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The life cycle of the Conservative Government, 1979 - 1997 Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives defeated James Callaghan’s incumbent Labour Government at the general election of 3 May 1979. This would be the first of four consecutive terms of Conservative Government, lasting a total of 18 years. This booklet is a statistical analysis of each of these four elections. It discusses the exact proportions of the popular vote, and examines trends across the period. Its purpose is to establish a greater understanding of this unique Government life cycle.

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Percentage of popular vote in the UK

1979 Conservative Labour Other

1983 43.9% 36.9% 19.2%

This page describes the proportions of the popular vote won by the two main parties at each General Election. Data was collected from the House of Commons Library research papers 03/59, and 05/33.

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Conservative Labour Other

1987 42.4% 27.6% 30%

Despite an overwhelming defeat at the 1997 election, winning the lowest proportion of the vote for 100 years, the Conservatives retained a comfortable majority throughout the preceding cycle of Government.

Conservative Labour Other

1992 42.2% 30.8% 27%

In 1987, Margaret Thatcher became the first Prime Minister since 1827 to win three consecutive victories. This has since been equalled by Tony Blair in 2005.

Conservative Labour Other

41.9% 34.4% 23.7%

Thatcher resigned in 1990 after a leadership challenge from Michael Heseltine, and was replaced by then Chancellor John Major. In 1992, Major went on to win a fourth and final Conservative term in his own right.


Percentage of seats in the House of Commons

1979 Conservative Labour Other

1983 53.4% 42.4% 4.2%

This page describes the proportions of seats in the House of Commons won by the two main parties at each General Election. Data was collected from the House of Commons Library research papers 03/59, and 05/33.

Conservative Labour Other

1987 61.1% 32.2% 6.7%

At each of these elections, the majority in the House is considerably higher than that of the popular vote. This reflects the divisive nature of the Conservative Government at this time, and its unpopularity in some areas of society.

Conservative Labour Other

1992 57.8% 35.2% 7%

In 1983, Thatcher’s second term was accompanied by the largest Conservative majority in the 20th Century. Despite a large increase in the number of Conservative seats in 1983, the party’s popular vote diminished slightly.

Conservative Labour Other

51.7% 41.6% 6.7%

Throughout this period, the number of seats held by smaller parties was drastically less than today. The presence of smaller parties in the House of Commons is currently double what it was in 1987.

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Conservative performance: England

1979 Conservative votes Percentage of total Swing

1983 12.26m 47.2% + 8.4%

This page describes the performance of the Conservative Government in England at each General Election, recorded in terms of actual ballots, percentage of the popular vote, and swing.

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Conservative votes Percentage of total Swing

1987 11.71m 46% - 1.2%

Data was collected from the House of Commons Library research papers 03/59, and 05/33. The diagrams are calculated to represent percentages in terms of area rather than height.

Conservative votes Percentage of total Swing

1992 12.52m 46.1% + 0.1%

Throughout this government cycle, the Conservative majority in England was far greater than that in Scotland and Wales. In 1992, John Major won almost 20% more of the popular vote in England than in Scotland.

Conservative votes Percentage of total Swing

12.8m 45.5% - 0.6%

Conservative performance also remained the most consistent in England. After the initial surge of popularity, the vote rarely changed by more than 1%.


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Conservative performance: Wales

1979 Conservative votes Percentage of total Swing

1983 526.3k 32.2% + 8.3%

This page describes the performance of the Conservative Government in Wales at each General Election, recorded in terms of actual ballots, percentage of the popular vote, and swing.

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Conservative votes Percentage of total Swing

1987 499.3k 31% - 1.2%

Data was collected from the House of Commons Library research papers 03/59, and 05/33. The diagrams are calculated to represent percentages in terms of area rather than height.

Conservative votes Percentage of total Swing

1992 501.3k 29.5% - 1.5%

The Conservatives in Wales were less popular than in England. Unlike in England, the proportion of the popular vote won by the party was never more than that won by Labour, even at the latter’s most unpopular.

Conservative votes Percentage of total Swing

499.7k 28.6% - 0.9%

However, Welsh support for the Conservatives was far more consistent in this period than in Scotland, never fluctuating by more than 2% after the initial swell.


