1983 United Kingdom general election
All 650 seats in the House of Commons
326 seats needed for a majority
Colours denote the winning party—as shown in § Results
Composition of the House of Commons after the election
The 1983 United Kingdom general election was held on Thursday 9 June 1983. It gave the Conservative Party under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher the most decisive election victory since that of the Labour Party in 1945, with a landslide majority of 144 seats.
Thatcher's first term as Prime Minister had not been an easy time. Unemployment increased during the first three years of her premiership and the economy went through a recession. However, the British victory in the Falklands War led to a recovery of her personal popularity, and economic growth had begun to resume.
By the time Thatcher called the election in May 1983, opinion polls pointed to a Conservative victory, with most national newspapers backing the re-election of the Conservative government. The resulting win earned the Conservatives their biggest parliamentary majority of the post-war era, and their second-biggest majority as a single-party government, behind only the 1924 election (they earned even more seats in the 1931 election, but were part of the National Government).
The Labour Party had been led by Michael Foot since the resignation of former Prime Minister James Callaghan in 1980, and its new policies were considered more left-wing than usual. Several moderate Labour MPs had defected from the party to form the Social Democratic Party (SDP), which then formed the SDP–Liberal Alliance with the existing Liberal Party.
The opposition vote split almost evenly between the Alliance and Labour. With its worst electoral performance since 1918, the Labour vote fell by over 3 million votes from 1979, accounting for both a national swing of almost 4% towards the Conservatives and their larger parliamentary majority of 144 seats, even though the Conservatives' total vote fell by almost 700,000. This was the last general election until 2015 in which a governing party increased its number of seats.
The Alliance finished in third place but came within 700,000 votes of out-polling Labour; by gaining 25.4% of the vote it won the largest percentage for any third party since 1923. Despite this, it won only 23 seats, whereas Labour won 209. The Liberals argued that a proportional electoral system would have given them a more representative number of MPs. Changing the electoral system had been a long-running campaign plank of the Liberal Party and would later be adopted by its successor, the Liberal Democrats.
The election night was broadcast live on the BBC and was presented by David Dimbleby, Sir Robin Day and Peter Snow. It was also broadcast on ITV and presented by Alastair Burnet, Peter Sissons and Martyn Lewis.
As the likes of Blair, Brown and Corbyn entered parliament, a string of prominent members of parliament stepped aside or lost their seats. Former Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson stood down from parliament after 38 years, while the SDP's Shirley Williams and Bill Rodgers lost their seats only a short time after winning them. Joan Lestor, Tony Benn as well as Speaker of the House of Commons and former Labour cabinet minister George Thomas also departed from parliament at this election, although Benn would return after winning a by-election in Chesterfield the following year, and Lestor returned to parliament after winning a seat at the following general election in 1987. In addition, two future Leaders of the Liberal Democrats were first elected—Paddy Ashdown and Charles Kennedy. Michael Howard, who later served the Conservatives as Home Secretary in government and as party leader in opposition, was also elected to parliament in 1983.
Background and campaign
Michael Foot was elected leader of the Labour Party at the end of 1980, replacing James Callaghan. The election of Foot signalled that the core of the party was swinging to the left and the move exacerbated divisions within the party. During 1981, a group of senior figures including Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Bill Rodgers and Shirley Williams left Labour to found the Social Democratic Party (SDP). The SDP agreed to a pact with the Liberals for the 1983 election and stood as "The Alliance". For a while the Alliance topped the opinion polls and looked capable of achieving their goal of forming a coalition government at the next general election, but the success of the Falklands campaign in 1982 saw the political tide turn in favour of the Conservative government.
