United Kingdom general election, 1997

United Kingdom general election, 1997
United Kingdom
1992 ←
1 May 1997
Members elected
→ 2001

All 659 seats to the House of Commons
330 seats needed for a majority
Turnout 71.3%
  First party Second party Third party
  Tony Blair.JPG John Major 1996.jpg Paddy Ashdown 3.jpg
Leader Tony Blair John Major Paddy Ashdown
Party Labour Conservative Liberal Democrat
Leader since 21 July 1994 28 November 1990 16 July 1988
Leader's seat Sedgefield Huntingdon Yeovil
Last election 271 seats, 34.4% 336 seats, 41.9% 20 seats, 17.8%
Seats before 274 343 18
Seats won 418 165 46
Seat change Increase145 Decrease178* Increase28*
Popular vote 13,518,167 9,600,943 5,242,947
Percentage 43.2% 30.7% 16.8%
Swing Increase8.8 Decrease11.2 Decrease1.0

Uk '971.png

Colours denote the winning party, as shown in the main table of results. Due to the nature of the source, not all constituencies may be correct

* Indicates boundary change – so this is a nominal figure ^ Figure does not include the speaker

PM before election

John Major

Subsequent PM

Tony Blair

1987 election MPs
1992 election MPs
1997 election • MPs
2001 election MPs
2005 election MPs
Ring charts of the election results showing popular vote against seats won, coloured in party colours
Seats won in the election (outer ring) against number of votes (inner ring).

The United Kingdom general election of 1997 was held on 1 May 1997, more than five years after the previous election on 9 April 1992, to elect 659 members to the British House of Commons. Under the leadership of Tony Blair the Labour Party ended its 18 years in opposition, and won the general election with a landslide victory, winning 418 seats, the most seats the party has ever held. Blair subsequently became Prime Minister.

Under the leadership of Tony Blair, the Labour Party had adopted a more centrist policy platform under the name 'New Labour'. This was seen as moving away from the traditionally more left-wing stance of the Labour Party. Labour made several campaign pledges such as the creation of a National Minimum Wage, devolution referendums for Scotland and Wales and promised greater economic competence than the Conservatives, who were unpopular following the events of Black Wednesday in 1992. The Labour campaign was ultimately a success and the party returned an unprecedented 418 MPs and began the first of three consecutive terms for Labour in government. A record number of women were elected to parliament, 120, of whom 101 were Labour MPs. This was in part thanks to Labour's policy of using All-women shortlists.

The Conservative Party was led by incumbent Prime Minister John Major and ran their campaign emphasising falling unemployment and a strong economic recovery following the early 1990s recession. However, a series of scandals, party disunity over the European Union, the events of Black Wednesday and a desire of the electorate for change after 18 years of Tory rule all contributed to the Conservatives' worst defeat since 1906, with only 165 MPs elected to Westminster, as well as their lowest percentage share of the vote since 1832. The party was left with no seats whatsoever in Scotland or Wales, and many key Conservative politicians, including Defence Secretary Michael Portillo, Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind, Trade Secretary Ian Lang, Scottish Secretary Michael Forsyth and former ministers Edwina Currie, Norman Lamont, David Mellor and Neil Hamilton all lost their parliamentary seats. Following the defeat, the Conservatives began the longest continuous spell in opposition in the history of the present day (post-Tamworth Manifesto) Conservative Party, and indeed the longest such spell for any incarnation of the Tories/Conservatives since the 1760s, lasting 13 years.

Minor parties enjoyed success during the election, for instance the Liberal Democrats under Paddy Ashdown returned 46 MPs to parliament, the most for any third party since 1929, despite a drop in popular vote and the Scottish National Party (SNP) returned 6 MPs, double what it had in 1992. The election night was (as had been all general elections since the early 1950s) broadcast live on the BBC, and presented by David Dimbleby, Peter Snow and Jeremy Paxman.[1]


The British economy had been in recession at the time of the 1992 election, which the Conservatives had won, and although the recession had ended within a year, events such as Black Wednesday had tarnished the Conservative government's reputation for economic management. Labour had elected John Smith as its party leader in 1992, however his death from heart attack in 1994 led the way for Tony Blair to become Labour leader. Blair brought the party closer to the political centre and abolished the party's Clause IV in their constitution, which had committed them to mass nationalisation of industry. Labour also reversed its policy on unilateral nuclear disarmament and the events of Black Wednesday allowed Labour to promise greater economic management under the Chancellorship of Gordon Brown. A manifesto, entitled New Labour, New Life For Britain was released in 1996 and outlined 5 key pledges:

  • Class sizes to be cut to 30 or under for 5, 6 and 7 year-olds by using money from the assisted places scheme.
  • Fast-track punishment for persistent young offenders by halving the time from arrest to sentencing.
  • Cut NHS waiting lists by treating an extra 100,000 patients as a first step by releasing £100 million saved from NHS red tape.
  • Get 250,000 under-25-year-olds off benefit and into work by using money from a windfall levy on the privatised utilities.
  • No rise in income tax rates, cut VAT on heating to 5 per cent, and keeping inflation and interest rates as low as possible.

