Tag Archives: General elections

New Conservative Party Archive releases under the 30 year rule

Top-level strategy papers that detail the Thatcher government’s efforts to secure a third term are among papers newly-released by the Conservative Party Archive for 2018. The previously-restricted documents, now made available for the first time under the 30 year rule, form part of an extensive series of party papers from the election year of 1987, including drafts of the Conservative manifesto, detailed plans of campaign activities, and election briefings prepared by the Conservative Research Department. This piece briefly examines two such documents from one of the newly-released files [CRD 4/30/7/25], private briefings prepared for the Prime Minister’s election planning meetings in December 1986 and April 1987, to illustrate the research potential of these newly-available collections.

Although the 1987 election ultimately resulted in a second landslide for Thatcher’s Conservatives, the party was far from certain of such an outcome. ‘We believe that the electorate will be in a more questioning mood than in 1983 in the aftermath of the Falklands’, the December 1986 report cautioned, stressing the need for the party to develop and communicate clear plans for the future rather than simply seeking re-election on the basis of past achievements. The changing nature of the electoral map prompted particular concern. Although the Conservatives had opened up a narrow polling lead, the report identified a ‘sharp North-South disparity’, which posed a serious risk to the Conservative position: while the party’s national polling suggested a parliamentary majority of 20, this ‘disappeared entirely and left us in a minority of 2’ when regional variations were taken into account. In an echo of the party’s present-day challenges, the report additionally flagged up the dangers of the growing age-gap in the party’s support: ‘the under 45 group, and particularly first time voters, are still a cause of considerable concern.’

The Conservative Party’s electoral position was complicated by the growing North-South political divide. [CRD 4/30/7/25].

The prospect of a lost majority was still taken seriously on the eve of the election campaign, as the papers prepared for a top-level meeting at Downing Street on 16 April 1987 reveal. Although Party Chairman Norman Tebbit’s paper on general strategy began with the cautious observation that the government were favoured to win ‘with a smaller but working majority’, he warned that ‘the prospect of a hung parliament is attractive to the press and will be promoted by those hostile to us’. To counter this, he urged, the party needed to polarise the issues as far as possible, presenting a Conservative majority as the only alternative to weak or extreme government: ‘Our aim should be to make the supreme issue whether there will be a continuation of Conservative Government or through a “hung” Parliament a Labour administration with Alliance or other minority party support.’

Strategies aside, the party’s election plans also give a fascinating insight into how the party sought to understand and reshape its image going into the election. Discussing the party’s loss of support during the middle of 1986, the CCO Campaign Plans document warned of a ‘a growing perceived conflict between the two important themes of “Calvinism” or “individual responsibility” on the one hand, and “caring” on the other […] reflected in serious concerns about unemployment, health care, education and pensions’. Yet the strategy paper also reveals a resistance to any significant change in course: the proposal to organise the Prime Minister’s campaign tours around the theme of ‘regeneration’ is pointedly removed from the draft document in favour of a more individualistic emphasis on ‘believing [in] people’ and ‘personal property’. Similarly on Thatcher’s own image, the paper goes out of its way to reject suggestions that she adopt a ‘soft’ image, instead recommending a campaign focused upon her strengths: ‘leadership, strength and experience.’

Early plans emphasised that the Prime Minister campaign on the idea of ‘Regeneration’, but as the notes in the margin show others favoured a more ideological campaign theme. [CRD 4/30/7/25].

These papers will provide an essential resource for scholars of the 1987 general election and the politics of the Thatcher era, complementing the Conservative Party Archive’s existing collections of published material from the campaign. The Bodleian has also additionally taken receipt of a large donation of previously undocumented files from this period, so it is hoped that the CPA will be able to continue to expand its collections on the 1987 general election in years to come.

Among the new releases is the first draft of the 1987 Manifesto [CRD/4/30/7/29], shown here next to the final version [PUB 157/4].

The material examined in this blog post will be made available from 1 Jan 2018. In addition to papers on the 1987 general election, the list of newly-released papers also includes material on the introduction of the poll tax, the party’s private polling and opinion research, and a wide range of briefings produced by the Conservative Research Department. For a full list of derestricted items, see the CPA website.

On this day in 1983: Thatcher and Conservatives win second election

On 9 June 1983, just after 11pm, Margaret Thatcher left 10 Downing Street for her constituency in Finchley. She remarked, ‘We think this will be our home for the next five years’ (The Times, 10 June 1983). It was indeed; Thatcher and the Conservative Party won a landslide victory – the most decisive election victory since 1945.

Thatcher’s popularity had waned during her first two years in office; unemployment had risen to pre-WWII levels and inflation persisted. Victory in the Falklands, however, gave the Conservatives a decisive jump in the polls, as did Labour’s internal divisions and a Labour manifesto dubbed ‘the longest suicide note in history’ by Labour MP Gerald Kaufman.