The election did not have to be held until 1984. Although political circumstances were clearly favourable for the government and opposition parties anticipated that Mrs Thatcher would go to the country in June, earlier in 1983 the Conservatives were split on the timing of the election. One faction favoured a June election, but another group wanted to wait until October before going to the country, while some within the Party even advocated delaying the contest until 1984. Supporters of waiting to a later time to hold an election included Thatcher's deputy and Home Secretary Willie Whitelaw and John Biffen who was then serving as Leader of the House of Commons. On 27 April it was reported that all the Conservative party's regional agents had unanimously expressed a preference to Thatcher for a June election, although some members of her cabinet were advising her to wait until October. On 8 May senior Conservatives met at Chequers and agreed to go to the country on 9 June. The election was formally called the next day and Parliament was dissolved on 13 May for a four-week official election campaign.
The campaign displayed the huge divisions between the two major parties. Thatcher had been highly unpopular during her first two years in office until the swift and decisive victory in the Falklands War, coupled with an improving economy, considerably raised her standings in the polls. The Conservatives' key issues included reducing unemployment (which had increased from 1.5 million in 1979 to more than 3 million by 1982), continuing economic growth following the recent recession, and defence. Labour's campaign manifesto involved leaving the European Economic Community, abolishing the House of Lords, abandoning the United Kingdom's nuclear deterrent by cancelling Trident and removing cruise missiles — a programme dubbed by Labour MP Gerald Kaufman "the longest suicide note in history"; "Although, at barely 37 pages, it only seemed interminable", noted Roy Hattersley. Pro-Labour political journalist Michael White, writing in The Guardian, commented: "There was something magnificently brave about Michael Foot's campaign but it was like the Battle of the Somme."
Notional election, 1979
Following boundary changes in 1983, the BBC and ITN (Independent Television News) co-produced a calculation of how the 1979 general election would have gone if fought on the new 1983 boundaries. The following table shows the effects of the boundary changes on the House of Commons:
|Party||Seats||Gains||Losses||Net gain/loss||Seats %||Votes %||Votes||+/−|
|Friday 13 May||Dissolution of the 48th Parliament and campaigning officially begins|
|Monday 23 May||Last day to file nomination papers; 2,579 candidates enter|
|Wednesday 8 June||Campaigning officially ends|
|Thursday 9 June||Polling day|
|Friday 10 June||The Conservative Party wins with a majority of 144 to retain power|
|Wednesday 15 June||49th Parliament assembles|
|Wednesday 22 June||State Opening of Parliament|
The election saw a landslide victory for the Conservatives, achieving their best results since 1935. Although there was a slight drop in their share of the vote, they made significant gains at the expense of Labour. The night was a disaster for the Labour Party; their share of the vote fell by over 9%, which meant they were only 700,000 votes ahead of the newly-formed third party, the SDP–Liberal Alliance. The massive increase of support for the Alliance at the expense of Labour meant that, in many seats,[which?] the collapse in the Labour vote allowed the Conservatives to gain. Despite winning over 25% of the national vote, the Alliance got fewer than 4% of seats, 186 fewer than Labour. The most significant Labour loss of the night was Tony Benn, who was defeated in the revived Bristol East seat. SDP President Shirley Williams, then a prominent leader in the Social Democratic Party, lost her Crosby seat which she had won in a by-election in 1981. Bill Rodgers, another leading figure in the Alliance (like Williams, one of the "Gang of Four") also failed to win his old seat that he previously held as a Labour MP.
In Scotland, both Labour and the Tories sustained modest losses to the Alliance. Labour remained by far the largest party, with 41 seats to 21 for the Scottish Conservatives. The Scottish Conservatives have been unable to match their 1983 Westminster seat total since, although they did record a slightly larger share of the Scottish vote in 2017, by which time the Scottish National Party had become the dominant party in Scotland with the Tories being the largest unionist party.
