1997 United Kingdom general election

United Kingdom general election, 1997

← 19921 May 19972001 →

All 659 seats to the House of Commons
330 seats needed for a majority
Opinion polls
Turnout71.3% (Decrease6.4%)
 First partySecond partyThird party
 Tony Blair WEF (cropped).jpgJohn Major 1996.jpgASHDOWN Paddy.jpg
LeaderTony BlairJohn MajorPaddy Ashdown
PartyLabourConservativeLiberal Democrat
Leader since21 July 19944 July 1995[n 1]16 July 1988
Leader's seatSedgefieldHuntingdonYeovil
Last election271 seats, 34.4%336 seats, 41.9%20 seats, 17.8%
Seats before27334318
Seats won 41816546
Seat changeIncrease145*Decrease178*Increase28*
Popular vote13,518,1679,600,9435,242,947

UK General Election, 1997.svg
Colours denote the winning party, as shown in the main table of results.

* Indicates boundary change – so this is a nominal figure

Notional 1992 results on new boundaries.

^ Figure does not include the speaker

Prime Minister before election

John Major

Appointed Prime Minister

Tony Blair

Ring charts of the election results showing popular vote against seats won, coloured in party colours
Seats won in the election (outer ring) against number of votes (inner ring).

The 1997 United Kingdom general election was held on Thursday, 1 May 1997, five years after the previous general election on 9 April 1992, to elect 659 members to the British House of Commons. Under the leadership of Tony Blair, the Labour Party ended its eighteen-year spell in opposition and won the general election with a landslide victory, winning 418 seats, the most seats the party has ever held to date, and the highest proportion of seats held by any party in the post-war era. For the first time since 1931, the outgoing government lost more than half its parliamentary seats in an election.

The election saw a 10.0% swing from Conservative to Labour on a national turnout of 71%, and would be the last national vote where turnout exceeded 70% until the 2016 EU referendum nineteen years later. Blair, as a result, became Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, a position he held until his resignation on 27 June 2007.

Under Blair's leadership, the Labour Party had adopted a more centrist policy platform under the name 'New Labour'. This was seen as moving away from the traditionally more left-wing stance of the Labour Party. Labour made several campaign pledges such as the creation of a National Minimum Wage, devolution referendums for Scotland and Wales and promised greater economic competence than the Conservatives, who were unpopular following the events of Black Wednesday in 1992; from then until 1997, the party consistently trailed behind Labour in the opinion polls.

The Labour Party campaign was ultimately a success and the party returned an unprecedented 418 MPs and began the first of three consecutive terms for Labour in government. However, 1997 was the last general election in which Labour had a net gain of seats until the snap 2017 general election 20 years later. A record number of women were elected to parliament, 120, of whom 101 were Labour MPs. This was in part thanks to Labour's policy of using all-women shortlists.

The Conservative Party was led by incumbent Prime Minister John Major and ran their campaign emphasising falling unemployment and a strong economic recovery following the early 1990s recession. However, a series of scandals,[2] party division over the European Union, the events of Black Wednesday and a desire of the electorate for change after 18 years of Conservative rule all contributed to the Conservatives' worst defeat since 1906, with only 165 MPs elected to Westminster, as well as their lowest share of the vote since 1832.

The party was left with no seats whatsoever in Scotland or Wales, and many key Conservative politicians, including Defence Secretary Michael Portillo, Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind, Trade Secretary Ian Lang, Scottish Secretary Michael Forsyth and former ministers Edwina Currie, Norman Lamont, David Mellor and Neil Hamilton lost their parliamentary seats.

However, future Prime Minister Theresa May was elected to the safe Conservative seat of Maidenhead, and current Speaker John Bercow at Buckingham. Following the defeat, the Conservatives began their longest continuous spell in opposition in the history of the present day (post–Tamworth Manifesto) Conservative Party, and indeed the longest such spell for any incarnation of the Tories/Conservatives since the 1760s, lasting 13 years, including the whole of the 2000s. Throughout this period, their representation in the Commons remained consistently below 200 MPs.

The Liberal Democrats, under Paddy Ashdown, returned 46 MPs to parliament, the most for any third party since 1929 and more than double the number of seats they got in 1992, despite a drop in popular vote, in part due to tactical voting by anti-Conservative voters supporting them in lieu of Labour in areas where that party had little strength. The Scottish National Party (SNP) returned 6 MPs, double their total in 1992.

As with all general elections since the early 1950s, the results were broadcast live on the BBC; the presenters were David Dimbleby, Peter Snow and Jeremy Paxman.[3]


The British economy had been in recession at the time of the 1992 election, which the Conservatives had won, and although the recession had ended within a year, events such as Black Wednesday had tarnished the Conservative government's reputation for economic management. Labour had elected John Smith as its party leader in 1992, but his death from heart attack in 1994 led the way for Tony Blair to become Labour leader.

Blair brought the party closer to the political centre and abolished the party's Clause IV in their constitution, which had committed them to mass nationalisation of industry. Labour also reversed its policy on unilateral nuclear disarmament and the events of Black Wednesday allowed Labour to promise greater economic management under the Chancellorship of Gordon Brown. A manifesto, entitled New Labour, New Life For Britain was released in 1996 and outlined 5 key pledges:

  • Class sizes to be cut to 30 or under for 5, 6 and 7 year olds by using money from the assisted places scheme.
  • Fast track punishment for persistent young offenders, by halving the time from arrest to sentencing.
  • Cut NHS waiting lists by treating an extra 100,000 patients as a first step by releasing £100 million saved from NHS red tape.
  • Get 250,000 under 25 year olds off benefit and into work by using money from a windfall levy on the privatised utilities.
  • No rise in income tax rates, cut VAT on heating to 5%, and keeping inflation and interest rates as low as possible.

Disputes within the Conservative government over European Union issues, and a variety of "sleaze" allegations had severely affected the government's popularity. Despite the strong economic recovery and substantial fall in unemployment in the four years leading up to the election, the rise in Conservative support was only marginal with all of the major opinion polls having shown Labour in a comfortable lead since late 1992.[4]

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