The Party’s manifesto laid out a slightly more radical programme of reforms, including abolishing the Greater London council and the Metropolitan County Councils and privatising certain key British corporations.

The Party won a third election in 1987, and Thatcher remained in office as Prime Minister until 1990.

 

Further reading:
The 1983 Conservative Party Manifesto
Interview for Carol Thatcher’s Diary of an Election

Televised debates in history

Since the great Kennedy-Nixon US Presidential debate of 1960, the spectre of a televised debate – for that is how it must have appeared to many a Party leader – has loomed large over nearly every UK general election. For 50 years, however, British politicians have clung doggedly to the staid approach of the Party Political Broadcast – until this month, of course.
Harold Wilson was the first British politician to propose a televised debate in the UK. He challenged Sir Alec Douglas-Home to a debate during the 1964 election, but Home refused, comparing the prospect to a Top of the Pops competition:

You’ll then get the best actor as leader of the country and the actor will be prompted by a scriptwriter (Sir Alec Douglas-Home, in interview with Michael Cockerell, 2010).

However, once Wilson was himself PM, he turned down Edward Heath’s challenge to a 1970 debate – a pattern which was to endure until John Major offered one to Tony Blair in 1997.
Despite the PMs’ reluctance, the first ever televised debate took place 25 years ago –at the height of the referendum debate over Britain’s continued membership of the EEC. Leading politicians from the three major parties locked horns in three televised debates, and many of them secured their reputations as great orators. On 2 June 1975, Tony Benn and Roy Jenkins, both members of the Labour Cabinet, took opposing sides in a one-on-one debate for BBC1’s Panorama. That same evening, ITV presented a parliamentary-style debate on the motion ‘That Britain should remain in the European Economic Community’. The motion was proposed by Edward Heath, supported by Roy Jenkins, and opposed by Enoch Powell, supported by Tony Benn (although the latter was subsequently replaced on account of his refusal to share a cross-Party platform).
The following night, BBC1 broadcast an Oxford Union debate on the motion, ‘That this House would say “Yes” to Europe’, with Edward Heath and Jeremy Thorpe lined up against Barbara Castle and Peter Shore.
Jeremy Thorpe had been the only party leader to take part in these debates, but other leaders and electoral hopefuls began to consider the possibility of similar public encounters. James Callaghan’s challenge was met with a lukewarm response from Margaret Thatcher but not outright rejection. When the proposal was first mooted through the BBC’s Director-General Ian Trethowan in July 1978, the Conservatives’ Strategy and Tactics Committee merely agreed that

At this stage we should make no commitment on the principle but ask the BBC to ascertain the views of the other Parties and to bring forward full proposals for discussion. (Minutes of Central Office discussion, Margaret Thatcher Foundation)

Despite her initial openness, Mrs Thatcher’s reply illuminates the parties’ strong concerns:

…What are the reactions of the other four political parties at Westminster, the Liberals, the Scottish and Welsh Nationalists, and the Ulster Unionists? … bearing in mind this is not a Presidential but a Party contest, we must know their views … what would you have in mind on format, Chairman, choice of interviewers, rules governing interviews … arrangements to ensure equality, impartiality, etc? (Letter from Thatcher to Trethowan , Margaret Thatcher Foundation)

In 2010, these same concerns would be the subject of six months’ deliberations between the parties and a detailed 76-point agreement.
A few weeks later, Trethowan was still pushing his proposal at a secret Central Office meeting. However, the BBC was insistent on it being a two-Party debate only, allowing the smaller parties other unspecified opportunities to put their case, and by the end of the meeting Trethowan had conceded that ‘If a televised debate would be bad for British politics he would rather drop the idea.’ (Minutes of Central Office discussion, Margaret Thatcher Foundation)
Mrs Thatcher’s final say on the matter was even more emphatic:

I believe that issues and policies decide elections, not personalities. We should stick to that approach. We are not electing a President, we are choosing a government.(Letter from Thatcher to David Cox, Margaret Thatcher Foundation)

Yet public reaction to the first of the leaders’ debates seems to vindicate the decision to proceed, albeit a few years later; a letter to The Times dated 6 June 1976 could easily have been written in the run-up to the 2010 genera election:

Let us have more good debate of this sort on television (and on public platforms too, instead of mere unanswered speeches), so that if people are indeed inclined to the dangerous habit of denigrating politicians as a breed, they may be allowed to see them at their best …But more staged parliamentary debates and more serious face-to-face discussion – that is the way to restore respect for our precious political process and its indispensable practitioners. (Mr John Campbell, Times Digital Archive)