On a UK-wide basis, the 1983 election was the worst result in Labour's modern history until the 2019 election, in terms of seats won. The 1983 result remains the worst-ever modern performance for Labour in England.
|Party||Leader||Stood||Elected||Gained||Unseated||Net||% of total||%||No.||Net %|
|Alliance||David Steel & Roy Jenkins||636[c]||23||12||0||+12||4.5||25.4||7,794,770||+11.6|
|Plaid Cymru||Dafydd Wigley||38||2||0||0||0||0.3||0.4||125,309||0.0|
|Sinn Féin||Ruairí Ó Brádaigh||14||1||1||1||0||0.2||0.3||102,701||N/A|
|National Front||Andrew Brons||60||0||0||0||0||0.0||0.1||27,065||−0.5|
|Workers' Party||Tomás Mac Giolla||14||0||0||0||0||0.0||0.0||14,650||−0.1|
|Workers Revolutionary||Michael Banda||21||0||0||0||0||0.0||0.0||3,798||−0.1|
|Monster Raving Loony||Screaming Lord Sutch||11||0||0||0||0||0.0||0.0||3,015||N/A|
|Mebyon Kernow||Richard Jenkin||2||0||0||0||0||0.0||0.0||1,151||N/A|
|Labour and Trade Union||Peter Hadden||1||0||0||0||0||0.0||0.0||584||N/A|
|Revolutionary Communist||Frank Furedi||4||0||0||0||0||0.0||0.0||581||N/A|
|Government's new majority||144|
|Total votes cast||30,671,137|
Tables of target seats
To regain an overall majority, Labour needed to make at least 65 gains.
SDP–Liberal Alliance targets
- List of MPs elected in the 1983 United Kingdom general election
- 1983 United Kingdom general election in Northern Ireland
- 1983 United Kingdom general election in England
- 1983 United Kingdom general election in Wales
- 1983 United Kingdom local elections
- Results for the Liberals only. The SDP did not contest
- Includes boundary change—so this is a nominal figure.
- Includes official Liberal candidates who were not given national Alliance endorsement in three constituencies: Liverpool Broadgreen, Hackney South and Shoreditch, and Hammersmith.
- The SDP–Liberal Alliance vote is compared with the Liberal Party vote in the 1979 election.
- The Independent Unionist elected in the 1979 election defended and held his seat for the Ulster Popular Unionist Party. The United Ulster Unionist Party dissolved and its sole MP did not re-stand.
- The Independent Republican elected in the 1979 election died in 1981. In the ensuring by-election the seat was won by Bobby Sands, an Anti-H-Block/Armagh Political Prisoner who then died and was succeeded by an Anti-H-Block Proxy Political Prisoner candidate Owen Carron. He defended and lost his seat standing for Sinn Féin who contested seats in Northern Ireland for the first time since 1959.
- This election was fought under revised boundaries. The changes reflect those comparing to the notional results on the new boundaries. One significant change was the increase in the number of seats allocated to Northern Ireland from 12 to 17.
- Benn did not serve during his Viscountcy between 1960 and 1963.
- "Baroness Margaret Thatcher", gov.uk, retrieved 2 July 2018
- "1983: Thatcher triumphs again", BBC News, 5 April 2005, retrieved 22 March 2015
- Vaidyanathan, Rajini (4 March 2010), "Michael Foot: What did the 'longest suicide note' say?", BBC News, retrieved 22 March 2015
- on YouTube
- Julian Haviland (1983). "The June 1983 Election Campaign:Conservative lead was never challenged". The Times Guide to the House of Commons June 1983. London: Times Books Ltd. p. 23. ISBN 0-7230-0255-X.
- Parkhouse, Geoffrey (27 April 1983). "Go for June election, agents urge Thatcher". The Glasgow Herald. p. 1. Retrieved 11 July 2020.
- White, Michael (11 April 2005), "Michael White on 35 years of covering elections", The Guardian, retrieved 23 June 2018
- Elected as a Labour MP
- Elected as a Conservative Party
- Elected as a SDLP MP
- Butler, David E.; et al. (1984), The British General Election of 1983, the standard scholarly studyCS1 maint: postscript (link)
- Craig, F. W. S. (1989), British Electoral Facts: 1832–1987, Dartmouth: Gower, ISBN 0900178302
- Clarke, Harold D.; Mishler, William; Whiteley, Paul (1990), "Recapturing the Falklands: models of Conservative popularity, 1979–83", British Journal of Political Science, 20 (1): 63–81, doi:10.1017/S0007123400005706