The United Kingdom General Election of 1992 took place on the 9th April 1992 and was won by the incumbent Conservative Party led by John Major, a result that was greeted with much surprise at the time, as it was generally expected that the Conservatives would lose the election.
After winning two landslide victories in 1983 and 1987 under Margaret Thatcher, the Conservative Party ran into some difficulties over the introduction of the Community Charge, more commonly known as the Poll Tax. Indeed such was the level of popular discontent with the measures that in November 1990 the Conservative Party effectively dumped Mrs Thatcher and selected one John Major as her replacement. With Council Tax brought in to replace the hated Poll Tax and a successful conclusion to the Gulf War, Major enjoyed an apparently all too brief honeymoon period before the Labour Party surged ahead in the polls once more.
This was in some ways, a novel position for the Labour Party who, after the defeat of 1979 and the debacle of 1983 appeared to have rendered themselves unelectable. However, under the leadership of Neil Kinnock, the Labour Party had been busily 'modernising' itself. It had abandoned its support for unilateral nuclear disarmament, now supported the EEC, no longer promised an extensive programme of nationalisation, and appeared to have become a perfectly reasonable alternative. Therefore when John Major announced the date of the election on the 11th March 1992, shortly after Chancellor of the Exchequer Norman Lamont had delivered his Budget for that year, it was widely expected that Labour would indeed win the election and form the next government.
The Labour Party duly ran a slick professional campaign using techniques borrowed from American presidential campaigns, although the effect was somewhat marred by the NHS controversy, otherwise known as the War of Jennifer's Ear, whilst John Major became known for delivering his speeches while standing on an upturned soapbox during public meetings. Nevertheless everything appeared to be going according to plan for Labour, and on the 31st March 1992 no less than three polls were published which showed a Labour lead of between four and seven points. On the following day, subsequently known as Red Wednesday, Labour held a rally at the Sheffield Arena, where Neil Kinnock stood on stage in front of his supporters and proceeded to shriek "Comrades. We're awwwwwright. We're awwwwwright. We're awwwwright. We're awwwwwright. We're awwwwright!" Or possibly "Well all right".
This glitzy, truimphalist display appeared to be an attempt to recreate the atmosphere of the typical US-style political convention. Whilst this might well have been the very thing back in the USA, on the other side of the Atlantic it struck many as rather out of place and rather un-British, and the Labour lead fell considerably thereafter.
And then came Basildon
Nevertheless on the eve of the election most opinion polls were predicting a dead heat between Labour and the Conservatives, a position confirmed by a BBC exit poll carried out on election day which predicted that the Conservatives would win 310 seats, just ahead of Labour on 298. With a hung parliament in prospect, it therefore appeared most likely that John Major would be obliged to vacate 10 Downing Street in favour of Neil Kinnock, who would cobble together some kind of understanding with the Liberal Democrats.
In consequence, the BBC's initial election night coverage featured such Labour luminaries as Jack Cunningham pronouncing that the "Conservatives have suffered a humiliating defeat", and Bryan Gould offering the opinion that the "one thing we can be pretty sure of is that the election has been lost by Mr Major and the Tories. That means Neil Kinnock in Downing Street". The first results that trickled in from Sunderland South, Torbay, and Guildford, all appeared to fit this story, until that is, the Basildon result was declared.
At the time Basildon in Essex was the archetypal 'battleground seat', a marginal constituency that was a must-win for both Labour and the Conservatives should either wish to form a government. With the Conservatives defending a majority of only 2,649, everyone expected this to be a Labour gain in the light of the published opinion polls. However when the result was announced it was discovered that the seat had been held by Derek Amess for the Conservative Party with a majority of 1,480. The likes of Gordon Brown remained convinced that the Conservatives had "lost their overall majority", as Frank Dobson announced that the "Tory Government has lost the General Election", and complained that "I don't think even in Basildon they think the whole world resolves around Basildon". However whilst the world might not have revolved around Basildon, it soon became clear that the result of this particular General Election did indeed revolve around Basildon, as throughout the rest of the night the results followed the trend Amess's victory had set, and the Conservative Party succeeded in doing just well enough to hold on to the seats it needed to retain a majority.