Disputes within the Conservative government over European Union issues, and a variety of "sleaze" allegations had severely affected the government's popularity. Despite the strong economic recovery and substantial fall in unemployment in the four years leading up to the election, the rise in Conservative support was only marginal with all of the major opinion polls having shown Labour in a comfortable lead since late 1992.[2]


The previous Parliament first sat on 29 April 1992. The Parliament Act 1911 required at the time that each Parliament to be dissolved before the 5th anniversary of its first sitting, therefore the latest date the dissolution and the summoning of the next parliament could have been held on was 28 April 1997. The 1985 amendment of the Representation of the People Act 1983 requires that the election must take place on the 11th working day after the deadline for nomination papers, which in turn must be no more than six working days after the next parliament was summoned. Therefore the latest date the election could have been held on was 22 May 1997 (which happened to be a Thursday). British elections have been held on Thursdays by convention since the 1930s, but can be held on other working days.


Prime Minister John Major called the election on Monday 17 March 1997, ensuring the formal campaign would be unusually long, at six weeks (Parliament was dissolved on 8 April[3]). The election was scheduled for 1 May, to coincide with the local elections on the same day. This set a precedent, as the three subsequent general elections have also been held alongside the May local elections. The Conservatives argued that a long campaign would expose Labour and allow the Conservative message to be heard. However, Major was accused of arranging an early dissolution to protect Neil Hamilton from a pending parliamentary report into his conduct: a report that Major had earlier guaranteed would be published before the election.

Conservative CampaignEdit

The Conservatives started low in the polls, and had experienced great difficulties over the past 5 years, with polling often putting it some 40 points adrift of Labour. The Conservative campaign emphasised stability, as did its manifesto title 'You can only be sure with the Conservatives'. However, the campaign was beset by deep set problems, such as the rise of James Goldsmith's Referendum Party, advocating a referendum on continued membership of the European Union. The party threatened to take away many right leaning votes from the Conservatives. Meanwhile, there was also division amongst the Conservative cabinet, with Chancellor Ken Clarke describing the views of Home Secretary Michael Howard on Europe as 'paranoid and xenophobic nonsense'. The Conservatives also struggled to come up with a definitive theme to attack the Labour Party, with some strategists arguing for an approach which castigated Labour for 'stealing Tory clothes' (copying their positions), with others making the case for a more confrontational approach, stating that New Labour was just a facade for 'old Labour'. The Tony Blair 'Demon Eyes' poster was an example of the latter strategy. In any case, the campaign failed to gain much traction, and the Conservatives went down to a landslide defeat at the polls.

Labour CampaignEdit

Labour ran a slick campaign, which emphasised the splits within the Conservative government, and argued that the country needed a more centrist administration. Labour ran a centrist campaign that was good at picking up dissatisfied Tory voters, particularly moderate and suburban ones. Tony Blair, highly popular, was very much the centrepiece of the campaign, and proved a highly effective campaigner. The Labour campaign was reminiscent of those of Bill Clinton for the US Presidency, focusing on centrist themes, as well as adopting policies more commonly associated with the right, such as cracking down on crime and fiscal responsibility.

Liberal Democrat CampaignEdit

The Liberal Democrats had suffered a disappointing performance in 1992, but they were very much strengthened in 1997 due to potential tactical voting between Labour and Lib Dem supporters in Tory marginal constituencies, particularly in the south. The Lib Dems promised to increase education funding.

Notional 1992 electionEdit

The election was fought under new boundaries, with a net increase of eight seats compared to the 1992 election (651 to 659). Changes listed here are from the notional 1992 result, had it been fought on the boundaries established in 1997. These notional results were used by all media organisations at the time.

