1997 United Kingdom general election

The 1997 United Kingdom general election is a national election that was held on 1 May 1997. The governing Conservative Party sought to protect their majority in the House of Commons against their opposition, the Labour Party, following the general election of 1992. Incumbent Prime Minister John Major called for the election in March 1997 to allow for six weeks of campaigning, and appointed polling day to coincide with local elections that year.

1997 United Kingdom general election

1 May 1997

All 659 seats to the House of Commons
330 seats needed for a majority
Opinion polls
Turnout71.3% (6.4%)
  First party Second party Third party
Leader Tony Blair John Major Paddy Ashdown
Party Labour Conservative Liberal Democrats
Leader since 21 July 1994 4 July 1995[n 1] 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 273 343 18
Seats won 418 165 46
Seat change 145* 171* 26*
Popular vote 13,518,167 9,600,943 5,242,947
Percentage 43.2% 30.7% 16.8%
Swing 8.8% 11.2% 1.0%

Colours denote the winning party, as shown in the main table of results.
* Indicates boundary change, so this is a nominal figure.
Notional 1992 results on new boundaries.
^ Figure does not include the speaker.

Prime Minister before election

John Major

Appointed Prime Minister

Tony Blair

The political backdrop of campaigning focused on public opinion towards a change in government. Labour leader Tony Blair focused on transforming his party through a more centrist policy platform, entitled 'New Labour', with promises towards devolution referendums for Scotland and Wales, and greater economic handling, and Blair's decision to nominate more female politicians for constituencies. Major sought to rebuild public trust in the Conservatives following a series of scandals, including the events of Black Wednesday in 1992,[2] through campaigning upon the recovering of the economy following the early 1990s recession and efforts to attack Labour's strategy, but faced divisions within the party over the UK's membership with the European Union.

Opinion polls during campaigning showed strong support for Labour due to the popularity of Blair amongst voters, particularly with a public declaration of support from The Sun newspaper,[3] and attracting voters from the right than from their traditional support base. The final result of the vote on 2 May 1997 revealed that Labour won a landslide majority, making a net gain of 146 seats and winning 43.2% of the vote, whereas the Conservative suffered defeat with a net loss of 178 seats, despite winning 30.7% of the vote. The Liberal Democrats, under the leadership Paddy Ashdown, restrengthened themselves following their performance in the 1992 election, making a net gain of 28 seats and winning 16.8% of the vote.

The overall result of the election ended the Conservative's eighteen-years control of the House of Commons with their worst defeat since 1906, and left them devoid of MPs within Scotland and Wales, which led to the resignation of Major as his party's leader in the following months. Labour's success, not only the biggest achieved in the party's history but also by any political party in British politics since the post-war period, led to the party's first of three consecutive terms in parliament with Blair as the newly appointed Prime Minister. The Liberal Democrats' success in the election, in part due to tactical voting by anti-Conservative supporters, both strengthened Ashdown's leadership and their position as a strong third party, achieving the highest number of seats by any third party since 1929.


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, but his death from a 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 five 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%, 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.[4]

Loss of parliamentary majority

Following the 1992 general election, the Conservatives held government with 336 of the 651 House of Commons seats. Through a series of defections and by-election defeats, the Conservative government gradually lost its absolute majority in the House of Commons. By 1997, the Conservatives held only 324 House of Commons seats (and had not won a by-election since 1989).


The previous Parliament first sat on 29 April 1992. The Parliament Act 1911 required at the time for each Parliament to be dissolved before the fifth 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 required that the election must take place on the eleventh 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 (and referendums) 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[5]). 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 were also 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.

In March 1997, soon after the election was called, Asda introduced a range of election-themed beers, these being 'Major's Mild', 'Tony's Tipple' and 'Ashdown's Ale'.[6]

Conservative campaign

The Conservative Party began low in the polls, and had experienced great difficulties over the previous five years, with polling often putting it some 40 points adrift of Labour. Major hoped that a long campaign would expose Labour's "hollowness" and the Conservative campaign emphasised stability, as did its manifesto title 'You can only be sure with the Conservatives'.[7] However, the campaign was beset by deep-set problems, such as the rise of James Goldsmith's Referendum Party which advocated a referendum on continued membership of the European Union. The party threatened to take away many right-leaning voters from the Conservatives. Furthermore, about 200 candidates broke with official Conservative policy to oppose British membership of the single European currency.[8] Major fought back, saying: "Whether you agree with me or disagree with me; like me or loathe me, don't bind my hands when I am negotiating on behalf of the British nation." The moment is remembered as one of the defining, and most surreal, moments of the election.[9][7]

Meanwhile, there was also division amongst the Conservative cabinet, with Chancellor Kenneth 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 Labour, 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 façade for "old Labour".

