United Kingdom general election, 1959

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United Kingdom general election, 1959

← 1955 8 October 1959 1964 →

All 630 seats in the House of Commons
316 seats needed for a majority
Opinion polls
Turnout 78.7%, Increase1.9%

  First party Second party Third party
  The National Archives UK - CO 1069-1-17 crop.jpg GaitskellMP.jpg Jo Grimond.jpg
Leader Harold Macmillan Hugh Gaitskell Jo Grimond
Party Conservative Labour Liberal
Leader since 10 January 1957 14 December 1955 5 November 1956
Leader's seat Bromley Leeds South Orkney & Shetland
Last election 345 seats, 49.7% 277 seats, 46.4% 6 seats, 2.7%
Seats won 365 258 6
Seat change Increase20 Decrease19 Steady
Popular vote 13,750,875 12,216,172 1,640,760
Percentage 49.4% 43.8% 5.9%
Swing Decrease0.3% Decrease2.6% Increase3.2%

UK General Election, 1959.svg
Colours denote the winning party—as shown in § Results

Prime Minister before election

Harold Macmillan

Appointed Prime Minister

Harold Macmillan

The 1959 United Kingdom general election was held on Thursday, 8 October 1959. It marked a third consecutive victory for the ruling Conservative Party, now led by Harold Macmillan. For the second time in a row, the Conservatives increased their overall majority in Parliament, to 101 seats over the Labour Party led by Hugh Gaitskell. The Liberal Party led by Jo Grimond again returned only six MPs to the House of Commons, but managed to increase their overall share of the vote to 5.9%; compared to just 2.7% four years earlier. To date, the 1959 general election marks the only occasion since the Second World War when a government has managed to increase it's overall majority whilst seeking a third term in government. However, despite this electoral success; the Conservatives failed to win the most seats in Scotland, and have not done so since. This election 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 general election. Both future Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe and future Conservative Party leader and eventual Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher first entered the House of Commons 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 Chancellor of the Exchequer Harold Macmillan. At that point, the Labour Party, whose leader Hugh Gaitskell had succeeded Clement Attlee after the 1955 general election, enjoyed large leads in opinion polls over the Conservative Party, and it looked as if Labour could win.[1]

The Liberal Party also had a new leader, Jo Grimond, so all three parties contested the election with a new leader at the helm.[1]

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.[1]


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 boosted 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 Conservatives 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 Conservatives of complacency over the growing gap between rich and poor.[2] 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.[1]


Early on election night it became clear that the Conservative Party had been returned to government with an increased majority. However, there were swings to Labour in parts of north-west England, and in Scotland; where Labour had overtaken the Conservatives as the largest single party in terms of seats. The Labour domination of Scottish seats would last for another 56 years, until the rise of the Scottish National Party (SNP) in the wake of the 2014 Scottish independence referendum; which left Labour with just a single seat in Parliament after the 2015 general election. For the fourth general election in a row, the Conservatives increased their number of seats, despite experiencing a slight decrease in their share of the vote. For Labour, the result was disappointing; despite appearing more united than they had in recent years under Gaitskell's leadership, the party suffered a third consecutive defeat. Future Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was elected to the House of Commons for the first time as the MP for Finchley. Future Liberal Party leader Jeremy Thorpe was also elected to Parliament for the first time, as the MP North Devon.

The Daily Mirror, despite being a staunch supporter of the Labour Party, wished Macmillan "good luck" on it's front page following his election victory.

The BBC's election coverage, presented by Richard Dimbleby, was shown on BBC Parliament on 9 October 2009 to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the election.

365 258 6 1
Conservative Labour Lib O
UK General Election 1959
Candidates Votes
Party Leader Stood 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
  Liberal Jo Grimond 216 6 1 1 0 1.0 5.9 1,640,760
  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
  Communist John Gollan 18 0 0 0 0 0.1 30,896
  SNP Jimmy Halliday 5 0 0 0 0 0.1 21,738
  Ind. Labour Group Frank Hanna 1 0 0 0 0 0.1 20,062
  Ind. Conservative N/A 2 1 1 0 +1 0.2 0.1 14,118
  Independent N/A 5 0 0 0 0 0.0 7,492
  Fife Socialist League Lawrence Daly 1 0 0 0 0 0.0 4,886
  Independent Liberal N/A 2 0 0 0 0 0.0 4,473
  Union Movement Oswald Mosley 1 0 0 0 0 0.0 2,821
  Lancastrian Tom Emmott 1 0 0 0 0 0.0 1,889
  National Labour John Bean 1 0 0 0 0 0.0 1,685
  Fellowship Ronald Mallone 1 0 0 0 0 0.0 1,189
  Ind. Labour Party Fred Morel 2 0 0 0 0 0.0 923
  Socialist (GB) N/A 1 0 0 0 0 0.0 899
  Alert Party George Forrester 1 0 0 0 0 0.0 788
All parties shown.[a]
Government's new majority 100
Total votes cast 27,862,652
Turnout 78.7%

Votes summary[edit]

Popular Vote
Conservative and Unionist

Seat summary[edit]

Parliamentary seats
Conservative and Unionist
Independent Conservative

Transfers of seats[edit]

  • 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 †.
From To No. Seats
Labour Labour (HOLD) many
Liberal National 1 Bristol North East
Conservative 25 Acton, Barons Court, Birmingham All Saints, Birmingham Sparkbrook, Birmingham Yardley, Brierley Hill, Bristol North West, Clapham, Cleveland, Coventry South, Derbyshire SE, The Hartlepools, Holborn and St Pancras South, Keighley, Lowestoft, Meriden, Newcastle upon Tyne East, Nottingham West, Reading, Rochester and Chatham, Rugby, Swansea West, Uxbridge, Wellingborough, Willesden East
Sinn Féin UUP 2 Mid Ulster1, Fermanagh and South Tyrone2
Liberal Labour 1 Carmarthen
Liberal (HOLD) 5 Bolton West, Cardiganshire, Huddersfield West, Montgomery, Orkney and Shetland
Liberal National Liberal National (HOLD) 16 Angus North and Mearns, Angus South, Bedfordshire South, Bradford North, Bradford West, Dumfriesshire, Fife East, Harwich, Holland with Boston, Huntingdonshire, Luton, Norfolk Central, Plymouth Devonport, Renfrewshire West, Ross and Cromarty, St Ives
Conservative 3 Denbigh, Newcastle upon Tyne North†, Torrington3
Conservative Labour 6 Ayrshire Central, Glasgow Craigton, Glasgow Scotstoun, Lanark, Oldham East, Rochdale
Liberal 1 Devon North
Conservative (HOLD) many
Ind. Conservative 1 Caithness and Sutherland*
UUP UUP 10 North Antrim, South Antrim, Armagh, Belfast East, Belfast North, Belfast South, Belfast West, Down North, Down South, Londonderry
Speaker Conservative 1 Cirencester and Tewkesbury
1 Sinn Féin 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 Féin 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.

See also[edit]



  1. ^ a b c d "8 October 1959", BBC Politics 97, retrieved 20 May 2013
  2. ^ 1959: Macmillan wins Tory hat trick, BBC News, 5 April 2005, retrieved 20 May 2018


External links[edit]