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Last Updated: Tuesday, 5 April 2005, 09:30 GMT 10:30 UK
1979: Thatcher wins Tory landslide
Margaret Thatcher entering Downing Street
Con: 339 seats (43.9% share)
Lab: 269 seats (37% share)
Lib: 11 seats (13.8% share)

Labour's failure to manage the economy or control the unions was heavily punished by the voters as Margaret Thatcher - Britain's first woman prime minister - led the Conservatives back to power in what proved to be a landmark election.

Thatcher's tough, aggressive style promised a fresh start in dealing with Britain's problems, but whether it would be successful once in office remained to be seen.

Defeated Labour leader Jim Callaghan's decision not to hold an election in 1978 had cost him dear.

His party received its lowest share of the vote since the war, while the Liberals and the Scottish and Welsh nationalists saw their support slump from the highs enjoyed in 1974.


The 1974-1979 parliament was packed with incident.

All the main parties had changed leader, the UK had voted to remain in the Common Market in a referendum and had undergone a series of economic crises - leading to the nation's humiliating bailout by the International Monetary Fund in 1976 - as well as the now notorious Winter of Discontent of 1978-1979.

Prime Minister Harold Wilson's decision to step down in 1976 stunned most of his cabinet, although he had hinted as much to his cabinet colleague Jim Callaghan, enabling him to prepare for the coming leadership battle which he won.

Despite losing two elections in 1974 Edward Heath attempted to soldier on as Tory leader only to find himself out of a job as Margaret Thatcher won the leadership in 1975.

The party had elected its first woman leader, whose only major experience of holding office had been as education secretary.

Labour was hoping to benefit from her relative inexperience, but left-winger Tony Benn identified her as a strong opponent early on.

Not to be outdone the Liberals also changed leader, but under much more difficult circumstances than the other two parties.

David Steel took over from Jeremy Thorpe after a man claiming to be the latter's homosexual lover alleged Thorpe and others had tried to have him killed.

Not long after Callaghan had ruled out an election in autumn 1978 a series of strikes took hold of the country. They were to wreak havoc with Labour's attempts to secure re-election, and were a gift to the Conservatives.


The 1979 election got underway under extraordinary conditions.

After the results of two devolution referendums in Scotland and Wales went against the now minority Labour government - the Lib-Lab pact of the previous year was well and truly over - the nationalists withdrew their support from Labour.

They tabled a confidence motion in parliament which the government lost by a single vote.

An election was now the inevitable result - in circumstances far from favourable for Labour.

Strikes over pay by unions such as the National Union of Public Employees as well as by gravediggers in Liverpool caused public outrage and terrible headlines - with The Sun now leading the charge for the Tories.

The government's pay restraint policy was in shreds as were its claims to be the only party capable of dealing with the unions. With unemployment well over one million, inflation - and the Tories' poll lead - were both in double figures.

The campaign itself was conducted mostly for television, with Margaret Thatcher proving skilled in managing photo-opportunities - although no agreement was reached on holding a televised debate between the party leaders, despite Callaghan's enthusiasm.

TV was a medium that Thatcher had been tutored in skilfully, complete with an image makeover from Gordon Reece.

As usual the Conservatives way outspent Labour, with much of the money paying for the services of the advertising agency Saatchi and Saatchi.

Despite Jim Callaghan's higher personal popularity than Thatcher's, Labour could feel the election was slipping away, with strikes from printers and teachers continuing throughout the campaign.


The election of 1979 saw two leaders with very different styles pitted against each other and - if the polls are to be believed - the least popular won.

Margaret Thatcher was, like so many of Britain's political leaders, Oxford educated and a barrister.

Her advocacy of economic monetarism was a radical break from the post-war consensus and was largely influenced by Keith Joseph. Her businessman father - a local Conservative politician in Grantham - also helped mould her philosophy, which stressed the merits of thrift and hard work.

A conviction politician, Thatcher was the first woman leader of her party and was able to woo the voters with a common sense approach, borrowing the role of a housewife when it suited.

"Sunny Jim" Callaghan presented a much more avuncular figure to the voters.

Like Thatcher this was his first campaign as leader, but the Cardiff MP had long been one of Wilson's key ministers - serving in the role of home secretary, foreign secretary and chancellor of the exchequer.

He had close links with the trade union movement and was one of the key opponents of Wilson's attempts at trade union reform when he rejected the white paper, In Place of Strife - a move that did not bode well for his ability to deal with such situations as the Winter of Discontent.

The young leader of the Liberals, David Steel, was also leading his party for the first time in an election - he had not expected the leadership forced on him in the aftermath of the Thorpe affair. A supporter of coalition politics, he led his party into the Lib-Lab pact of 1977-1978.

Key issues

Tackling inflation and the unions topped the "five tasks" the Conservatives listed at the start of their manifesto.

In the Thatcherite agenda pushing down inflation now outweighed preserving jobs.

In the field of trade union reform her party promised to repeal what they called a "militants' charter". Secondary picketing and the closed shop would be reformed and unions forced to pay for the upkeep of strikers rather than the social security system.

Cuts in the top rate and basic rate of income tax were promised as were some limited privatisations of nationally owned industries.

In its manifesto, The Labour Way is the Better Way, Labour also put rising prices and the war against inflation as a top priority, but this was also coupled with a commitment to full employment.

Inflation would be brought down to 5% within three years. The party also pledged to bring in a Standing Pay Commission along with the TUC to help deal with industrial strife.

The Liberal manifesto - The Real Fight is for Britain - hoped to capitalise on the failures of the other two parties while in government.

It argued that the relatively short Lib-Lab pact of 1977-1978 made the case for constitutional reform to enable moderate coalitions to marginalise the "lunatic" fringes of the other parties.



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