The New Labour, New Danger poster, which depicted Tony Blair with demon eyes, was an example of the latter strategy. Major veered between the two approaches, which left Conservative Central Office staff frustrated. As Andrew Cooper explained: "We repeatedly tried and failed to get him to understand that you couldn't say that they were dangerous and copying you at the same time."[10] In any case, the campaign failed to gain much traction, and the Conservatives went down to a landslide defeat at the polls.

Labour campaign

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. The influence of political "spin" came into great effect for Labour at this point, as media centric figures such as Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson provided a clear cut campaign, and establishing a relatively new political brand "New Labour" with enviable success.

Liberal Democrat campaign

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 - particularly given their share of the vote decreased while their number of seats nearly doubled. The Lib Dems promised to increase education funding paid for by a 1p increase in income tax.


  • In a sign of the change of direction which 'New Labour' represented, they were endorsed by The Sun (with a famous front page "The Sun Backs Blair")[3], as well as the more left-leaning newspapers The Mirror, The Independent and The Guardian.[11]
  • The Conservatives were endorsed by the Mail, the Express, the Telegraph and the Times.

Notional 1992 results

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 calculated by Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher and were used by all media organisations at the time.

UK General Election 1992
Party Seats Gains Losses Net gain/loss Seats % Votes % Votes +/−
  Labour 273 17 15 +2 41.6 34.4 11,560,484
  Conservative 343 28 21 +7 52.1 41.9 14,093,007
  Liberal Democrats 18 0 2 2 2.7 17.8 5,999,384
  Other parties 25 1 0 +1 3.6 5.9


Labour won a landslide victory with its 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, Labour 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 and Peter Mandelson. 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. 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. In the early hours of 2 May 1997 a party was held at the Royal Festival Hall, in which Blair stated 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, joked upon the Conservatives winning their second seat that he was pleased that the subsequent election for the leadership would be contested.

The Liberal Democrats 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 for any UK Liberal party since David Lloyd George led the party to 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, 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 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 marked 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[12]
Candidates Votes
Party Leader Stood Elected Gained Unseated Net % of total % No. Net %
  Labour Tony Blair 639 418 146 0 +146 63.4 43.2 13,518,167 +8.8
  Conservative John Major 648 165 0 178 –178 25.0 30.7 9,600,943 –11.2
  Liberal Democrats Paddy Ashdown 639 46 30 2 +28 7.0 16.8 5,242,947 –1.0
  Referendum James Goldsmith 547 0 0 0 0 2.6 811,849 N/A
  SNP Alex Salmond 72 6 3 0 +3 0.9 2.0 621,550 +0.1
  UUP David Trimble 16 10 1 0 +1 1.5 0.8 258,349 0.0
  SDLP John Hume 18 3 0 1 –1 0.5 0.6 190,814 +0.1
  Plaid Cymru Dafydd Wigley 40 4 0 0 0 0.6 0.5 161,030 0.0
  Sinn Féin Gerry Adams 17 2 2 0 +2 0.3 0.4 126,921 0.0
  DUP Ian Paisley 9 2 0 1 –1 0.3 0.3 107,348 0.0
  UKIP Alan Sked 193 0 0 0 0 0.3 105,722 N/A
  Independent N/A 25 1 1 0 +1 0.2 0.2 64,482 0.0
  Alliance John Alderdice 17 0 0 0 0 0.2 62,972 0.0
  Green Peg Alexander and David Taylor 89 0 0 0 0 0.2 61,731 –0.2
  Socialist Labour Arthur Scargill 64 0 0 0 0 0.2 52,109 N/A
  Liberal Michael Meadowcroft 53 0 0 0 0 0.1 45,166 –0.1
  BNP John Tyndall 57 0 0 0 0 0.1 35,832 0.0
  Natural Law Geoffrey Clements 197 0 0 0 0 0.1 30,604 –0.1
  Speaker Betty Boothroyd 1 1 1 0 0 0.1 23,969
  ProLife Alliance Bruno Quintavalle 56 0 0 0 0 0.1 19,332 N/A
  UK Unionist Robert McCartney 1 1 1 0 +1 0.2 0.0 12,817 N/A
  PUP Hugh Smyth 3 0 0 0 0 0.0 10,928 N/A
  National Democrats Ian Anderson 21 0 0 0 0 0.0 10,829 N/A
  Socialist Alternative Peter Taaffe 0 0 0 0 0.0 9,906 N/A
  Scottish Socialist Tommy Sheridan 16 0 0 0 0 0.0 9,740 N/A
  Independent Labour N/A 4 0 0 0 0 0.0 9,233 – 0.1
  Ind. Conservative N/A 4 0 0 0 0 0.0 8,608 –0.1
  Monster Raving Loony Screaming Lord Sutch 24 0 0 0 0 0.0 7,906 –0.1
  Rainbow Dream Ticket Rainbow George Weiss 29 0 0 0 0 0.0 3,745 N/A
  NI Women's Coalition Monica McWilliams and Pearl Sagar 3 0 0 0 0 0.0 3,024 N/A
  Workers' Party Tom French 8 0 0 0 0 0.0 2,766 –0.1
  National Front John McAuley 6 0 0 0 0 0.0 2,716 N/A
  Legalise Cannabis Howard Marks 4 0 0 0 0 0.0 2,085 N/A
  People's Labour Jim Hamezian 1 0 0 0 0 0.0 1,995 N/A
  Mebyon Kernow Loveday Jenkin 4 0 0 0 0 0.0 1,906 N/A
  Scottish Green Robin Harper 5 0 0 0 0 0.0 1,721
  Conservative Anti-Euro Christopher Story 1 0 0 0 0 0.0 1,434 N/A
  Socialist (GB) None 5 0 0 0 0 0.0 1,359 N/A
  Community Representative Ralph Knight 1 0 0 0 0 0.0 1,290 N/A
  Residents 1 0 0 0 0 0.0 1,263 N/A
  SDP John Bates 2 0 0 0 0 0.0 1,246 –0.1
  Workers Revolutionary Sheila Torrance 9 0 0 0 0 0.0 1,178 N/A
  Real Labour N/A 1 0 0 0 0 0.0 1,117 N/A
  Independent Democratic N/A 0 0 0 0 0.0 982
  Ind. Liberal Democrat N/A 0 0 0 0 0.0 890
  Communist Mike Hicks 3 0 0 0 0 0.0 639
  Independent Green N/A 1 0 0 0 0 0.0 593
  Green (NI) 1 0 0 0 0 0.0 539
  Socialist Equality Davy Hyland 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

