Voting Behaviour in the 1992 election


General Context:     

The Conservatives under Thatcher had won in 1979, 1983 and 1987. Such was the poor performance of the Labour party in the 1983 election[1] when they suffered a near death experience nearly being eclipsed by the Liberal / SDP Alliance, that they undertook a bruising revamp of the party under the leadership of Neil Kinnock. The Policy Review and the expulsion of the Militant Tendency[2] were designed to make the party less left wing[3] and more appealing to the general public.

The Conservatives had undergone the major trauma of the Poll Tax and subsequent removal of Thatcher as Prime Minister.         

Analysis of the election needs to be placed within the debate surrounding voting behaviour in the UK. The main development in the post war period was the decline in alignment and the number of strong identifiers. The impact of class and partisan dealignment was to render long term factors as outlined in the social structures model, less relevant. Voters were less psychologically attached to any one party and consequently just as voting became more volatile, new shorter term factors and the rational choice model, emerged as a better explanation of how Britain voted.[4] Short term factors include;

  1. The past performance of the government ( retrospective voting)
  2. Policies for the future (prospective voting)
  3. Party leaders and personality
  4. Party Unity
  5. The campaign

The campaign is worthy of scrutiny because it was, perhaps decisive. Throughout the campaign the main parties had appeared neck and neck and a hung Parliament the most likely outcome and consequently the result came as a something of a surprise. At first glance it would appear that Labour ran the better of the two campaigns with it being more professional as opposed to the negative basis of the Conservatives. However was the Conservatives’ campaign underrated and Labour’s and the Lib Dems over praised?

In this respect some potential turning points have been identified.

            The Shadow Budget – John Smith had claimed that 8 out of 10 families would be better off with his proposed budget, yet this was not widely believed. Labour had earlier indicated that all spending plans would only be put into force as and when resources became available, however, this last qualification was missing from the manifesto and Cons could claim that, when costed, these spending plans would result in an extra 1,250 tax per person and this was to form the basis of part of the Conservative’s campaign (“Labour’s Tax Bombshell & Labour’s Double Whammy”).

Labour Tax Bombshell - 1992 general election advert from Conservative Party
Image result for labour's double whammy 1992

Labour were accused of making promises the country could not afford.

This focus on the inability of Labour to effectively manage the economy might be deemed to be the most important element of the Conservative campaign. Even though the country was in the teeth of a deep recession, voters took the view that the Conservatives were best managers of the economy. Labour simply could not be trusted in this regard.

            The war of Jennifer’s ear[5] was when Labour cited the instance of girl having to wait for a simple ear operation as evidence of the dire state of the NHS, the Tories argued that the case had distorted the facts and a furious row followed with allegations of the Labour Party resorting to “dirty tricks”. The case did though certainly raise the whole profile of the NHS and therefore t is questionable whether or not it damaged the Labour Party.

            The Sheffield rally[6] – criticised for its triumphalism and the over exuberance of Kinnock on the platform cast doubts with regard to his statesman like qualities which he had endeavoured to develop since 1983.

            Neil Kinnock’s PR commitment – this came late in the campaign perhaps to appeal to Lib Dem voters, Kinnock remained unclear on the subject and it was generally seen as something of a panic measure rather than a clear matter of party policy.

Other factors in play included:

Although Kinnock was able to close the gap between him and Major: Major and was perceived to be a better campaigner. Labour were accused of being too negative and focussed on attacking other parties. The Conservative’s focus on the economic consequences of a Labour government and the leadership qualities of Major are cited as critical factors in influencing swing voters.

Major enjoyed a clear lead throughout in terms as rating as Prime Minister and insofar as the campaign had a presidential element, the Conservatives clearly won.

Some within the Labour Party felt that the campaign had been organised badly in the sense that control was exercised by the so called “spin doctors” (Patricia Hewitt and Philip Gould particularly) and that experienced politicians were excluded. The net result was that the campaign was too glitzy, too smooth and generally lacking in substance. Hattersley observed that skilful presentation had exposed the poor quality of the party’s policies in 1987. In 1992 he thought that the problem was that the slick presentation had distracted from what was now a good product.

