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Tuesday, 8 May, 2001, 13:14 GMT

The landslide of 1997

David Cowling

The scale of Labour's victory on 1 May 1997 was unprecedented for half a century.

The swing of 10.2% was surpassed by the one of near 12% in the 1945 general election, but then there had not been an election for 10 years, six of which had seen the UK engaged in a World War.


" Such was the scale of Labour's advance that there are now more Labour MPs in London than in Scotland and more in the south east region than in Wales "
The Conservative share of the vote in 1997 was its lowest since the 1832 Reform Act.

Having lost 178 seats - 144 to Labour, 30 to the Lib Dems, three to the SNP and one to Independent Martin Bell - the surviving 165 MPs made up the smallest Tory total since the 1906 election.

Only once before, in 1906, had Wales had no Conservative MPs. Never before had there been no Conservative representation in Scotland.

English rump

The consequence of the election was to reduce the Conservatives to an English rural and suburban party.

The six great metropolitan conurbations of England outside London comprise 124 constituencies.

At the start of 1 May 1997 the Conservatives held 32 of them. By the close of poll they were left with six.

In London itself they began the day with 41 seats and ended with 11.

In 1997, 91% of the 146 seats Labour gained - 144 from the Conservatives and two from the Lib Dems - were in England and two-thirds of these were in the shire counties.

Compared with 1992, Labour's absolute vote increased by 1.96 million - 92%, or 1.8m, of these extra votes were cast in England.

The party commanded twice as many English seats as the Conservatives, a ratio it only achieved once before, in 1945.

Labour pre-eminent in shires

Labour has dominated the great urban conurbations for decades, but in 1997 it won more votes and seats in the traditionally Tory shire counties as well.

Some 57.4% of Labour votes in England were cast in the counties. And those same 39 English shire counties provided 48.2% of Labour's total vote in the election.

Labour's retreat from provincial England had been one of the most significant electoral developments of the previous 30 years.

In the 1979 election, there were no Labour MPs in 16 of England's 39 shire counties and the disastrous performance in 1983 increased this number to 25.

But in 1997, there were only three Labour-free shires - Dorset, Somerset and Surrey.

Southern England - namely, London, the south east and the south west - comprises the core of Conservative England.

On 1 May 1997, it returned 64% of the Conservative parliamentary party, but in 1997, the Tories held only 106 seats to Labour's 108 and 28 for the Lib Dems.

Southern England provided 49% of Labour's total gain of seats in the 1997 election and its 31 gains in the south east alone was the party's biggest regional tally by far.

Such was the scale of Labour's advance that there are now more Labour MPs in London than in Scotland and more in the south east region than in Wales.

Lib Dem advance

The Lib Dems achieved their biggest crop of seats for 60 years at the same time as their national share of the vote fell fractionally compared with 1992.

In eight of the seats they gained from the Conservatives, Labour's share of the vote increased more than theirs.

But in other seats they benefited from tactical voting.

They were left with 21 seats with potentially vulnerable majorities below 10% and in 18 of these the Conservatives are in second place.

Nationalists gain

The Scottish National Party increased its share of the total vote by only 0.6% but still gained three seats from the Conservatives as a result of the latter's rout in Scotland.

Although the SNP regards Labour as the real enemy, the election left it with a tough set of targets.

As a result of the 1997 election, a swing of 5% from Labour to SNP would only deliver the nationalists two seats, and a swing of 10% in the same direction would only bring their total gains to five.

The Welsh nationalist party, Plaid Cymru, saw its share of the total vote increase by 1.1% to just under 10%.

However, because of the geographical concentration of its vote, the party's resulting four seats compares with two for the Lib Dems, who received 12% of Welsh votes, and most starkly with the Conservative share of 19.6%, which brought them not a single seat in Wales.

Sir James Goldsmith's decision to field 546 candidates representing his Referendum party and to bankroll their election campaign with 20 million was one of the most extraordinary features of the 1997 campaign.

The party received 811,849 votes (2.7% of those cast throughout Britain) and managed to save its deposit by winning 5% or more of votes cast in 43 seats.

The party's best performance was Harwich where they received 4,923 or 9.2% of the vote.



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