United Kingdom general election, 1959
All 630 seats in the House of Commons
316 seats needed for a majority
Colours denote the winning party, as shown in the main table of results.
|1951 election • MPs|
|1955 election • MPs|
|1959 election • MPs|
|1964 election • MPs|
This United Kingdom general election was held on 8 October 1959. It marked a third consecutive victory for the ruling Conservative Party, now led by Harold Macmillan. The Conservatives increased their overall majority again, to 101 seats over the Labour Party led by Hugh Gaitskell and the Liberal Party led by Jo Grimond. It is to date the only occasion since the Second World War when a government has managed to increase its overall majority whilst seeking a third term in government. However, despite this success, the Conservatives failed to win the most seats in Scotland, and have not done so since; this marks the beginning of Labour's domination of Scottish seats at Westminster, which lasted until the rise of the Scottish National Party at the 2015 election. Both future Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe and future Conservative leader and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher first entered Parliament at this election.
After the Suez Crisis in 1956, Anthony Eden, the Conservative Prime Minister, became unpopular. He resigned early in 1957, and was succeeded by Harold Macmillan. At that point the Labour Party, whose leader Hugh Gaitskell had taken over from Clement Attlee after the 1955 general election, enjoyed large leads in opinion polls over the Conservative Party, and it looked as if they could win.
However, the Conservatives enjoyed an upturn in fortunes as the economy improved under Macmillan's leadership, and his personal approval ratings remained high. By September 1958, the Conservatives had moved ahead of Labour in the opinion polls.
All the three main parties had changed leadership since the previous election. The Conservatives fought under the slogan "Life is better with the Conservatives, don't let Labour ruin it" and were aided by a pre-election economic boom. Macmillan very effectively "summed up" the mood of the British public when he said that most of the people had "never had it so good". Macmillan was very popular, and was described as a politician of the centre ground; in the 1930s he had represented a constituency in northern England (Stockton-on-Tees), which had experienced large-scale unemployment and poverty. The first week of polling put the Tories ahead of Labour by over 5%, but this narrowed as the campaign continued. The Labour Party fought a generally effective campaign, with television broadcasts masterminded by Tony Benn under the umbrella of their manifesto entitled "Britain belongs to you", which accused the Tories of complacency over the growing gap between rich and poor. Hugh Gaitskell made a mistake in declaring that a Labour government would not raise taxes if it came to power – even though the Labour manifesto contained pledges to increase spending; especially to increase pensions. This led voters to doubt Labour's spending plans, and is usually cited as a key reason for their defeat.
Early on election night it became clear that the Conservative government had been returned with an increased majority. However there were swings to Labour in parts of north-west England, and in Scotland. For the fourth general election in a row, the Conservatives increased their number of seats, despite this time a slight fall in their share of the vote. For Labour the result was disappointing; despite appearing more united than they had in recent years under Gaitskell, the party failed for the third time to win an election. Future Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was elected for the first time in Finchley. Future Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe was elected for the first time in North Devon.
The Daily Mirror, despite being a staunch supporter of the Labour Party, wished Macmillan "good luck" on its front page after his win.
|Party||Leader||Standing||Elected||Gained||Unseated||Net||% of total||%||No.||Net %|
|Conservative||Harold Macmillan||625||365||28||8||+ 20||57.9||49.4||13,750,875|
|Labour||Hugh Gaitskell||621||258||9||28||− 19||41.0||43.8||12,216,172|
|Plaid Cymru||Gwynfor Evans||20||0||0||0||0||0.3||77,571|
|Sinn Féin||Paddy McLogan||12||0||0||2||− 2||0.2||63,415|
|Ind. Labour Group||Frank Hanna||1||0||0||0||0||0.1||20,062|
|Independent Conservative||N/A||2||1||1||0||+ 1||0.2||0.1||14,118|
|Fife Socialist League||Lawrence Daly||1||0||0||0||0||0.0||4,886|
|Union Movement||Oswald Mosley||1||0||0||0||0||0.0||2,821|
|National Labour||John Bean||1||0||0||0||0||0.0||1,685|
|Ind. Labour Party||Fred Morel||2||0||0||0||0||0.0||923|
|Alert Party||George Forrester||1||0||0||0||0||0.0||788|
|Government's new majority||100|
|Total votes cast||27,862,652|
Headline Swing: 1.2% to Conservative
Transfers of seats
- All comparisons are with the 1955 election.
- In some cases the change is due to the MP defecting to the gaining party. Such circumstances are marked with a *.
- In other circumstances the change is due to the seat having been won by the gaining party in a by-election in the intervening years, and then retained in 1959. Such circumstances are marked with a †.
1 Sinn Fein winner in 1955 overturned on petition. The second-placed Ulster Unionist candidate was also overturned, by resolution of the House; eventually the 1956 by-election was held, which returned an Independent Unionist. This candidate later defected to the Ulster Unionists.
2 Sinn Fein winner in 1955 overturned on petition for criminal conviction. The second-placed candidate, an Ulster Unionist, was awarded the seat. He retained it in 1959.
3 seat had been won by the Liberals in a 1958 by-election.
- Butler, David E.; Rose, R. (1960). The British General Election of 1959. London: Macmillan. The standard scholarly study.
- Craig, F. W. S. (1989). British Electoral Facts: 1832–1987. Parliamentary Research Services, Dartmouth. ISBN 0-900178-30-2.
- "United Kingdom election results – summary results 1885–1979".
- Thorpe, Andrew (2001). A History of the British Labour Party. Palgrave. ISBN 0-333-92908-X.
- The Next Five Years- 1959 Conservative manifesto.
- Britain Belongs to You: The Labour Party's Policy for Consideration by the British People - 1959 Labour Party manifesto.
- People Count - 1959 Liberal Party manifesto.