Vote totals for Conservative and Labor candidates in the 1979 British elections were reversed in a chart yesterday. (Published 6/14/ 87)
LONDON, JUNE 12 -- An exultant Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said today that she would immediately forge ahead with ambitious new legislation to revise Britain's educational and property tax systems following her Conservative Party's massive win of a 102-seat Parliamentary majority in yesterday's general election.
She said her new five-year term would bring "no change" in the direction of Thatcherism, the name by which her free-enterprise, socially conservative policies have become known. Thatcher indicated, however, that she expects to announce a minor Cabinet shuffle, perhaps as early as this weekend.
Thatcher's victory makes her the first prime minister to win a third consecutive term in modern British history and consolidates her existing position as senior leader of the western alliance. Within months, she is due to surpass Winston Churchill and H.H. Asquith as Britain's longest serving prime minister this century.
The main opposition Labor Party and third-place Alliance of the Social Democratic and Liberal Parties vowed today to fight on against her. Labor leader Neil Kinnock, subdued but smiling as he thanked supporters at the party's south London headquarters, insisted that "the next campaign begins now."
But there was palpable shock and depression in both opposition camps over the unexpected scale of Thatcher's victory and calls for major organizational and policy changes.
"It was a major defeat for the Labor Party and annihilation for the Alliance. It's just as simple as that," said Peter Shore, Labor leader in the House of Commons.
There was widespread consensus here that the election had further polarized Britain, leaving the unemployed and low-income populations of the desolate northern inner cities more removed than ever from the national mainstream. Criticized throughout the campaign for appearing not to care about these large, disenfranchised minorities, Thatcher said in a brief television interview today that she would initiate new programs for urban revitalization in the north.
The final results flew in the face of party predictions, including those of Thatcher's Conservative Party, and public opinion surveys taken over the past several weeks. The figures starkly illustrated the distributional peculiarities of Britain's "first past the post," winner-take-all electoral system, which is not proportional, and the devastating effect on Labor and the Alliance of dividing the opposition vote in each district.
As had been widely anticipated, the Conservatives ended up with 13.76 million votes, about 43 percent of the total cast and slightly more than their 42.4 percent in 1983. Most predictions had speculated that this percentage would give the Tories a 40-to-60-seat majority, based on the assumption that Labor or the Alliance would win in many districts where the opposition had only narrowly lost to a Tory candidate in 1983.
Instead, the combined opposition took only 29 of its 100-plus "target" seats away from the Conservatives. The Tories picked up 11 new seats, for a net loss of 18 that gave them a total of 376 in the next Parliament.
Although Labor enlarged its share of the vote to 32 percent from 27.6 percent in 1983 and gained 21 seats for a total of 229, much of this increase came from the Alliance and from those districts where Labor already had safe leads, rather than from the Conservatives.
The Alliance won 23 percent of the vote, down from 25.3 percent in 1983. Due to the wide and shallow distribution of its support, the Alliance ended up with only 22 seats, a loss of five.
The small Scottish and Welsh nationalist parties added two seats to their Parliamentary representation, for a combined total of six members. The rest of the Parliamentary total comprises the 17 Northern Ireland seats held by local independent parties.
The immense importance of vote distribution and opposition split can be seen in the fact that the three consecutive Conservative governments, all won with a portion of the vote hovering around 43 percent, have had wildly differing parliamentary majorities: 44 in 1979, 144 in 1983 and the new 102. It is the presence of the Alliance and the extent to which it has split the opposition vote with Labor since its formation in 1981 that have made the difference.
This election also served to highlight the north-south, rich-poor divisions of British voting patterns. There was a 6 percent vote swing from Tory to Labor in Scotland, leaving the Conservatives with only eight of that country's 72 seats in the Westminster Parliament. Past the Scottish border into England, all of the industrial cities of the north were left in Labor control, as was most of Wales. In the prosperous southeast, Labor was left with only one seat in a sea of Tory blue.
The Conservatives managed to take three of Labor's London districts away, reflecting both the rising prosperity of the capital and the success of the Tory campaign to highlight "extremists" within the London Labor Party.
While Thatcher basked in her victory, little change was forecast in the rhythm of the government that has ruled Britain for the past eight years. Among her first priorities, she said today, would be legislation, promised during the campaign, to allow state schools to "opt out" of budgetary and admissions control by local school boards. Individual schools would be allowed to apply their own admission standards and to receive support grants directly from the central government.
Thatcher also wants to replace Britain's current system of property taxes with what she has said is a more equitable poll or "citizen's" tax paid by every adult. Those below a minimum income level, while still liable for the tax, would be given rebates.
Most attention today was focused on the electoral losers. Senior figures in both opposition camps already have begun informal discussions about why they lost so badly and what changes they might make in the future.
For Labor, this was intended to be the first major breakthrough in its fight back to government after the disaster of 1983. Some moderate Labor members of Parliament, such as Shore, speculated openly about whether Labor, with its socialist-oriented economic policies and powerful far-left minority, would ever be able to win over prosperous, conservative southern England. "Until we can," Shore said, "we shall not succeed" in returning to government.
Others, including former Labor defense secretary John Gilbert, publicly criticized Labor's defense policy of unilateral nuclear disarmament as out of tune with majority sensibilities here and as the major obstacle to any future Labor gains. Although Kinnock said today that any revision of the policy was "highly unlikely," others pointed out that as a political realist, Kinnock eventually will have to change his mind.
Among senior Alliance figures, there was widespread speculation that the coalition's poor performance was due to continued rejection by the British electorate of a three-party system and confusion over the Alliance's two-headed leadership. Strong pressure to merge its two components into a single party, particularly from the Liberals, is expected.
As long as one of the two main parties is in power, both will continue to reject Alliance's demand for a new system of proportional representation that would allow Parliament to reflect each party's true percentage of the vote.
But with the reality of another five-year Thatcher term, the argument over a new electoral system seems far away. Faced with her overwhelming Parliamentary majority, Labor and the Alliance were left today with the realization that the Conservatives are likely to continue to win as long as the opposition parties are combating each other.
Asked today whether she thought she could remain in office until the year 2000, when she will be 75, Thatcher allowed herself a rare flash of humor. "You never know," she said. "I might be here. I might be twanging a harp. Let's just see how things go."