Neil Kinnock's infamous speech at the Labour Party election rally on 1st April 1992 in Sheffield, England. Picture Credit: Richard Baker / In Pictures via Getty Images

How Labour lost the “unlosable election”

With living standards in decline, the Tories won in 1992 against the odds. Will this next election be the same? 

Artillery Row

As the 1992 general election began, the odds, the polls and the historical omens were firmly stacked in Labour’s favour. No government since the Great Reform Act had won four consecutive elections, and, since the advent of serious polling in the 1940s, no government had won an election after starting behind in the polls. And with the economy entering its seventh consecutive quarter of recession, it was considered electoral suicide to seek re-election with unemployment on the rise. 

Ron Pollard, the man who had been responsible for introducing political betting to Britain in the 1960s, declared Labour the favourites. He was so confident, that he took a £20,000 bet — then the biggest single election stake of all time — from one punter who still believed the Tories could win a majority. “He must be mad” Pollard told The Times. 

John Major was a uniquely popular figure

After thirteen years in the wilderness, Labour also appeared ready to meet the challenge. From the minute the party lost heavily in 1987, everything had been centred around presenting Neil Kinnock as a serious, credible alternative Prime Minister in waiting. His advisors urged him to switch the grey suits for black ones, to lower his over-exuberant tone and to stage-manage his photo opportunities. His policy review had triggered a widely publicised change in the party’s attitude to the economy, Europe and defence. And as Margaret Thatcher’s government fell apart over the Poll Tax, he looked confident and ready to take over. “Listening to Mr Kinnock yesterday”, the influential Peter Riddell in The Times admitted, “it was no longer impossible to imagine him in Downing Street”.

Underpinning Labour’s revival was the steep decline in living standards that gripped Britain in the early 90s. Unlike the recession of 1980, this one hit homeowners in the South and London just as hard as it hit those in the North. The aspiration of homeownership — the idea on which Thatcherism had been largely built — came under threat from spiralling interest rates and record numbers of house repossessions. The term “negative equity” became the buzzword of the age, as voters became trapped in properties that they could no longer afford.  

With little disposable cash around, the wider economy took a massive hammering. The drinks industry announced that sales were down in pubs, clubs and hotel bars. People were said to be doing less DIY, while the CBI noted how people were continually shopping for bargain deals in supermarkets. And as unemployment edged towards the dreaded three million mark again, the police warned of a “disturbing increase” in street robbery as a result of social inequalities. Two of Labour’s most popular figures, John Smith and Gordon Brown, made a case for Britain being at the foot of every table: “The Tories claim criticism is talking Britain down”, they argued. “But it’s they who are letting Britain down”.

Amidst the gloom, however, there was one positive sign for the Tories. When strategists studied the polling data, they found that John Major was a uniquely popular figure. Not only did the public at large not blame him for the recession, he consistently outpolled Neil Kinnock on the question of who would be best suited to be Prime Minister. Major had hit the ground running in the Autumn of 1990 by projecting a very different style of leadership to Mrs Thatcher’s. He elevated Michael Heseltine and Chris Patten to the heart of government and spoke of his desire for a new “classless” society. 

A confident Neil Kinnock claimed that the poll mirrored his projections

More importantly, he understood that the new government needed to feel different in the public’s mind. He decided to put himself in “ordinary” situations to show that “it was possible to be Prime Minister and remain a human being.” He was photographed eating at Happy Eater cafes and at football and rugby league matches. During the Gulf War, he became “very enthusiastic about standing on tanks and talking to people”. The media, eager to find new narratives, bought into it too. By the time the 1992 election was called, a Sunday Times profile entitled The Importance of Being Ordinary sold Major to the voters as “an ordinary man in an extraordinary position”.

Labour began the campaign with an (average) 4pt lead, but the pollsters calculated that up to eleven million people had yet to make up their minds. With so little separating the main parties, the media followed every word and amplified every story as a potential game-changer. It made for a very nervy six week campaign.

 In the first few days, the Tories were judged to have set a budget trap for Labour by rewarding people on low incomes. John Smith’s response, the Shadow Budget, created days of negative headlines about which people would be worse off under Labour. Labour’s attempt to turn the NHS into the dominant election issue, through the party’s “shock and awe” tactics over Jennifer’s Ear (an emotive broadcast that told the story of two girls — one whose parents could afford private healthcare and another who faced delay on the NHS) backfired when it turned into a heated debate about the validity of the story.

However, at the same time, the Tories were deeply unhappy about the way their campaign was being run. Major, having been placed front and centre of everything, was having little impact on the polls. Mrs Thatcher’s supporters briefed that she thought it didn’t yet “have enough oomph, enough whizz, enough steam”. Cecil Parkinson, who had managed the Tories to victory in 1983, said that Major was not coming across well. And in a desperate bid to put the campaign back on track, Micheal Heseltine begged the media to “give us a chance to get on to the issues and stay on the issues”. In his diary, Paddy Ashdown observed that Labour, organisationally at least, were “running away with it”.

