1979 United Kingdom general election

The 1979 United Kingdom general election was held on Thursday 3 May 1979 to elect 635 members to the British House of Commons. The Conservative Party, led by Margaret Thatcher, ousted the incumbent Labour government of James Callaghan with a parliamentary majority of 43 seats. The election was the first of four consecutive election victories for the Conservative Party, and Thatcher became the United Kingdom's and Europe's first elected female head of government.
The previous parliamentary term had begun in October 1974, when Harold Wilson led Labour to a majority of three seats. However, within eighteen months he had resigned as Prime Minister, to be succeeded by James Callaghan, and within a year the government's narrow parliamentary majority had gone. Callaghan made agreements with the Liberals and later the Ulster Unionists, as well as the Scottish and Welsh nationalists, in order to remain in power. However, on 28 March 1979, following the defeat of the Scottish devolution referendum, Thatcher tabled a motion of no confidence in Callaghan's Labour government, which was passed by just one vote, triggering a general election five months before the end of the government's term.
The Labour campaign was hampered by a series of industrial disputes and strikes during the winter of 1978–79, known as the Winter of Discontent, and the party focused its campaign on support for the National Health Service and full employment. After intense media speculation, Callaghan had announced early in the autumn of 1978 that a general election would not take place that year, having received private polling data which suggested a parliamentary majority was unlikely.
The Conservative campaign employed the advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi, and pledged to control inflation as well as curbing the power of the trade unions. The Liberal Party was damaged by allegations that its former leader Jeremy Thorpe had been involved in a homosexual affair, and had conspired to murder his former lover. The Liberals were now being led by David Steel, meaning that all three major parties entered the election with a new leader.
The election saw a 5.2% swing from Labour to the Conservatives, the largest swing since the 1945 election, which Clement Attlee won for Labour. Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister, and Callaghan was replaced as Labour leader by Michael Foot in 1980. Results for the election were broadcast live on the BBC, and presented by David Dimbleby and Robin Day, with Robert McKenzie on the "Swingometer", and further analysis provided by David Butler. It was the first general election to feature Rick Wakeman's song "Arthur" during the BBC's coverage.
Because of the anaemic economic and social backdrop in this election, it presaged the 1980 United States presidential election which occurred exactly 18 months later in which under similar circumstances, incumbent US President Jimmy Carter, who like James Callaghan was also defeated by Republican Challenger Ronald Reagan.
Future Prime Minister John Major entered Parliament at this election. Thorpe, Shirley Williams and Barbara Castle all left Parliament as a result of this election.


After suffering a vote of no confidence on 28 March 1979, Prime Minister James Callaghan was forced to announce that he would request a dissolution of Parliament to bring about a general election. The key dates were as follows:
Saturday 7 AprilDissolution of the 47th Parliament and campaigning officially begins; 2,576 candidates enter to contest 635 seats
Wednesday 2 MayCampaigning officially ends
Thursday 3 MayPolling day
Friday 4 MayThe Conservative Party wins power with a majority of 43
Wednesday 9 MayThe 48th Parliament assembles
Tuesday 15 MayState Opening of Parliament


Britain's economy during the 1970s was so weak that Labour minister James Callaghan warned his fellow Cabinet members in 1974 of the possibility of "a breakdown of democracy", telling them: "If I were a young man, I would emigrate." Callaghan succeeded Harold Wilson as the Labour prime minister after the latter's surprise resignation in April 1976. By March 1977 Labour had become a minority government after several by-election defeats, and from March 1977 to August 1978 Callaghan governed by an agreement with the Liberal Party through the Lib–Lab pact. Callaghan had considered calling an election in the autumn of 1978, but ultimately decided that imminent tax cuts, and a possible economic upturn in 1979, could favour his party at the polls by calling one later. Although published opinion polls suggested that he might win, private polls commissioned by the Labour Party from MORI had suggested the two main parties had much the same level of support.
However, events would soon overtake the Labour government. A series of industrial disputes in the winter of 1978–79, dubbed the "Winter of Discontent", led to widespread strikes across the country and seriously hurt Labour's standings in the polls. When the Scottish National Party withdrew support for the Scotland Act 1978, a vote of no confidence was held and passed by one vote on 28 March 1979, forcing Callaghan to call a general election. As the previous election had been held in October 1974, Labour could have held on until the autumn of 1979 if it had not been for the lost confidence vote.
Margaret Thatcher had won her party's 1975 leadership election over former leader Edward Heath.
David Steel had replaced Jeremy Thorpe as leader of the Liberal Party in 1976, after allegations of homosexuality and conspiracy to murder his former lover forced Thorpe to resign. The Thorpe affair led to a fall in the Liberal vote, after what had been thought to be a breakthrough in the February 1974 election.