UK General Election 1992
Party Seats Gains Losses Net gain/loss Seats % Votes % Votes +/−
  Labour 274 +3 41.6 34.4 11,560,484
  Conservative 343 +7 52.1 41.9 14,093,007
  Liberal Democrat 18 −2 2.7 17.8 5,999,384
  Others 24 3.6 5.9


Labour won a landslide victory with their largest parliamentary majority (179) to date. On the BBC's election night programme Professor Anthony King described the result of the exit poll, which accurately predicted a Labour landslide, as being akin to "an asteroid hitting the planet and destroying practically all life on Earth". After years of trying the Labour Party had convinced the electorate that they would usher in a new age of prosperity—their policies, organisation and tone of optimism slotting perfectly into place.

Labour's victory was largely credited to the charisma of Tony Blair and a Labour public relations machine managed by Alastair Campbell. Between the 1992 election and the 1997 election there had also been major steps to modernise the party, including scrapping Clause IV that had committed the party to extending public ownership of industry. New Labour had suddenly seized the middle ground of the political spectrum, attracting voters much further to the right than their traditional working class or left-wing support. Famously, in the early hours of 2 May 1997 a party was held at the Royal Festival Hall, in which Blair stated triumphantly that "a new dawn has broken, has it not?".

The election was a crushing defeat for the Conservative Party, with the party having its lowest percentage share of the popular vote since 1832 under the Duke of Wellington's leadership, being wiped out in Scotland and Wales. A number of prominent Conservative MPs lost their seats in the election, including Michael Portillo, Malcolm Rifkind, Edwina Currie, David Mellor, Neil Hamilton and Norman Lamont. Such was the extent of Conservative losses at the election that Cecil Parkinson, speaking on the BBC's election night programme, remarked upon the Conservatives winning their second seat that he was pleased that the subsequent election for the leadership would be contested.

The election was a massive success for the Liberal Democrats, who more than doubled their number of seats thanks to the use of tactical voting against the Conservatives. Although their share of the vote fell slightly, their total of 46 MPs was the highest since Lloyd George got 59 seats in 1929.

The Referendum Party, which sought a referendum on the United Kingdom's relationship with the European Union, came fourth in terms of votes with 800,000 votes mainly from former Conservative voters[citation needed], but won no seats in parliament. The six parties with the next highest votes stood only in either Scotland, Northern Ireland or Wales; in order, they were the Scottish National Party, the Ulster Unionist Party, the Social Democratic and Labour Party, Plaid Cymru, Sinn Féin, and the Democratic Unionist Party.

In the previously safe seat of Tatton, where incumbent Conservative MP Neil Hamilton was facing charges of having taken cash for questions, the Labour and Liberal Democrat Parties decided not to field candidates in order that an Independent candidate, Martin Bell, would have a better chance of winning the seat, which he duly did with a comfortable margin.

The result declared for the constituency of Winchester showed a margin of victory of just two votes for the Liberal Democrats. The defeated Conservative candidate mounted a successful legal challenge to the result on the grounds that errors by election officials (failures to stamp certain votes) had changed the result, the court ruled the result invalid and ordered a by-election on 20 November which was won by the Liberal Democrats with a much larger majority, causing much recrimination in the Conservative Party about the decision to challenge the original result in the first place.

This election would also mark the start of Labour government for the next 13 years until the formation of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition in 2010.

