30 years on…the lessons of the 1992 General Election!

John Major led the Conservatives to a fourth consecutive election victory, with over 14,000,000 votes – this remains the largest vote tally for any single party in an election.

2022 is slightly different to what happened 30 years ago. There is no general election to Westminster, keeping at least (on paper) another two years of Boris Johnson as Prime Minister. Yet, Northern Ireland goes to the polls on May 5th, France votes for its next President this month and Australia votes a week after Northern Ireland between Anthony Albanese and Scott Morrison on who will be Australia’s next PM.

1992 will be remembered as the year in which Bill Clinton overcame George H.W. Bush in the US. Presidential Election, a seismic shift since 1990 saw Bush drop from being the most popular President in American history after the Gulf War to an incumbent who only garnered 37.4% of the popular vote – the lowest of any incumbent President standing for re-election since William Howard Taft in 1912.

Issues such as the economy, Bush’s u-turn on taxes in 1990, healthcare and America’s role in the world after the demise of the USSR, President Bush was seen as out-of-touch with younger voters and someone who “fitted in with the times during his first term as a statesman, but not a second term back home as a politician.” Bill Clinton’s impressive campaigning techniques, such as appearances on the Arseno Hall show proved key in winning those important swing states. The arrival of a formidable challenge by Ross Perot, an eccentric billionaire from Texas, proved fatal for Bush’s campaign as Perot racked up an impressive 18% as a third-party independent candidate – Perot got no electoral college votes.

Clinton, Bush and Perot attended three presidential debates.

Meanwhile, the UK had a different kind of election. The general election of 1992 was set up to be one of the most interesting votes of the late 20th century. It would be the first in 18 years since the Conservatives wasn’t led by Margaret Thatcher and the second in which Neil Kinnock made a pitch for PM as Labour leader with the recently-formed Liberal Democrats contesting seats under the leadership of Paddy Ashdown.

In November 1990, at the height of disenchantment over the poll tax, the demise of the Soviet Union, end of the Cold War and the beginnings of a recession, Margaret Thatcher voiced anti-ECC sentiments. This challenge against European integration led to Sir. Geoffrey Howe (the only other cabinet minister to have served since 1979) to resign as Deputy-Prime Minister. Within days of the announcement and his speech that “the bats have been broken before the game by the team captain,” Thatcher was challenged by Michael Heseltine.

While in Paris marking the end of the Cold War, Thatcher won 204 votes to Heseltine’s 152 and 16 abstained or spoilt. This being less than a 15% lead for Thatcher, led the party to force a second ballot for the leadership a week later. Within that week, cabinet ministers told her that she wouldn’t win and she resigned – John Major would defeat Michael Heseltine and Douglas Hurd in the second ballot. Major’s premiership began with the Gulf War in 1991 and an attempt by the Provisional IRA to assassinate him while he was chairing a meeting of the War Cabinet in 10 Downing Street.

Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister between 1979 and 1990.

The Opinion Polls had Labour leading the Conservatives by 4% at the end of 1990 and 6% ahead at the end of 1991. Neil Kinncok believed that with the help of Peter Mandelson, he would be able to run a professional campaign and win the hearts and minds of the electorate to win. As the campaign began, Labour focused on the recession from 1990 and the divisions among Conservatives over Europe. The final opinion poll before the election put Labour 3% ahead of the Conservatives.

Yet John Major and the Conservatives won 42.8% of the vote and 336 seats, securing a fourth consecutive majority government since 1979. What went wrong?

Many assessed the aftermath of the election and believed that the exit poll carried out by the TV networks had one fundamental flaw – they asked voters who would they vote for before entering the polling station, rather than who they did vote for after they left the polling station. Looking back on it, David Dimbleby wasn’t too pleased with this process. Many voters were placed in a “shy Tory” factor, which meant they told pollsters they were voting Labour or LibDem before voting for the Conservatives in the confidence between them and the ballot box. Reasons for this were the fact that many people were afraid of announcing their support for John Major’s party after Margaret Thatcher’s long battles with various groups of people, such as the Miners in the north of England.

Others believed that the fact that the opinion polls consistently predicted a Labour victory might have also provided onus to an “anti-Labour” effect. The most notable example of the Sun newspaper’s final title of the last person in Britain to not forget to “turn the lights out” in a Kinncok victory showed how media outlets engineered their own election coverage against Kinnock and Labour, boosting Major’s chances of victory. The most fatal of reasons why Labour didn’t hold up the momentum was their inability to persuade people on taxes – Ken Livingstone remarked that the Conservatives played on the emotions and memories from the previous Labour government to highlight Neil Kinnock’s misunderstanding of the economy and the country’s finances.

The most important campaign poster of 1992?

The other important factor in the Major victory of 1992 was the squeezing of the Liberal Democrats under Paddy Ashdown. Both the Conservatives and Labour both used the threat of “splitting the vote” to their advantage to encourage more voters to ditch the Liberal Democrats for either the blue or red candidate. 1992 recorded 607 MPs from 651 representing either the Conservatives or Labour, up from 605 in 1987 and the 583 elected in 1997. The use of First Past the Post in UK elections still to this day has made the strength in Liberal Democrats support fluctuate in popular vote as much as 23% in 2010, with only winning 8.8% of the seats.

In Northern Ireland, the 1992 election brought a change in west Belfast. The SDLP’s Dr. Joe Hendron won the Westminster seat at his third attempt against Sinn Fein leader, Gerry Adams. Many seen this as a defining moment in the shift of Sinn Fein policy towards the possibility of an IRA ceasefire and a fledgling peace process. With the help of the mainly unionist Ballygomartin and Shankill areas, the SDLP gained enough support to win 17,415 votes at the poll.

Joe Hendron was MP for Belfast West between 1992 and 1997.

One other notable election race in Northern Ireland was that of North Down, in which Dr. Laurence Kennedy of the Conservatives ran against Sir. James Kilfedder of the Ulster Popular Unionist Party. He took 32% of the vote to Kilfedder’s 43% as the DUP candidate won just 9.8% of the vote. This is the only time a Conservative candidate in Northern Ireland came second in a Westminster race in recent history as Kennedy’s party won 44,600 and 5.7% of the popular vote region wide.

The memory of 1992 seems long and distant, but as Northern Ireland goes to the polls on May 5th, the 1992 general election gives us a few clues and challenges as to how the results may end up come when the votes have been counted.

Published by The Gown Queen's University Belfast

The Gown has provided respected, quality and independent student journalism from Queen's University, Belfast since its 1955 foundation, by Dr. Richard Herman. Having had an illustrious line of journalists and writers for almost 70 years, that proud history is extremely important to us. The Gown is consistent in its quest to seek and develop the talents of aspiring student writers.

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