Labor Party Wins Majority in British National Elections

The Labor Party under Tony Blair regained power after eighteen years in opposition, defeating the Conservatives, led by Prime Minister John Major. The new government retained many of the Conservatives’ policies, so that the transition went smoothly and without controversy.

Summary of Event

Elections to the House of Commons, the lower legislative branch of the British parliament, are held every five years, or sooner. The Conservative Party, under Margaret Thatcher, and then John Major, had won four straight elections from 1979 onward. They had expected to lose the 1992 elections, but by dropping the right-wing Thatcher and appointing the moderate Major, the party had succeeded again. Elections;United Kingdom
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[kw]Labor Party Wins Majority in British National Elections (May 1, 1997)
[kw]British National Elections, Labor Party Wins Majority in (May 1, 1997)
[kw]National Elections, Labor Party Wins Majority in British (May 1, 1997)
[kw]Elections, Labor Party Wins Majority in British National (May 1, 1997)
Elections;United Kingdom
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[g]Europe;May 1, 1997: Labor Party Wins Majority in British National Elections[09670]
[g]United Kingdom;May 1, 1997: Labor Party Wins Majority in British National Elections[09670]
[g]England;May 1, 1997: Labor Party Wins Majority in British National Elections[09670]
[c]Government and politics;May 1, 1997: Labor Party Wins Majority in British National Elections[09670]
Blair, Tony
Major, John
Brown, Gordon
Smith, John
Mandelson, Peter
Campbell, Alastair

After their fourth straight loss, many in the Labor Party saw themselves as unelectable with the socialist policies that had been traditional to them. Under their leaders Neil Kinnock, and then John Smith, they began a program of modernization, especially to curb the influence of the trade unions on Labor Party policy and at its annual conference. At Smith’s untimely death, the young Tony Blair put himself forward for leadership on a platform of a far more radical modernization program than before, in order to win back the trust of the British electorate, with so-called New Labor policies. On winning the leadership contest against Gordon Brown, his main rival, Blair spent the next two years as leader of the opposition developing Labor’s program for community, direct democracy, and social responsibility. His main success was getting the party to renounce “Clause IV,” its policy of nationalization, or government ownership of certain industries, and instead to embrace a mixed economy.

In the 1997 elections, held on May 1, Labor campaigned on a platform of moderation, promising to keep many of the reforms the Conservative Party had made in economic policy, promising entry into the European Union, and promising trade union legislation. The country as a whole turned against the Conservatives, feeling that they had been in office too long and that there was too much corruption and too many divisions within their party, especially over Europe. Labor campaigning, orchestrated by Alastair Campbell, highlighted the youthfulness of Blair and concentrated on the marginal constituencies that Labor would have to win to form a government.

The result was a complete landslide victory for the Labor Party, which won with a majority of 179 over all other parties in a House of some 636 seats. At age forty-three, Tony Blair became the youngest British prime minister since 1812, having won the largest majority ever for a Labor government. However, rather than using the large majority to make sweeping changes, Blair and his advisers, including Campbell and Peter Mandelson, decided to hold to their centrist position, keep many of the Conservative policies that had restored the economy to a sound footing after years of inflationary turmoil, and remain cautious regarding the European Union, apart from signing the social chapter, a sort of bill of rights for workers.

Blair gained further popularity in September, with the death of Princess Diana. Diana, Princess of Wales He sensed the public mood of deep devotion to the princess, while the royal family remained aloof. His advice to the queen to take an active part in the mourning saved the monarchy from huge unpopularity and gave Blair the reputation for being in touch with the nation.

Gordon Brown was appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer, or finance minister, and remained in that position through the subsequent two elections, both won fairly easily by Labor. Brown gave the Bank of England its independence in deciding interest rates and refused to raise income tax, thus fulfilling Labor’s election pledge. The economy did well, and the government began to enjoy a reputation for efficiency and moderation. The Conservative Party, having lost the center ground of British politics to New Labor, suffered further divisions and proved a very poor opposition. In fact, most of Blair’s opposition came from “Old Labor” members of Parliament who disliked his abandoning of socialist policies. However, Blair’s insistence on education and the building up of the National Health Service proved popular, and fears that Britain’s failure to join the European single currency would isolate the country proved groundless.