418 165 46 30
Labour Conservative Lib Dem O
UK General Election 1997
Candidates Votes
Party Standing Elected Gained Unseated Net  % of total  % No. Net %
  Labour 639 418 145 0 + 145 63.4 43.2 13,518,167 +8.8
  Conservative 648 165 0 178 –178 25.0 30.7 9,600,943 –11.2
  Liberal Democrat 639 46 30 2 + 28 7.0 16.8 5,242,947 –1.0
  Referendum Party 547 0 0 0 0 2.6 811,849 N/A
  SNP 72 6 3 0 + 3 0.9 2.0 621,550 +0.1
  UUP 16 10 1 0 +1 1.5 0.8 258,349 0.0
  SDLP 18 3 0 1 –1 0.5 0.6 190,814 +0.1
  Plaid Cymru 40 4 0 0 0 0.6 0.5 161,030 0.0
  Sinn Féin 17 2 2 0 + 2 0.3 0.4 126,921 0.0
  DUP 9 2 0 1 –1 0.3 0.3 107,348 0.0
  UKIP 193 0 0 0 0 0.3 105,722 N/A
  Independent 25 1 1 0 +1 0.2 0.1 64,482 0.0
  Green 89 0 0 0 0 0.3 61,731 –0.2
  Alliance 17 0 0 0 0 0.2 62,972 0.0
  Socialist Labour 64 0 0 0 0 0.2 52,109 N/A
  Liberal 53 0 0 0 0 0.1 45,166 –0.1
  BNP 57 0 0 0 0 0.1 35,832 0.0
  Natural Law 197 0 0 0 0 0.1 30,604 –0.1
  Speaker 1 1 1 0 0 0.1 23,969
  ProLife Alliance 56 0 0 0 0 0.1 19,332 N/A
  UK Unionist 1 1 1 0 +1 0.2 0.0 12,817 N/A
  PUP 3 0 0 0 0 0.0 10,928 N/A
  National Democrats 21 0 0 0 0 0.0 10,829 N/A
  Socialist Alternative 0 0 0 0 0.0 9,906 N/A
  Scottish Socialist 16 0 0 0 0 0.0 9,740 N/A
  Independent Labour 4 0 0 0 0 0.0 9,233 – 0.1
  Independent Conservative 4 0 0 0 0 0.0 8,608 –0.1
  Monster Raving Loony 24 0 0 0 0 0.0 7,906 –0.1
  Rainbow Dream Ticket 29 0 0 0 0 0.0 3,745 N/A
  NI Women's Coalition 3 0 0 0 0 0.0 3,024 N/A
  Workers' Party 8 0 0 0 0 0.0 2,766 –0.1
  National Front 6 0 0 0 0 0.0 2,716 N/A
  Legalise Cannabis 4 0 0 0 0 0.0 2,085 N/A
  People's Labour 1 0 0 0 0 0.0 1,995 N/A
  Mebyon Kernow 4 0 0 0 0 0.0 1,906 N/A
  Scottish Green 5 0 0 0 0 0.0 1,721
  Conservative Anti-Euro 1 0 0 0 0 0.0 1,434 N/A
  Socialist (GB) 0 0 0 0 0.0 1,359 N/A
  Community Representative 1 0 0 0 0 0.0 1,290 N/A
  Residents 1 0 0 0 0 0.0 1,263 N/A
  Social Democrat 2 0 0 0 0 0.0 1,246 –0.1
  Workers Revolutionary 9 0 0 0 0 0.0 1,178 N/A
  Real Labour 1 0 0 0 0 0.0 1,117 N/A
  Independent Democratic 0 0 0 0 0.0 982
  Independent Liberal Democrat 0 0 0 0 0.0 890
  Communist 3 0 0 0 0 0.0 639
  Independent Green 1 0 0 0 0 0.0 593
  Green (NI) 1 0 0 0 0 0.0 539
  Socialist Equality 3 0 0 0 0 0.0 505

All parties with more than 500 votes shown. Labour total includes New Labour and "Labour Time for Change" candidates; Conservative total includes candidates in Northern Ireland (excluded in some lists) and "Loyal Conservative" candidate.

The Popular Unionist MP elected in 1992 died in 1995 and the party folded shortly afterwards.

There was no incumbent Speaker in the 1992 election.

Government's new majority 179
Total votes cast 31,286,284
Turnout 71.3%
Popular vote
Liberal Democrat
Scottish National
Parliamentary seats
Liberal Democrat
Scottish National
Ulster Unionist

Defeated Incumbent MPsEdit


A total of 127 sitting Conservative MPs were defeated, including seven members of Cabinet and thirty junior Ministers and Under-Secretaries.

