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The general election of 1992: another victory for the blue muffins.

At ten in the evening of 9 April, most people in Britain settled down in front of television to watch the election returns. The results afforded one great satisfaction to almost every viewer: the pollster and the pundis were shown to be totally wrong in their predictions. There was as great a race between the two television empires as there had been between rival political candidates. Yet television rivalry is kinder than the political variety: both the BBC and ITN (Independent Television News) could claim victory. More people watched the BBC coverage, but ITN's was quicker with its exit poll.

The returns were slow to come in because a beautiful spring day had produced a turnout of almost 78 per cent. Both BBC and ITN exit polls predicted a |hung Parliament'. Their computers confirmed the opinion polls of the last week. But the two television companies' exit polls also indicated one surprising forecast: the Conservations would have the most MPs even though they would still lack an overall majority.

The pundits began to speculate about possible coaltions: what would the Ulster Unionsists demand to support the Tories. Would the Liberal Democrats insist on their scheme of proportional representation as the price for supporting Labour? Suddenly in the midst of all this waffle, reality came down to earth: Mrs. Thatcher was landing at Heathrow, back from an American lecture tour. Reporters scurried to the Concorde lounge. |Mrs. Thatcher, Mrs. Thatcher, what will happen in a hung Parliament situation (six)?' As so often, she told them exactly what they did not want to hear. Quoting Mark Twain, she warned: |Never prophesy about the future'.

Once again, as so often in her political life, she was right. Within an hour or two all the expensive television gimmickry began to show a steady increase in Tory victories. The first real sign came with the first few results. We have heard much in these last few years of |Essex Man'. This is a term of contempt among the intellectual elite of London. |Essex Man' symbolises all those former Labour voters who rallied to Mrs. Thatcher in the 1980s. They were the people who for the first time earned enough money to enjoy life. |Essex Man' and |Essex Woman' did horrible things: they preferred to improve their kitchens rather than spend their money on the latest turgid novel from Mr. Salman Rushdie. They even refused to agonise over his latest lecture to the British nation. Many a metropolitan dinner party resounded with eloquent denunciations of the |greed and materialism' of these vulgar upstarts.

One of the first returns on election night came from Essex itself: Basildon, a fortress of |Essex Man'. The pundits and pollsters had announced that the |C2s'--their current jargon for skilled workers or |Essex Men'--would return to their ancestral allegiance to Labour. Basildon, like many other newly prosperous town in the Southeast, has suffered greatly from the recession and from high unemployment in the last few years. In a desperate effort to save the Basildon seat, Tory Central Office had been forced -- with obvious displeasure -- to call upon Mrs. Thatcher to campaign there. The pollsters and the pundits assured us that even she could not save the seat. Yet the count showed the Tories had held the seat by a majority of 1,480.

By the time most people stumbled bleary-eyed to their beds in the small hours of Friday morning, the Tories had won an absolute majority. By midday on Friday, the final results were clear:
 MAJOR PARTIES
 Seats gains losses Popular vote
Conservatives 336 10 44 42.8 per cent
Labour 271 44 5 35.2 per cent
Liberal Democrats 20 4 6 18.3 per cent
 MINOR PARTIES
Scottish Nationalist 3 0 1
Welsh Nationalist 4 1 0
Unionists (N. Ireland) 13 0 0
SDLP (Irish Nationalists) 4 1 0
 Total votes for the three main parties were:
Conservatives 14,231,884
Labour 11,619,306
Liberal Democrats 6,083,661


With an overall majority of 21 seats, John Major had led his party to an astounding victory. For the first time since the days of Lord Liverpool in the early nineteenth century, one party had won four elections in a row. His achievement is all the more impressive when one considers the circumstances surrounding the election. Mrs. Thatcher had led the party to victory in 1979 over a vastly unpopular Labour government. The |winter of discontent' had showed the over-wheening power of the trade unions. A wave of strikes had led to hospital porters deciding whether an operation could truly be considered an emergency. Mrs. Thatcher's victory in 1983 benefited from her resolute leadership in the Falklands War and the next contest in 1987 came in the midst of a great economic boom. On three occasions she had enjoyed what Napoleon defined as an essential attribute of genius: luck. In November 1990 Mrs. Thatcher fell, much as Napoleon had in 1814, betrayed by those whom she had led to great victories. Tory MPs, like Napoleon's Marshalls, desired an end to conquests.

The pollsters and the pundits pointed out that never before in British history (British history for most of these people consists of a few decades) had a government come from behind in opinion polls to win an election. Furthermore the recession had ravaged the areas of their greatest strength: the middle classes, particularly the southeast of England. Virtually everyone agreed that Labour was infinitely betteer in its presentation. The Liberal Democrats, under the energetic, not to say frenetic, campaign of Paddy Ashdown, seemed to be gathering wide support from disillusioned Tories.