This was the first election since 1959 to feature three new leaders for the main political parties. The three main parties all advocated cutting income tax. Labour and the Conservatives did not specify the exact thresholds of income tax they would implement but the Liberals did, claiming they would have income tax starting at 20% with a top rate of 50%.
Without explicitly mentioning Thatcher's sex, Callaghan was "a master at sardonically implying that whatever the leader of the opposition said was made even sillier by the fact that it was said by a woman". Thatcher used the tactics that had defeated her other male opponents: constantly studying, sleeping only a few hours a night, and exploiting her femininity to appear as someone who understood housewives' household budgets.


The Labour campaign reiterated their support for the National Health Service and full employment and focused on the damage they believed the Conservatives would do to the country. In an early campaign broadcast, Callaghan asked: "The question you will have to consider is whether we risk tearing everything up by the roots." Towards the end of Labour's campaign Callaghan claimed a Conservative government "would sit back and just allow firms to go bankrupt and jobs to be lost in the middle of a world recession" and that the Conservatives were "too big a gamble to take".
The Labour Party manifesto, The Labour way is the better way, was issued on 6 April. Callaghan presented four priorities:
  1. "We must keep a curb on inflation and prices";
  2. "we will carry forward the task of putting into practice the new framework to improve industrial relations that we have hammered out with the TUC";
  3. "we a high priority to working for a return to full employment";
  4. "we are deeply concerned to enlarge people's freedom"; and "we will use Britain's influence to strengthen world peace and defeat world poverty".


The Conservatives campaigned on economic issues, pledging to control inflation and to reduce the increasing power of the trade unions who supported mass strikes. They also employed the advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi who had created the "Labour Isn't Working" poster.
The Conservative campaign was focused on gaining support from traditional Labour voters who had never voted Conservative before, first-time voters, and people who had voted Liberal in 1974. Thatcher's advisers, Gordon Reece and Timothy Bell, co-ordinated their presentation with the editor of The Sun, Larry Lamb. The Sun printed a series of articles by disillusioned former Labour ministers detailing why they had switched their support to Thatcher. She explicitly asked Labour voters for their support when she launched her campaign in Cardiff, claiming that Labour was now extreme. Choosing to start her campaign in the strongly Labour-supporting city was part of Thatcher's strategy of appealing to skilled manual workers, whom both parties had previously seen as certain Labour voters; she thought that many of these would support her promises to reduce unions' power and enact the right to buy their homes. An analysis of the election result showed that the Conservatives gained an 11% swing among the skilled working class and a 9% swing amongst the unskilled working class.
Thatcher's stance on immigration in the late 1970s was perceived as part of a rising racist public discourse, As Leader of the Opposition, Thatcher believed that the National Front was winning over large numbers of Conservative voters with warnings against floods of immigrants. Her strategy was to undermine the NF narrative by acknowledging that many of its voters had serious concerns in need of addressing. Thatcher criticised Labour immigration policy in January 1978, with the goal of attracting voters away from the NF and to the Conservatives. Her rhetoric was followed by an increase in Conservative support at the expense of the NF. Critics on the left reacted by accusing her of pandering to racism. Sociologists Mark Mitchell and Dave Russell responded that Thatcher had been badly misinterpreted, arguing that race was never an important focus of Thatcherism. Throughout her premiership both major parties took similar positions on immigration policy, having in 1981 passed the British Nationality Act with bipartisan support. No policies aimed at restricting immigration were passed or proposed by her government, and the subject of race was never highlighted by Thatcher in any of her major speeches as Prime Minister.
The Conservative manifesto, drafted by Chris Patten and Adam Ridley and edited by Angus Maude, reflected Thatcher's views and was issued on 11 April. It promised five major policies:
  1. "to restore the health of our economic and social life, by controlling inflation and striking a fair balance between the rights and duties of the trade union movement";
  2. "to restore incentives so that hard work pays, success is rewarded and genuine new jobs are created in an expanding economy";
  3. "to uphold Parliament and the rule of law";
  4. "to support family life, by helping people to become home-owners, raising the standards of their children's education and concentrating welfare services on the effective support of the old, the sick, the disabled and those who are in real need"; and
  5. "to strengthen Britain's defences and work with our allies to protect our interests in an increasingly threatening world".


In the end the overall swing of 5.2% was the largest since 1945, and gave the Conservatives a workable majority of 43 for the country's first female Prime Minister. The Conservative victory in 1979 also marked a change in government which would continue for 18 years, including the entire 1980s, until the Labour victory of 1997. The SNP saw a massive collapse in support, losing 9 of its 11 MPs. The Liberal Party had a disappointing election; its scandal-hit former leader Jeremy Thorpe lost his seat in North Devon to the Conservatives.

Votes summary

Seats summary

Incumbents defeated