How Margaret Thatcher really won the 1979 general election

Margaret Thatcher campaigning in 1979

The 1979 general election is now a long time ago. But like 1945 its political lessons – or supposed lessons (including for the Liberal Democrats) – still echo, feeling relevant to very contemporary questions.

Myths about how the Conservatives won in 1979

At first glance, the lesson of 1979 is that Jeremy Corbyn‘s approach to being leader of the Labour Party could have worked. After all, didn’t Margaret Thatcher disdain the centre ground, set out her principles and drag the country towards her end of the political spectrum? And didn’t Labour fail in 1979 because it went for mushy centre-ground blandness? That was certainly the view of this cartoon of the time:

What’s more if you dig back into the 1970s, Thatcher when Leader of the Opposition was often criticised as not being up to the job of Prime Minister. She was also often under fire for how effective, or not, she was being as effective Leader of the Opposition. So brush aside criticisms of your leader, set out your principles and drag the country leftwards, yup?

Aside from the unfortunate echo of Ed Miliband in all that (no, those stones didn’t end up in Downing Street), not to mention that Corbyn ended up losing two general elections, it also misunderstands how the Conservatives really won in 1979.

How the Conservatives really won in 1979

First, it was primarily about competence, not ideology. It’s no coincidence that the most memorable Conservative Party posters and TV broadcasts were not about right-wing policies or their principles. Rather, they were about Labour failing to get the basics of economic competence right.

Labour Isn't Working billboard poster

This famous poster wasn’t about moving the country to the right, it was about highlighting Labour’s incompetence:

Or read this extract from one of the 1979 Conservative party political broadcasts:

Yes, technically, this is a Party Political Broadcast on behalf of the Conservative Party. But tonight I don’t propose to use the time to make party political points. I do not think you would want me to do so.

The crisis that our country faces is too serious for that. And it is our country, the whole nation, that faces this crisis, not just one party or even one government. This is no time to put party before country. I start from there.

Of course there are major political differences between the parties, just as there are between many of you sitting at home. But I believe there are some things which should not divide us…

If the present crisis has taught us anything it has surely taught us that we have to think of others as well as ourselves; that no-one, however strong his case, is entitled to pursue it by hurting others.

There are wreckers among us who don’t believe this. But the vast majority of us, and that includes the vast majority of trade unionists, do believe it, whether we call ourselves Labour, Conservative, Liberal—or simply British.

It is to that majority that I am talking this evening. We have to learn again to be one nation, or one day we shall be no nation. If we have learnt that lesson from these first dark days of 1979, then we have learnt something of value.

This was tacking to the centre ground, not to the extremes. As Anthony King wrote in 1981:

The major policy document of the Thatcher period in opposition, The Right Approach, bore a striking resemblance, not just in its title, to the equivalent documents of Heath’s opposition years, Putting Britain Right Ahead and Make Life Better … [although in part this is because] the policies on which Edward Heath and his colleagues fought the 1970 election were far more “Thatcherite” than is often now remembered.

Mrs Thatcher the moderate?

The idea that Mrs Thatcher’s election was seen as being about competence and moderation will doubtless have some people reaching for their CAPS LOCK key, supply of excessive punctuation marks and list of insults… But if that’s you, then you’re letting dislike of the Tories get in the way of understanding how they really won.

There was certainly plenty of talk about how the Conservatives wanted a clear break from the past, to end – as they saw it – decades of decline. But this was not an overall political message presented to the public about a strident move to the right. Hence Peregrine Worsthone’s remarkably inaccurate prediction.

Indeed, as The British General Election of 1979 points outs, there was no swing to the right during the campaign amongst voters on issues such as public spending and tax levels. And above all the Tories won because Labour lost – due to being seen as incompetent. Callaghan was a nice man. But his government was shambolic in the views of the public who gave the Tories the majority.

Competence (or valence) and appealing to voters on the grounds where they are are what won it for Margaret Thatcher in 1979.

By contrast, Jeremy Corbyn’s approach was one which disdained the idea that economic competence is an important issue. His track record was not one of interest in the issues at the heart of voters’ concerns but of interest in issues at the edges of their concerns.

The leadership he offered wasn’t the left-wing version of what won it from the Tories in 1979. Which is why we had Prime Minister Thatcher but no Prime Minister Corbyn.

Michael Cockerell’s documentary on the 1979 general election

If you are interested in the 1979 general election, then Michael Cockerell’s short documentary is also well worth a watch:

A footnote on what this means for the Liberal Democrats

As I’ve written elsewhere, the Liberal Democrats needs to build a much bigger core vote, and do so by being clear about our beliefs. Part of that has to be about winning on valance – showing competence and an ability to deliver on widely-shared objectives, such as a better health service and a strong economy.

Part of it too is about liberalism – showing how it is the right way to solve the problems that most concern voters, such as cutting crime through rehabilitation. Or the benefits to public services of immigration.

Liberal competence on the issues which matter the most to voters would be the mirror image of what won it for the Conservatives in 1979.

2 responses to “How Margaret Thatcher really won the 1979 general election”

  1. Sound though the analysis of 1979 is, I’m not sure that the difference from Corbyn today is fully made out.

    Firstly, if “Labour lost [in 1979] due to being seen as incompetent” there’s a strong chance of that being mirrored right now.

    Secondly, while Thatcher and the Conservatives may have overtly appealed to the middle ground on grounds of competence, in reality Thatcher’s wing of the Conservative party was very much on its right and sought to drag that party back to what it saw as true Conservatism and away from compromise and Butskellite centrism. Corbyn similarly is on Labour’s left and is committed to “true socialism” after the centrist heresy of New Labour; but the worse the Conservatives get (and it is pretty bad already) the easier it is to present Labour as centrist common sense – doing the things that Hammond promised to do in the budget for the NHS, housing, and investment in a green economy, but doing them properly.

    There remains the possibility that a Corbyn government would in practice be just as unpopular (and just as quickly perceived as doctrinaire, incompetent, and not centrist at all) as Thatcher was circa 1981; and that a discredited and fractious Conservative party might present the same opportunity for the LDs that Foot’s Labour did to the Alliance (but hopefully without a Falklands War to wreck it.)

    In any case, building a Liberal core vote remains the correct response!

  2. Basically WE have to show our competence (valence) for Government to ALL in the uk via our social media, door knocking and leaflets.

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