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Conservative performance: Scotland

1979 Conservative votes Percentage of total Swing

1983 916.2k 31.4% + 6.7%

This page describes the performance of the Conservative Government in Scotland at each General Election, recorded in terms of actual ballots, percentage of the popular vote, and swing.

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Conservative votes Percentage of total Swing

1987 801.5k 28.4% - 3%

Data was collected from the House of Commons Library research papers 03/59, and 05/33. The diagrams are calculated to represent percentages in terms of area rather than height.

Conservative votes Percentage of total Swing

1992 713.1k 24% - 4.4%

The Conservative government was less popular in Scotland than England and Wales at each of these four elections. This is a trend that has continued into recent years.

Conservative votes Percentage of total Swing

752k 25.6% - 1.6%

The initial increase in popularity of 1979 was more muted than in England and Wales. Scotland also saw the biggest decrease in Conservative votes, at 4.4% in 1987.


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Turnout: Percentage of Electorate

1979 Turnout Total votes Electorate

1983 76% 31, 222, 279 41, 093, 264

This page measures the turnout at each General Election; the percentage of those legally permitted to vote who cast a legible ballot. Turnout can be seen as a measure of political apathy.

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Turnout Total votes Electorate

1987 72.7% 30, 670, 905 42, 197, 344

Data was gathered from the Times Guides to the House of Commons for each respective year.

Turnout Total votes Electorate

1992 75.3% 32, 529, 423 43, 181, 321

Turnout was average for each of these four elections. It was at its peak for the first elections of the two Prime Ministers, Thatcher and Major, and at its lowest in 1983.

Turnout Total votes Electorate

77.7% 33, 612, 693 43, 249, 721

Turnout in Wales was consistently the highest in each of these elections. Wales was consistently in favour of Labour throughout this period.


Spoilt Ballots: Fraction of 1% of Electorate

1979 Spoilt ballots Percentage of total

1983 117, 848 0.38%

This page details the percentage of spoilt ballots at each General Election. This is always a small number. As such, the diagram represent fractions of 1% of the overall votes.

Spoilt ballots Percentage of total

1987 51, 104 0.17%

Ballots are defined as spoilt for one of the following reasons: want of the official mark, voting for more than one candidate, writing or mark by which the voter could be identified, or submitting an unmarked ballot paper.

Spoilt ballots Percentage of total

1992 36, 945 0.11%

Data was gathered from the Times Guides to the House of Commons for each respective year.

Spoilt ballots Percentage of total

39, 726 0.12%

With the sole exception of 2005, 1979 saw the largest number of spoilt ballots since records began in 1964. This was also the year in which the first and only female Prime Minister in history was elected.

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Conservative Demographics: Percentage of male voters

1979 Cons. male voters Swing

1983 43% + 11%

This page describes the percentage of male voters at each General Election who voted Conservative. The data was collected from Ipsos MORI.

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Cons. male voters Swing

1987 42% - 1%

At each election, men voted Conservative in fewer numbers than women, with the exception of 1987, in which there was an equal level of support from both sexes.

Cons. male voters Swing

1992 43% + 1%

There was a greater increase in male Conservative voters when the party came to power in 1979, although this still equated to a total proportion 4% smaller than among female voters.

Cons. male voters Swing

41% - 2%

Men were less supportive of John Major’s Government than Margaret Thatcher’s. The proportion of Conservative male voters dropped by 2% in 1992. The equivalent proportion among women increased by 1%.


Conservative Demographics: Percentage of female voters

1979 Cons. female voters Swing

1983 47% + 8%

This page describes the percentage of female voters at each General Election who voted Conservative. The data was collected from Ipsos MORI.

Cons. female voters Swing

1987 46% - 1%

With the exception of 1987, the proportion of women voting Conservative remained consistently higher than men throughout this period.

Cons. female voters Swing

1992 43% - 3%

The typical Conservative voter for this cycle of government was a middle class woman, aged 55 or over. Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister at the age of 53.

Cons. female voters Swing

44% + 1%

Greater female than male support for the Conservatives is a trend that continued on to the 2001 election. However, by 2005, this had reversed.

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Conservative Demographics: Aged 18 - 24

1979 Cons. voters 18 - 24 Swing

1983 42% + 18%

This page describes the percentage of voters aged between 18 and 24 who voted Conservative at these elections.

