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 Conservatives operated with the slogan "Labour Isn't Working".

1979 United Kingdom general election

 Oct 1974 3 May 1979 1983 

All 635 seats in the House of Commons
318 seats needed for a majority
Opinion polls
Turnout76.0%, 3.2%
  First party Second party Third party
Leader Margaret Thatcher James Callaghan David Steel
Party Conservative Labour Liberal
Leader since 11 February 1975 5 April 1976 7 July 1976
Leader's seat Finchley Cardiff South East Roxburgh, Selkirk
and Peebles
Last election 277 seats, 35.8% 319 seats, 39.2% 13 seats, 18.3%
Seats won 339 269 11
Seat change 62 50 2
Popular vote 13,697,923 11,532,218 4,313,804
Percentage 43.9% 36.9% 13.8%
Swing 8.1% 2.3% 4.5%

Colours denote the winning party—as shown in § Results

Composition of the House of Commons after the election

Prime Minister before election

James Callaghan

Prime Minister after election

Margaret Thatcher

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, marking the beginning of 18 years in government for the Conservatives and 18 years in opposition for Labour. Unusually the date chosen coincided with the 1979 United Kingdom local elections. The local government results provided some source of comfort to the Labour Party (UK), who recovered some lost ground from local election reversals in previous years, despite losing the general election. The parish council elections were pushed back a few weeks.

The previous parliamentary term had begun in October 1974, when Harold Wilson led Labour to a majority of three seats, seven months after forming a minority government following a hung parliament and the failure of Edward Heath's Conservative government to form a coalition with the Liberals. Wilson had previously led the party in government from October 1964 to June 1970, and had served as party leader since February 1963.

However, after just two years back in Downing Street he had resigned as Prime Minister, and was 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. This pact lasted until July 1978.

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 (311 to 310), 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 that a general election would be held before the end of 1978, Callaghan had announced early in the autumn of that year that a general election would not take place that year, having received private polling data which suggested a parliamentary majority was unlikely.[1]

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 Conservatives also ran their campaign on the theme that "Labour Isn't Working" (unemployment reached a 40-year high of 1.5 million during 1978). 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.[2] 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 in 18 months later in which under similar circumstances, incumbent US President Jimmy Carter, like James Callaghan, was also defeated by Republican challenger Ronald Reagan.

Future Prime Minister John Major, who went on to succeed Thatcher in November 1990, entered Parliament at this election, retaining the Huntingdon seat in Cambridgeshire for the Conservatives. Jeremy Thorpe, Shirley Williams and Barbara Castle were all among the members of parliament who resigned or lost their seats.