On the surface, the 2001 election seemed like a rerun of 1997. The Conservatives just managed to haul themselves up by one seat from 165 to 166 and Labour won another convincing victory.
At just 59.4%, the 2001 election had the lowest turnout of voters since 1918 – and that was without the excuse of war disruption or an epidemic of Spanish flu. The election was held up, however, by another disease – foot and mouth, which delayed the contest by a month.
Tony Blair’s Labour Party produced another convincing victory with a 167 seat majority. Even though his party lost 2,793,214 votes, their tally of seats only dropped by 5. He became the first Labour prime minister ever to serve two (and eventually three) full consecutive terms of office. And John Prescott became the first deputy prime minister to have a televised fight with a voter.
The Conservatives actually gained the fewest votes that the party had ever achieved since the equal franchise came in before the 1929 election. In fact, they won fewer votes than the Labour Party did in their crushing defeat under Michael Foot in 1983. The disappointing result led to William Hague’s resignation as Conservative leader, making him the first Conservative leader since Austen Chamberlain in the 1920s not to become prime minister. But the party did win one seat in Scotland (by 79 votes), which was one more than in 1997. In England, one of the newly-elected Conservative MPs was David Cameron.
Research by Andrew Russell and Edward Fieldhouse showed that between the elections of 1997 and 2001, only 67% of Labour voters had remained loyal to the party, compared to just 66% of Conservative voters and only 54% of LibDem voters. On this occasion the swapping more or less cancelled itself out to produce a very similar result, but the level of unseen volatility was huge.
In this case the swan glided on – very little appearing to happen above the surface, but a lot of churning below the waterline.