Two days ago we had the anniversary of the middle one of Tony Blair’s three election victories. Today it is the anniversary of the middle one of Margaret Thatcher’s three wins.
Margaret Thatcher faced a very different electoral landscape in 1983, compare to her first election as Conservative leader in 1979. In 1979 the motivation of many voters was to remove the Labour government of James Callaghan, in the wake of the Winter of Discontent. At that stage, Margaret Thatcher was a relatively unknown figure and voters had never heard of Thatcherism.
1983 was completely different. Out-spoken Thatcher, emboldened by the Falklands War, faced a divided opposition. The Labour Party leadership had passed to Michael Foot, admired as an orator, well-liked as a person, but a very poor party leader with a very left-wing agenda. The SDP had been formed, drawing 28 defecting MPs from the Labour Party and one Conservative. In December 1981 the SDP had reached an opinion poll rating of 50.5%, but this had been before the Falklands.
When it came to the 1983 election, the SDP fought in alliance with the Liberal Party and the Alliance very nearly caught up with the Labour Party in terms of votes – 7.8 million (25.4%) for the Alliance, compared to Labour’s 8.5 million (27.6%).
But the SDP won just six seats, holding five of the 30 seats it was defending (Roy Jenkins and Shirley Williams had won seats in by-elections and one sitting MP stood down) and winning one new one– and the Liberals won 17. As one of the SDP MPs conceded afterwards, their targeting was not effective.
Under the first past the post system, votes do not readily translate into seats at Westminster, as Ukip may well find out in 2015.
Margaret Thatcher reached her peak of 397 seats in 1983, but this was just short of Tony Blair’s haul of 413 in his second victory in 200l. Margaret Thatcher, like Tony Blair, went on to win three elections in total, an impressive record for any leader, but she was successively up against Jim Callaghan, Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock and a divided opposition.