However, John Major had one great ally: Neil Kinnock. Mr. Kinnock deserves to go down as one of the best opposition leaders in British history. Taking over the Labour Party after its catastrophic defeat in 1983, he had resolutely rebuilt it into a well organised force. He had begun his own political career as a far-left radical. His earliest recorded opinion came at age ten when he announced that the Queen's Coronation had made him |sick'. In his early years in the Commons he protected his digestion by refusing to attend the Speech from the Throne and by returning any royal invitation with the comment |Previously engaged'. The |boy orator' nearly burst with alliteration and enthusiasm for unilateralism and wholesale nationalisation. After 1983, he began the skilful process of tossing overboard all his radical cargo. By 1987, |designer socialism' had replaced crusading rhetoric. By 1992, the only |red' thing about Labour was the fresh red rose that decorated every Labour politician's well tailored suit. The 1992 Labour Manifesto was an impressive production in which the word |Socialism' made but one brief appearance.

In spite of Mr. Kinnock's achievements in refashioning the opposition, there was considerable distrust of him among large parts of the electorate. People wondered how a man could abandon all his early principles and now fervently preach the exact opposite. He also suffered from constant attacks by the tabloid press, which took every opportunity to hold him up to ridicule and laugh at his ability to use six words were one would have done. He disproves the Reader's Digest slogan that it |pays to increase your word power'. For many people he became the incarnation of the |Welsh Windbag'.

In the last week of the campaign, the hitherto superb Labour organisation made a great mistake, one that may well be seen as the deciding factor of the election. A |glitzy' rally was staged in Sheffield where Mr. Kinnock and his front bench colleagues received the adulation of supporters to the accompaniment of laser beams, cascades of sparkling bits of foil, pop music and pop opera. An exotic medley of |celebrities' -- sports stars and authors of slim incomprehensible novels -- abandoned the comforts of London to go among ordinary folk and offer homage to the rising sun. For the assembled faithful it was no doubt glorious. Yet, far more people watching clips and |sound bites' on television found that the |Sheffield Coronation' -- as it became known -- made them as |sick' as the boy Kinnock had been made by the real one in 1953.

On the eve of the |Sheffield Coronation' John Major changed his campaign. When polls reported a leap in Labour support pointing to an outright Labour majority, Tory leaders panicked on |Red Wednesday'. Prices on the Stock Market fell dramatically. Few noticed that |Red Wednesday' coincided with April Fools Day! The Prime Minister reached for an antique to retain his office. When the blue |battle bus' pulled into any town, out came a wooden soap box which the Prime Minister mounted and began to speak. No one could ever claim that he could match Mr. Kinnock's perfervid oratory. But somehow the image of |Honest John Major' abandoning all the modern techniques of |spin doctors' for such a simple device caught the approval of many undecided voters.

In the last few days Mr. Major began to speak much more forcefully, sounding almost Thatcherite in his uncompromising rejection of Scottish devolution or in his scorn for the bureaucrats of Brussels. Although the pollsters still prognosticated that it was virtually impossible for him to win a majority, the last polls pointed to some small surge in support. The pollsters should have abandoned their computers to seek the advice of Mr. Sam Ward, a Manchester baker. For three weeks he had been baking muffins in the colours of the three main parties. By the third week of the campaign muffin buyers were showing a decided preference for blue muffins. The muffin sales proved an exact forecast of the election.

In the end Labour was defeated by two issues: taxation and worries about Mr. Kinnock's competence. Labour's |shadow budget' promised higher taxes for middle-income families. Many of those whose income was low enough to escape the new taxes accepted the Conservative argument that they would stifle economic recovery. The |champagne socialists' who graced Labour's 500 [pounds] a plate dinner saw this as yet another example of |greed and materialism'. An anecdote that emerged after the election symbolises this. A group of rich Labour celebrities gathered for a victory party. Among those present were Melvin Bragg, a television producer and novelist, Harold Pinter, a playwright, and his wife Lady Antonia Fraser, a biographer. The star guest was no less than Salman Rushdie. They became increasingly glum as the prospect of Labour victory vanished. Amidst the gloom they heard a strange noise from a room upstairs. Every Tory victory was being greeted with stamping and cheering by the policemen assigned to guard Rushdie. No doubt the policemen are good examples of |Essex Man'.

Labour now faces an uncertain future. They have to find a leader to replace Mr. Kinnock. In the last six elections they have never managed to achieve 40 per cent of the popular vote. They must decide whether to attempt a deal with the Liberal Democrats. Yet to achieve that, they must accept proportional representation, an issue which divides the party.

Only one thing is certain in politics and that is its perpetual uncertainty. Who would have dreamed as Tories celebrated the 1987 election that within three years many of the victors would be reaching for their stilettos to stab the victor? Perhaps there is another certainty: in the next election all the parties would be wise to pay less attention to the polls and more attention to Sam Ward's muffins.
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Title Annotation:British pary elections
Author:Mullen, Richard
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:May 1, 1992
Words:1902
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