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The Election Explained: Back to the future? How history can guide us to the likely outcomes

June 12, 2024

As we gear up for the General Election, Edge Hill’s politics team - both staff and students – will be looking ahead to what is coming and highlighting key aspects of the contest. Today Dr Steven Daniels looks at lessons from the past.

Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it, although this warning cannot be fairly applied to the current General Election campaign.

Politicians are obsessively looking for signs and clues as to the outcome of the vote, and what it will mean for their chances of government.

With parties all promising a brighter future, comparing today to the past can provide direction and momentum, plus an old playbook to call upon. This can simultaneously panic and excite supporters and rivals.

What kind of campaign is 2024 going to be? If you’re a Conservative, you likely want to recall the 1992 General Election, when Tories defied the polls and won a fourth consecutive term in office.

If you’re Labour, you likely want to suggest 2024 will be a repeat of the 1997 General Election landslide, which saw the worst Tory defeat in nearly a century, and the start of 13 years of Labour government.

Where are the similarities, and where are the differences?

John Major on Spitting Image

Party Leaders

Having become Prime Minister in 1990, John Major was predicted to lose the 1992 General Election. Polling suggested the public was agreeable to him (even if viewing him as a bit grey as depicted above in the satirical TV puppet show Spitting Image), although tiring of the upheaval unleashed by 11 years of Thatcherism.

Major emphasised his humble beginnings and self-made nature, like the urban legend he was once turned down for a job as a bus driver due to lack of qualifications (he said in his own book that it was because he was too tall).

Rishi Sunak has repeatedly tried a similar approach, highlighting his grandparents’ pharmacy business, although glossing over how he married into a family of billionaires.

Major’s Labour opponent, Neil Kinnock, is sometimes thought to have lost the 1992 campaign due to overconfidence, such as the ill-fated US-style Sheffield rally (when he was shown shouting “well all right!”) that turned off voters. “If I had my time again I would have taken a different approach,” Kinnock has since said.

Keir Starmer has, so far, avoided large set-piece rallies. He has also avoided the media-friendly catchphrases preferred by Tony Blair, who cultivated a strong relationship with the media.

Starmer faces one key similarity to Blair: after four consecutive election losses, Labour is eager for power, and reluctant to scare off the centrist Tory voters.

Similarly, the (far-)left wings of the party seem content to remain quiet, following the 2019 drubbing of Jeremy Corbyn (although he continues to be a nuisance for Starmer, just as he was for Blair). This seems to be as true in 2019 as it was in 1997.

Corbyn this time is standing to be an independent MP in the London constituency of Islington North, which he has represented for 40 years.

Parliament and Parties

Parliamentary numbers in 2024 could not be more different to either 1992 or 1997.

The Tories won 1992 with a small-but-workable 21-seat majority; compared to their very healthy 80-seat majority in 2019. The 1992 result meant Labour had a much stronger starting position when achieving its 179-seat majority in 1997. Labour does not have that luxury today. After the 2019 result, Labour need to win 126 seats simply to achieve a majority of one.

It is not immediately apparent where seats 127+ will come from: the Red Wall (the UK Parliament constituencies in the Midlands and Northern England that historically supported the Labour Party) returning seems a safe bet, but other battlefronts are a lot more crowded than in either 1992 or 1997.

The Scottish National Party have risen from a fringe party to the third-largest in Westminster, and may deny Labour much-needed seats in Scotland (similarly Plaid Cymru in Wales). The Liberal Democrats will be hoping to make gains in the south west and home counties. Victory in some of these seats will require tactical voting from Labour supporters, and Starmer, like Blair, faces a dilemma in how much support to provide, in case it turns voters off.

Nigel Farage. Source: @Nigel_Farage

While this will take seats off Tories (as the Liberal Democrats did in 1992 and 1997), it is not a replacement for a Labour majority. The Tories also did not face a substantial threat for its core voter base from 1992-1997, save for occasional nuisances such as the Referendum Party.

Reform UK, with media-savvy Nigel Farage (above) back in charge, continues to squeeze and split the Tory vote in seats they could otherwise win, potentially allowing Labour victory through the middle.

Regardless of the outcome on 4 July, the comparisons will continue: Starmer may embark upon a Blair-like reign of dominance; and the Tories could become electorally repellent like they did between 1997-2010.

Similarly, the polls may be wrong (as they were in 1992), and the Tories may be granted a further term in office.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Read: The Election Explained: How to make your vote count

Read: The Election Explained: The First TV Debate – Reaction

Read: The Election Explained: The Phoney War Phase

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June 12, 2024


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