Results by constituent country

LAB CON LD SNP PC NI parties Others Total
England 328 165 34 - - - 2 529
Wales 34 - 2 - 4 - - 40
Scotland 56 - 10 6 - - - 72
Northern Ireland - - - - - 18 - 18
Total 418 165 46 6 4 18 2 (inc Speaker) 659

Defeated MPs

Conservative ministers who lost their seats

Boundary changes at this election abolished several ministers' seats. The seats instead contested by those affected by the changes were largely close to their old seats. Michael Bates, for example, had previously represented Langbaurgh in the North East, the wards from which were mostly placed in Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (which Bates contested and lost), while some wards were placed in neighbouring Redcar.

Other Conservative MPs who lost their seats

Liberal Democrats who lost their seats

Social and Democratic Labour Party MP who lost his seat

Democratic Unionist MP who lost his seat

Referendum Party MP who lost his seat

Post-election events

The poor results for the Conservative Party led to infighting, with the One Nation group, 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 defeat 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 up to that point and a better such result than any achieved by its predecessor, the Liberal Party, 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 coverage

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.[13]

See also


  1. Conservative party leader John Major resigned as Leader of the Conservative Party on 22 June 1995 to face critics in his party and government, and was reelected as Leader on 4 July 1995. Prior to his resignation he had held the post of Leader of the Conservative Party since 28 November 1990.[1]


  1. "1995: Major wins Conservative leadership". 4 July 1995 via news.bbc.co.uk.
  2. "BBC News - UK Politics - The Major Scandal Sheet". news.bbc.co.uk.
  3. https://www.theguardian.com/politics/1997/mar/18/past.roygreenslade
  4. "1997: Labour landslide ends Tory rule". BBC News. 15 April 2005. Retrieved 28 March 2010.
  5. "House of Lords Debates 17 March 1997 vol 579 cc653-4: Dissolution of Parliament". House of Lords Hansard. Retrieved 21 June 2010.
  6. "Advertising & Promotion: Ads contract election fever". www.campaignlive.co.uk. 20 March 1997. Retrieved 9 April 2017.
  7. Snowdon 2010, p. 4.
  8. Travis, Alan (17 April 1997). "Rebels' seven-year march". The Guardian (London).
  9. Bevins, Anthony (17 April 1997). "Election '97: John Major takes on the Tories". The Independent. Retrieved 19 December 2015.
  10. Snowdon 2010, p. 35.
  11. The Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2010/may/04/general-election-newspaper-support
  12. Morgan, Bryn (February 1999). "General Election Results, 1 May 1997" (PDF). Factsheet No. 68. House of Commons Information Office. Retrieved 1 April 2019.
  13. "Major events influenced BBC's news online | Social media agency London | FreshNetworks blog". Freshnetworks.com. 5 June 2008. Archived from the original on 28 December 2010. Retrieved 9 December 2010.

Further reading

  • Butler, David and Dennis Kavanagh. The British General Election of 1997 (1997), the standard scholarly study
  • Snowdon, Peter (2010) [2010]. Back from the Brink: The Extraordinary Fall and Rise of the Conservative Party. London: HarperCollins. ISBN 978-0-00-730884-2.


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