The campaign initially appeared to have little impact on the crucial floating voters. But then, with just over a week to go, there was a dramatic shift. “Labour breaks through in polls” ran a Daily Telegraph front page, which found three separate surveys giving Labour a clear seven-point lead. A confident Neil Kinnock claimed that the poll mirrored his projections: “We are heading for government”, he said. The psephologist Ivor Crewe warned that a historic swing was in the making: “The Conservatives would lose 116 seats in the worst rout suffered by any party since they were buried in the 1945 Labour landslide”.  

Labour’s task is arguably even bigger than the one Kinnock faced in 1992

The day the polls broke for Labour was the same day that Neil Kinnock was in Yorkshire for the Sheffield Rally. The night would later be immortalised as the moment that his political career came to a shuddering halt. But that was not clear at the time. The next day, The Times reported on Kinnock’s “impassioned speech” favourably: “What’s at issue in this election is not the soapboxes people stand on. It’s the cardboard boxes people live in”. The Daily Mail meanwhile admitted that Labour’s confidence was no longer misplaced. “A week ago, this slickly-orchestrated parade of pop stars, personalities, patriotism and politics would have seemed so much vainglorious hype”, argued the theatre critic Jack Tinker. “But what a difference a day makes.”

The problem for Labour was that there was still a week to go. And fearing that a Labour Government was imminent, Fleet Street cranked up the pressure. The Sun rolled out Nightmare on Kinnock Street again and warned that page 3 would not survive a Kinnock premiership. In the broadsheets, the Daily Telegraph called for “much more” negative campaigning “to warn of the consequences of a Labour win”.

In the city, “fears of a Labour Government wiped £8.5 billion off share values.” And with Labour ahead, questions turned to the mechanics of a Hung Parliament — whether Kinnock could keep the union together and do a deal with the Liberal Democrats on proportional representation. “The United Kingdom is in danger,” Major told one rally. “Wake up, my fellow countrymen. Wake up now before it is too late”. In a throwback to the imagery of the 1970s, Major warned of dodgy Labour deals being conducted in “smoke-filled rooms”. The uncertainty, he argued, would only prolong the recession and lead to more house repossessions.  

As the polls closed, nobody had any idea whether the last minute attacks had worked. When the BBC exit poll came out, David Dimbleby announced that it was a stalemate: “Our view is that it is going to be a Hung Parliament” with the likeliest outcome that the Tories were short by 25 seats of an overall majority. Labour’s Jack Cunningham quickly said it was a “humiliating defeat” for Major, “the biggest by any governing party for 45 years”. Bryan Gould argued that the Tories had “lost the confidence of the British people” while John Smith said Major would not be able to put a Queen’s Speech through Parliament. 

Labour’s misplaced confidence and swagger made the later defeat all the more hard to take. As the results slowly came in, reality dawned, in seats such as Basildon, that the wavering voters had stuck with the Tories. In the end, John Major pulled off one of the biggest election shocks of all time. Winning more votes than any political party in history – over 14 million – he could, in the end, feel hard done to that his majority was just 21. Despite the recession, Major had managed to get more people to put a cross against the Tories than Mrs Thatcher had done in 1979, 1983 and 1987. 

The shock of the defeat hit Labour hard. In the frenzied aftermath, everything, from “Shy Tories” to “Jennifer’s Ear” to the “Sheffield Rally”, were identified as reasons for the defeat and became political folklore. The Sun claimed, famously, that it was them “wot won it”. 

On election night, however, the most pressing question was posed by the BBCs Peter Sissons: “If Labour can’t win in a recession, then when can they?”  In retrospect, the most significant problem for Labour in 1992 was that people actually started to believe that they were going to win. For over a decade, power had never looked like a serious possibility but during the campaign, polls showed a sharp rise in the number of people who believed Labour would win. Labour’s problem was that the more their confidence grew, the more uncertain the voters became. 

It was the uncertainty of those final days that haunted an entire generation of Labour politicians and shaped much of New Labour’s attitude to general elections. Blair and Brown decided that, never again, would they go into an election without having “bomb proofed” every Conservative attack line. Thirty years on, as 1992 begins to assume even greater significance, eyes are inevitably drawn to whether the next election will produce the same result. By 2024, Labour will be able to put forward a compelling case for a change of government. The state of the realm — from decaying public services to the cost of living crisis — will open the electorate up to change as it did in 1992. Labour may well enter the next election as favourites to win. 

The scale of Labour’s task, however, is arguably even bigger than the one Kinnock faced in 1992. Without a major revival in Scotland, experts calculate that the party will need a swing of up to 13 per cent in England to govern with a majority. It means that if Labour edge towards Hung Parliament territory, the “question of trust” on Starmer’s deals with the SNP and the Lib Dems will become the dominant political narrative. In 1992, the Conservatives were adamant that in a tight contest, the uncertainty over Labour would sharpen voters’ minds in the privacy of the ballot booth. Until the polls close on the night of the next election, we may not know whether Starmer has done enough to convince voters otherwise.

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