Newly elected British prime minister Tony Blair, with his wife Cherie, at a victory rally in London on May 2, 1997. Blair’s Labor Party regained power after eighteen years of Conservative rule.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Although Blair failed to deliver on undoing the Conservatives’ botched privatization of the railroad system, in most other areas he made good on election promises. In one area, he gained great prestige in building on one of John Major’s achievements: the Northern Ireland peace process. This had faltered badly in Major’s final years, when the Irish Republican Army had resumed its bombing campaign. Blair managed to restart the process, which culminated in the Good Friday Agreement in April, 1998, with a commitment by the Republican movement to lay down the armed struggle. Although the issue of the decommissioning of weapons was to remain a thorny issue for many years, a de facto peace was obtained in the province.


The election of Tony Blair as prime minister and his continuing success in subsequent general elections meant a long period of stable government for the United Kingdom. The old economic seesaw between right- and left-wing governments that had hindered Britain’s economic progress in the second half of the twentieth century halted, as Labor continued with basically centrist economic policies first laid down by the Conservatives. Trade unions were prevented from resuming their old militancy, and an era of industrial peace ensued, with both inflation and wages rising very slowly.

In foreign relationships, also, Blair continued the close Anglo-American entente begun in the years when Ronald Reagan was the U.S. president and Margaret Thatcher was British prime minister. Blair’s politics were close to those of President Bill Clinton, Clinton, Bill and the two leaders met frequently, as both sought for a “third way” in politics between right and left. Clinton gave Blair support in Northern Ireland and Europe, and Blair supported Clinton in Kosovo and Iraq. On George W. Bush’s Bush, George W. election, Blair managed to maintain the same entente, especially after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. Blair endorsed Bush’s “war on terror” and supported him fully in the invasion of Iraq in 2003, committing British troops to the invasion, a move that caused deep divisions within the party. Blair’s stance on Europe brought a much better relationship with the European Union than under the Conservatives.

There were continuing criticisms of Blair’s style as premier, however. The charge of “spin” was substituted for the “sleaze” charges made of the Major government, and Mandelson and Campbell were deeply suspected and even disliked. Blair was suspected of being a lightweight, although he preferred Thatcher’s more presidential style to Major’s cabinet style of government. Charges that the democratically elected Commons was being sidelined were also persistent.

Against the charge of spin, however, there was plenty of evidence that Blair was a politician of convictions. He made no secret of his Christian faith and principles, and his support of the Iraq invasion was purely on the conviction that it was the right thing to do. Blair forestalled the negative attacks on him over the latter by announcing in 2005 that he would not stand again as prime minister in the next election. Elections;United Kingdom
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Further Reading

  • Rentoul, John. Tony Blair: Prime Minister. London: Warner Books, 2001. Concentrates on Blair’s performance as prime minister, giving a detailed, contemporary assessment of his early performance, but written before the controversial decision to invade Iraq.
  • Riddell, Peter. The Unfulfilled Prime Minister: Tony Blair’s Quest for a Legacy. London: Politico’s Publishing, 2005. Riddell is a shrewd political commentator who attempts to assess Blair’s successes and failures in achieving a permanent place in British politics.
  • Seldon, Anthony. Blair. London: Free Press, 2004. Full, semiofficial biography of Blair based on six hundred interviews. Deals fully with the 1997 and 2001 elections and Blair’s subsequent relationship with Clinton and Bush.
  • Sopel, Jon. Tony Blair: The Moderniser. London: Bantam Books, 1995. Written soon after Blair had become leader of the Labor Party on a platform of modernizing it, especially its unpopular policies of nationalization.

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