Therefore whilst the Labour Party succeeded in increasing their share of the vote and won forty seats from the Conservatives, this was not sufficient to deprive the latter of their majority, as the Tories managed to win one seat from Labour and two from the Liberal Democrats, as well as recovering a number of seats that had been lost at previous by-elections. Overall the Conservatives won 336 seats, Labour 271, the Liberal Democrats 20, with 4 seats for Plaid Cymru, 3 for the Scottish National Party and 17 for the sundry parties from Northern Ireland.
Indeed thanks to the high turnout of 77.7 per cent, the highest since February 1974, Major's Conservatives polled 14,093,007 votes and set the record for the most votes won by a single party in a British General Election, whilst John Major himself had the personal satisfaction of being returned at Huntingdon with the truly impressive majority of 36,230.
Why Labour lost
Various theories have since been advanced as to how the Labour Party managed to lose an election that they appeared to destined to win. Some thought that it was John Smith's Shadow Budget and his commitment to the policy of 'Tax and Spend'; Gordon Brown certainly thought so, which is why he later vowed never to repeat that mistake and commit his party to increasing taxes in the future.
The pollster Robert Worcester claimed to have spoken afterwards to the twenty-one Conservative MPs with the most marginal constituencies and that "Every single one of them said that without the Sheffield rally they would not be in parliament". He also claimed that in the post-rally atmosphere, many Labour canvassers were being told by voters that they could no longer vote for the party, and therefore Worcester had no doubt that "Statistically and anecdotally, Sheffield was the turning point".
The Sun newspaper famously though they were responsible for the Labour loss. Having run an anti-Labour campaign from the word go, their election day front page had born the headline "If Kinnock wins today, will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights", whilst Page 3 featured a suitably obese and unattractive woman over the strap line "Here's How Page 3 Will Look Under Kinnock!". Indeed the Sun was so convinced of its starring role that it ran its story of the Conservative victory under the headline "It's the Sun wot won it". Tony Blair certainly thought there was something to this argument, as following his assumption of the leadership of the Labour Party in 1994, he devoted much effort to courting Rupert Murdoch (the owner of The Sun) in order to bring that newspaper 'onside'.
But whilst there might have been something in each one of those explanations, it would be worthwhile considering the following. Of the four opinion polls that were published on the day before the election; ICM showed both Conservative and Labour on 38%, Gallup differed to the extent that it gave the Conservatives an extra half point, MORI to the extent that it gave Labour a whole extra point, whilst NOP had the Conservatives on 39% and Labour on 42%. Given that the actual result of the election held but a day later was Conservative 41.9% and Labour 34.4%, the only reasonable conclusion would be that the pollsters had got it wrong by a country mile having, roughly speaking, underestimated the level of Conservative support by some 4% and overestimated Labour support by a similar margin. Thus bearing in mind this 8% discrepancy it was perfectly clear that the Labour Party was never in a position to win the election in the first place.
Indeed the overall performance of the polling organisations was viewed as a "statistical disaster", so much so that the Market Research Society called on a group of experts to investigate the failure. Their report, which later appeared in July 1994, blamed the fact the polling organisations had been using inaccurate data to construct their quota samples, and the apparent reluctance of Conservative supporters to reveal their true intentions. Most of the pollsters subsequently abandoned the quota sampling technique, and adopted random sampling instead, whilst they developed various methods of identifying these so-called 'Shy Tories'. However despite these improvements the opinion polls were generally speaking just as wrong in 1997 as they had been in 1992, although fortunately for them the scale of the Labour victory was such that no one noticed at the time.
There has always been a school of thought that has asserted that the Conservatives chose John Major purely as a caretaker leader who was supposed to lose, thereby allowing the party to enjoy a (presumably) brief period in opposition as they rejuvenated and reorganised themselves before returning to government. Given the subsequent history of John Major's government such a point of view is understandable; indeed had Labour won in 1992, they would undoubtedly have faced the same ERM crisis, with the same result, and have been similarly punished at the polls. The United Kingdom General Election of 1992 may well have been one of those contests where it was best to lose.
- PostNote96, Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, March 1997
- Key Issues in the 1992 Campaign
- Harry Phibbs, 1992 Election Results BBC Parliament
- General Election Results, 9 April 1992 from Britain Votes 5, by Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher (Dartmouth 1993)
- Andrew PorterRevealed: Neil Kinnock thought he was Johnny Cash at Sheffield Rally, Daily Telegraph, April 6th, 2009
- Ian Herbert, MacKenzie's Hillsborough - 'The Sun told The Truth', The Independent, 2 December 2006