several gears, as the party ditched the commitment to nationalisation set out in Clause IV of its constitution and took to referring to itself as New Labour.

With Blair at the helm the polls briefly registered a Labour lead over the Tories' of above 30%. After the best part of 20 years in opposition, Labour's return to power at the next election looked a sure thing.


John Major left it until the last possible minute before calling the 1997 election, in the hope that the "feel-good factor" that accompanies economic prosperity would turn around Tory fortunes in the polls.

Unluckily for him, it never did.

Left with little alternative, Major hoped a long campaign - six weeks, from 17 March to polling day on 1 May - would expose New Labour's policies to scrutiny and see the party's relatively inexperienced leadership crack under pressure.

But in the face of a professional, super-disciplined and highly cautious campaign by a Labour Party fearful of losing an election it was overwhelmingly expected to win, the Tory strategy had little impact.

Labour had adopted campaigning techniques from the US, including a rapid rebuttal unit designed to ensure a swift and sure response to any Conservative attacks on the party.

The party's campaigners were kept ruthlessly on-message for the duration by fax, bleeper and mobile phone.

Throughout the campaign the Tories experienced nothing but bad news. The Sun newspaper turned traitor on the party it had energetically championed at the previous four elections, now coming out for New Labour.

Sleaze blew the Tory campaign off course. An MP was revealed to be having an affair with a night-club hostess.

And as the long weeks passed the Tories failed to land any punches on New Labour. Even the old bogey of Labour's relations with the unions failed to chime with many voters - many of whom had never lived under a Labour government.

Christine and Neil Hamiton at the count
Neil Hamilton lost his Tatton seat to independent candidate Martin Bell
With Tory splits on Europe on painful display throughout the campaign Major's party did much of Labour's work for it.

One of the few memorable episodes came when Labour and the Liberal Democrats agreed not to field candidates in Tatton after they had persuaded BBC journalist Martin Bell to stand on a independent ticket against Neil Hamilton.

The Tory MP strongly denied the sleaze allegations against him, and with his formidable wife confronted the war correspondent on Knutsford Heath in full view of the media.


Tony Blair was by no means alone in creating what was to become New Labour, but he more than anyone else came to personify it.

It was under his leadership that the "modernisation" of the party was escalated to a degree not previously thought possible. The priority remained to strip away policies that he believed had lost the party the crucial support of the middle classes in 1992.

Blair - a public school, Oxford-educated barrister - was no son of the left or the Labour movement, although he was a onetime supporter of CND.

Before becoming leader in 1994 he was shadow home secretary, but having entered Parliament in the Thatcher years he had no experience of government.

After gaining the support of his powerful colleague and potential rival Gordon Brown for his leadership bid after John Smith's death, Blair won hands down in the contest between himself, John Prescott and Margaret Beckett.

The dramatic changes - in the face of disquiet - Blair oversaw to his own party allowed him to cast himself in the role of a strong, commanding leader, taunting John Major: "l lead my party, he follows his".

For John Major the 1992-1997 parliament had been a bruising ride.

The Tories lost their way as feuding over European policy and sleaze both pointed to a party tired after having spent nearly 20 years in office.

Paddy Ashdown
Paddy Ashdown was the oldest party leader
Things got so bad between Major and members of his own cabinet he was even caught on tape referring to several of them as "bastards".

But despite the Tories' problems, by 1997 Major could point to a strong economy - and campaigned on the theme "Britain's booming, don't let Labour ruin it".

However, since the Tories had denied responsibility for the recession of the early 1990s, the voters did not give them credit for the subsequent recovery.

For Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown - the oldest but perhaps most energetic of the main party leaders - the campaign was particularly demanding, as he was the key nationally recognised figure in his party.

His strong personality - and his ability to speak with authority on foreign affairs, particularly Bosnia - as well as a forthright style impressed many voters, even though his party seemed to be polling a lower share of the vote than in 1992.

Key issues

New Labour fought this election with its policies already clearly hammered out.

In the summer of 1996 it released a draft manifesto, and a few days later released its pledge card.

The five pledges - used throughout the campaign - with their promise not to raise income tax, to cut class sizes and reduce NHS waiting lists, were designed to defuse still further any Tory attacks on Labour as a tax and spend party.

This strategy was built on in January 1997 when shadow chancellor Gordon Brown accepted Tory spending plans for Labour's first two years in office - should the party be elected.

The manifesto proper, released during the campaign - New Labour Because Britain Deserves Better - fleshed out the five pledges, again underlining that there would be no increase in income tax.

It also made clear in a 10-point contract with the people that education would be the government's top priority.

The Tory manifesto, released a day ahead of Labour, was entitled - You Can Only Be Sure With the Conservatives - and kept the party's options open on whether to join the single currency, but firmly rejected a federal Europe.

It made pledges to privatise the London Underground as well as imagining a state were the State Earnings Related Pension was phased out - neither commitments were solid vote winners.

Like Labour the Liberal Democrats put education at the top of their agenda.

They promised 2bn would be pumped into the schools system, while they also offered to restore fee eye and dental checks.

To make good his commitments Paddy Ashdown told the voters that the party would need an extra 1p on income tax if elected.

Also standing at this election was the Referendum Party, founded and funded by millionaire businessman Sir James Goldsmith.

The party had the simple aim - opposed as it was to the creation of a European super-state - of ensuring a referendum was held on the future of the UK's relationship with the EU.



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