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Cons. voters 18 - 24 Swing

1987 42% 0%

With the exception of 1983, this age bracket offered the least support for the Conservative Government. In 1983, support was slightly higher than in the 25 - 34 band.

Cons. voters 18 - 24 Swing

1992 37% - 5%

Voters aged 18 - 24 offered the biggest increase in Conservative votes when Thatcher first came to power in 1979 - a full 18%.

Cons. voters 18 - 24 Swing

35% - 2%

By the 1992 election, the Conservative share of votes among 18 - 24 year olds was 12% lower than that of the largest support base - voters aged 55+


Conservative Demographics: Aged 25 - 34

1979 Cons. voters 25 - 34 Swing

1983 43% + 10%

This page describes the percentage of voters aged between 25 and 34 who voted Conservative at these elections.

Cons. voters 25 - 34 Swing

1987 40% - 3%

Voters in this age bracket tended to offer more support for the Conservatives than the age bracket below, but less than the two age brackets above.

Cons. voters 25 - 34 Swing

1992 39% - 1%

This illustrates a general trend in these figures. During this period at least, the likelihood of voting Conservative increased as one grew older.

Cons. voters 25 -34 Swing

40% + 1%

Voters aged 25 - 34 were the only ones to increase the proportion of Conservative votes for John Major’s Government in 1992.

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Conservative Demographics: Aged 35 - 54

1979 Cons. voters 35 - 54 Swing

1983 46% + 12%

This page describes the percentage of voters aged between 35 and 54 who voted Conservative at these elections.

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Cons. voters 35 - 54 Swing

1987 44% - 2%

At each election, this age bracket offered the secondhighest share of votes to the Conservatives, after the 55 + bracket.

Cons. voters 35 - 54 Swing

1992 45% + 1%

Even in 1992, when Conservative support was generally less than in previous elections, the 35 - 54 bracket offered a larger share of the vote than the 18 - 24 bracket in 1979, at the height of Conservative popularity.

Cons. voters 35 - 54 Swing

43% - 2%

Despite this, the 35 - 34 bracket saw the second largest upswing of Conservative votes in 1979, from a relatively low 34% in 1974.


Conservative Demographics: Aged 55 +

1979 Cons. voters 55+ Swing

1983 47% +5%

This page describes the percentage of voters aged 55 and over who voted Conservative at these elections.

Cons. voters 55+ Swing

1987 47% 0%

This age bracket offered the highest percentage of Conservative votes at each of the four elections in this period, and continues to do so to this day.

Cons. voters 55+ Swing

1992 46% - 1%

This bracket also saw the least variation in voting patterns. The increase in Conservative votes in 1979 was the smallest, and the proportion changed by no more than 1% after that.

Cons. voters 55+ Swing

46% 0%

The typical Conservative voter during this period was a woman aged 55 and over, from a middle class background.

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Conservative Demographics: Middle class and skilled working class

1983

1979 Cons. MC voters Swing

59% + 3%

1979 Cons. SWC voters Swing

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Cons. MC voters Swing

1987 55% - 4%

1983 41% + 15%

Cons. SWC voters Swing

Cons. MC voters Swing

1992 54% - 1%

1987 40% - 1%

Cons. SWC voters Swing

Cons. MC voters Swing

54% 0%

1992 40% 0%

Cons. SWC voters Swing

39% - 1%


Conservative Demographics: Unskilled or semi-skilled working class

1979 Cons. U or S-S voters Swing

1983 34% + 12%

These pages detail the share of votes from members of different classes won by the Conservatives during this period.

Cons. U or S-S voters Swing

1987 33% - 1%

Classes were determined using the NRS social grade system. Middle class refers to grades A, B, and C1. Skilled working class represents grade C2. Semiskilled or unskilled working class refers to grades D and E.

Cons. U or S-S voters Swing

1992 30% - 3%

The middle class offered the greatest level of support to the Conservatives during this period. In the entire demographics dataset, they are the only group to consistently poll above 50%.

Cons. U or S-S voters Swing

31% - 1%

In 1979, the middle class share of the vote was a full 25% higher than that of unskilled or semi-skilled working class voters.

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The Life Cycle of the Conservative Government, 1979 - 1997  

A statistical investigation into the Thatcher / Major Government of 1979 - 1997.

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