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What Happened Next? 5 Business Lessons From UK General Elections

Election fever has taken over Britain! Well, not quite. For many Brits, the thought of going to polls again is not filling them with festive glee. That said, there’s no doubting that this general election presents a stark choice for voters, with huge ramifications for the country. 

We’ll shy away from making predictions. Instead, we’ll do some looking back and reflect on what history can teach us, including some pertinent and no doubt tenuous lessons for business.  

1945 General Election 

Voted the Greatest Briton of all time in a 2002 BBC poll, one of the curiosities of Winston Churchill’s political career is his failure to win the 1945 General Election. You’d think the Prime Minister who led the country from the brink of surrender in 1940 to victory over Germany in 1945 would be a shoo-in for re-election, right? Certainly, commentators at the time believed the war hero Churchill would be unbeatable – as did many in the Labour Party.

What happened?

The Labour Party, led by the quietly assured Clement Atlee, won the election by a landslide, with 48% of the vote. 

The war had a profound impact on the British people, many of whom did not want a return to the pre-war status quo. Labour’s transformative plans, with the creation of the welfare state at its core, captured the mood of a population hardened by six years of war. 

Churchill and the Conservatives underestimated the national appetite for change – something Labour was able to tap into with its slogan ‘Let us face the future’ – and the party was characterised as looking “backwards not forwards”. 

The business lesson?

Even when you’ve had great success, don’t underestimate your competitors and always stay in tune with public sentiment. 

1983 General Election

Margaret Thatcher is a hugely divisive figure but much of her legacy owes to her re-election in 1983. For the first few years, following her election in 1979, Thatcher’s radical economic agenda faced opposition from within her party. With the economy in a slump, senior Conservative MPs and leading economists pressed Thatcher to U-turn. By 1983, though, the economic situation was improving and victory in the Falklands War strengthened her position going into the 1983 General Election…  

What happened?

The Conservative Party won with their biggest parliamentary majority of the post-war era, emboldening Thatcher to carry on with her transformative agenda, including going head to head with the trade unions. The lady wasn’t for turning

The Labour Party meanwhile suffered one of its worst election defeats. With a manifesto described as ‘the longest suicide note in history’, and bitter divisions within the party, including defections to the newly formed Social Democratic Party (which later merged into the Liberal Democrats), the public were turned off by the party’s shift to the hard left and a leader, Michael Foot, whose credibility as a future PM was often questioned.

The business lesson?

Sometimes things come together. With conviction and a bit of good fortune, the picture can change dramatically.

1992 General Election

The dramatic downfall of Margaret Thatcher led to John Major taking over as Prime Minister in 1990. By this point, the Conservatives had been in power for over a decade and the UK economy was in recession. Labour under Neil Kinnock looked to have its act together and was making headway in the polls. After defeat in 1987, was this to be Labour’s moment?

What happened?

Another Conservative victory, the fourth in succession. 

For Labour, it was arguably the most galling of its defeats. A US-style campaign rally in Sheffield became infamous for its overly-triumphant tone and Neil Kinnock’s bizarre “We’re alright” proclamations. Similarly infamous was the Sun’s headline on the eve of the election – ‘Will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights’ – playing up to the fears around Labour’s economic competence. 

John Major, whilst far from a showman, proved to be a quietly effective campaigner. His modest manner and humble working-class origins, along with help from the tabloid press, enabled him to win the public’s trust – something Kinnock failed to do. But, for how long? 

The business lesson?

Public perception matters. Winning over those who have the influence to support and promote your cause is an effective strategy. 

1997 General Election

For John Major things did not go so well after his 1992 election win. Not long afterwards, the pound crashed in value on Black Wednesday, massively damaging the economic reputation of his government. Damaging in a different way, the party became embroiled in sleaze. Sex and corruption scandals saw high profile MPs splashed across tabloid front pages for all the wrong reasons.

What happened? 

A Labour Party landslide. 

It seemed inevitable by the time the 1997 General Election came around, the question was the scale of victory. In the end, Labour won its largest-ever number of seats. 

A fresh-faced Tony Blair not only convinced the country that his New Labour was ready to govern, the campaign effectively tapped into a new-found optimism sweeping the country. ‘Things can only get better’ went the soundtrack, whilst endorsements ranged from Noel Gallagher to the Murdoch-owned Sun. 

Meanwhile, the Conservatives were decimated with several prominent Conservative ministers losing their seats. 

The business lesson?

If your competitors are in a bad place, make sure you seize the moment with the right message and proposition. 


2017 General Election

With Labour dominant in the early years of the new century, the Conservatives had to recover their standing. After five years in coalition government with the Lib Dems, they finally won an outright majority in the 2015 General Election. One of Prime Minister David Cameron’s key pledges was to hold a referendum on EU membership… This, of course, led to the Brexit vote and Cameron’s resignation in 2016. Theresa May took over shortly after. Despite saying she wouldn’t call an election to shore up her support, in May 2017 she decided to gamble…

What happened?

The Conservatives had the highest number of votes but lost 13 seats (net), resulting in a hung parliament. 

Theresa May was to have a torrid time on the campaign trail. Her repeated phrase that she would provide ‘strong and stable’ government led to criticism that the PM could only talk in soundbites and came across as robotic. The manifesto was labelled as uninspired with the so-called “dementia tax” policy coming in for particular criticism. 

By gaining 30 seats (net) Labour had defied all expectations going into the election. This was attributed to a range of factors including high youth turnout and the Conservative’s alienation of Remain voters. 

The business lesson?

Not all gambles pay off. Weigh up the all the possible outcomes and work out – is it really worth the risk? 

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Huw Moxon is the Digital Marketing Manager for Informi.

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