MPs who lost their seatsEdit

Party Name Constituency Office held the year defeated Year elected
Conservative Party
The Right Honourable
Malcolm Rifkind QC
Edinburgh Pentlands Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs 1974
The Right Honourable
Michael Portillo
Enfield Southgate Secretary of State for Defence 1984
The Right Honourable
Ian Lang
Galloway and Upper Nithsdale Secretary of State for Trade and Industry 1979
The Right Honourable
Tony Newton OBE
Braintree Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons 1974
The Right Honourable
Michael Forsyth
Stirling Secretary of State for Scotland 1983
The Right Honourable
William Waldegrave
Bristol West Chief Secretary to the Treasury 1979
The Right Honourable
Roger Freeman
Kettering Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster 1983
Sir Derek Spencer QC Brighton Pavilion Solicitor General 1992
Michael Bates Langbaurgh Paymaster-General 1992
The Honourable
Phillip Oppenheim
Amber Valley Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury 1983
Iain Sproat Harwich Minister for Sport and the Olympics 1992
The Right Honourable
Lord James Douglas-Hamilton QC
Edinburgh West Minister of State at the Scottish Office 1974
Alistair Burt Bury North Minister of State at Department of Social Security 1983
The Right Honourable
Greg Knight
Derby North Minister of State for Industry at the Department of Trade and Industry 1983
Timothy Kirkhope Leeds North East Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department 1987
Gwilym Jones Cardiff North Under Secretary of State in the Welsh Office 1983
George Kynoch Kincardine and Deeside Under-Secretary of State for Scotland 1992
The Honourable
Tom Sackville
Bolton West Home Office Minister 1983
Robin Squire Hornchurch Education Minister 1979
John Bowis Battersea Health Minister 1987
Sir Nicholas Bonsor, 4th Baronet Upminster Foreign Office Minister 1979
Andrew Mitchell Gedling Social Security Minister 1987
Roger Evans Monmouth Social Security Minister 1992
Raymond Robertson Aberdeen South Minister for Education, Housing, Fisheries and Sport 1992
Dame Angela Rumbold DBE Mitcham and Morden Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party 1982
The Right Honourable
Sir Marcus Fox MBE
Shipley Chairman of the 1922 Committee 1970
The Right Honourable
Michael Morris
Northampton South Chairman of Ways and Means 1974
Sir Graham Bright Luton South Vice-Chairman of the Conservative Party 1979
Timothy Wood Stevenage Comptroller of the Household 1983
Gyles Brandreth City of Chester Lord of the Treasury 1992
David Evennett Erith and Crayford Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Secretary of State for Education and Skills 1983
Simon Coombs Swindon Parliamentary Private Secretary 1983
Lady Olga Maitland Sutton and Cheam Parliamentary Private Secretary 1992
The Right Honourable
Sir Robert Atkins
South Ribble Minister for Sport (1990–1992) 1979
The Right Honourable
Sir Rhodes Boyson
Brent North 1974
Nicholas Budgen Wolverhampton South West 1974
Sir Kenneth Carlisle Lincoln 1979
Sebastian Coe OBE Falmouth and Camborne 1992
Derek Conway TD Shrewsbury and Atcham 1983
Edwina Currie South Derbyshire 1983
The Right Honourable
John Cope
Northavon 1974
Sir John Michael Gorst Hendon North 1970
Neil Hamilton Tatton 1983
The Right Honourable
Jeremy Hanley
Richmond and Barnes) 1979
The Right Honourable
David Hunt MBE
Wirral West 1976
The Right Honourable
Norman Lamont
Kingston-upon-Thames 1972
Sir Ivan Lawrence QC Burton 1974
Sir Jim Lester Broxtowe 1974
The Right Honourable
David Mellor QC
Putney 1979
Sir Roger Moate Faversham 1970
Sir Donald Thompson Calder Valley 1979
Sir Malcolm Thornton Crosby 1979
Richard Tracey Surbiton 1983

Liberal Democrats who lost their seatsEdit

†Diana Maddock was elected at the Christchurch by-election, 1993, and so is not included in the table of results.

Post election eventsEdit

The poor results for the Conservative Party led to infighting, with the One Nation, Tory Reform Group, and right wing Maastricht rebels blaming each other for the defeat. Party chairman Brian Mawhinney said on the night of the election, that it was due to disillusionment with 18 years of Conservative rule. John Major resigned as party leader, saying "When the curtain falls, it is time to leave the stage".

Despite receiving fewer votes than in 1992, the Liberal Democrats more than doubled their number of seats and won their best general election result since 1929 under David Lloyd George's leadership. Paddy Ashdown's continued leadership had been vindicated, despite a disappointing 1992 election, and they were in a position to build positively as a strong third party into the new millennium.

Internet coverageEdit

With the huge rise in internet use since the previous general election, BBC News created a special website covering the election as an experiment for the efficiency of an online news service which was due for a launch later in the year.[4]


Conservative election poster in Balnain, Scotland.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ “”. "BBC Vote '97 Election coverage". Youtube. Retrieved 9 December 2010. 
  2. ^ "1997: Labour landslide ends Tory rule". BBC News. 15 April 2005. Retrieved 28 March 2010. 
  3. ^ "House of Lords Debates 17 March 1997 vol 579 cc653-4: Dissolution of Parliament". House of Lords Hansard. Retrieved 21 June 2010. 
  4. ^ "Major events influenced BBC's news online | Social media agency London | FreshNetworks blog". Freshnetworks.com. 5 June 2008. Retrieved 9 December 2010. 

Further readingEdit

  • Butler, David and Dennis Kavanagh. The British General Election of 1997 (1997), the standard scholarly study


External linksEdit

Last modified on 22 April 2014, at 15:40