Conversely, it could be argued following the election defeat of 1983, it should not be forgotten the depths from which Labour had to climb and the importance played by “communications strategy” in this recovery. Without the campaign, Labour may have fared even worse than they did.


The election is frequently remembered for the headline from The Sun newspaper that proclaimed it had played a pivotal role in determining the outcome of the election. Given the level of dealignment, as Crewe famously remarked “Votes were up for grabs” indicating that floating voters might be persuaded how to vote on the basis of the campaign and media influence. The Sun was at the forefront of a character assassination of Kinnock and the Labour party.

Image result for its the sun wot won it

Whilst great play is made of the front page of the Sun on the day of the election (see left above), this was only the culmination of a relentless 9 year war waged against him since his leadership election victory in 1983. Two days before the election the Sun published nine pages bearing the slogan “Nightmare on Kinnock Street”. The only daily tabloid to present Kinnock in a positive light throughout the period was the Daily Mirror. It was then selling about 3m while the other five which backed Major – Sun, Mail, Express, Star and Today – had a joint sale of 8m. It is estimated that a paper is read three times so readership of the pro-Tory press amounted to 24m.

Related image

The argument is that these attacks amounted to a ‘dripping tap’[7] effect in turning voters away from Labour. The Hypodermic Syringe Model outlines the ability of the media to set the agenda and influence voters.

There is however great debate about the influence of the media. It is argued that the Filter effect allows voters to detect to detect and reject bias. The theories above do not credit voters with having any critical faculties being passive actors believing and accepting all the media tell them. Indeed research has shown that most voters regard broadcasting media, TV and radio, as the most reliable source of information. These media have to be neutral by law.

The Reinforcement Effect states that people by a paper that confirms already held views – so Tory voters were already persuaded before reading the Sun and other papers. Papers need to sell and therefore have a tendency to back the winner. In all of these cases then, the media’s influence should not be exaggerated and the case for the media following, rather than shaping, public opinion should be considered.[8]

Consequently the impact of the media (and it is worth distinguishing between broadcasting and publishing media) is open to debate. Perhaps it its influence is more subtle and longer term than that felt during an election campaign. It can sow seeds of doubt and develop stereotypes 9see below) which might take hold. Given the longevity of the anti-Labour attacks throughout the Thatcher era, its impact must not be entirely dismissed.

Whilst the above are cited as evidence of the critical impact of the campaign, potentially causing a late swing to the Conservatives. It is not clear that the campaign alone should be elevated to such a prominent position. Could these factors have caused a late swing?

Labour’s communications specialist, Philip Gould[9] thought not

“The polls were a verdict on the campaign, the election result a verdict on the party…In 1992, as in 1987, the campaign that the commentators and the opinion polls judged the least impressive was the one by the winning party.”

            Labour’s campaign issues (social issues, ending the recession) were well received, research showed that the key issues were health, education and unemployment and in this respect then Labour had won the battle of the policy agenda (prospective voting.

The Conservatives were said to have had a poor campaign and most believed that the Conservatives would lose the election. The issues on which the Conservatives were favoured; unions, Europe and defence, were not ranked highly by voters and according to the polls, the favoured Tory themes of tax and leadership never took off. The campaign was essentially negative.

In this respect then the campaign itself does not explain the outcome of the election. What the campaign did was to confirm and expose deep seated fears amongst the electorate which had contributed to Labour’s defeats in 1979, 83 and 87. Rather than the campaign then, the critical factor influencing voting behaviour is the judgement as to which party are the best economic managers. It should be noted that this is different from the economy as an influence on voting behaviour. As the Conservatives showed, the government can still win, even if the country is in a recession, if the people believe they are the best party to get them out of that recession.

This might be distilled down into the simple question of who do you trust to run the economy.[10] The quote, “You can’t win campaigns in four weeks, but only in four years as stated Philip Gould indicating that explanations of voting behaviour need to go beyond the campaign and other short term factors. Psephologists such as Denver, recognise that voters are making judgements constantly over the term of a government (even if this is done subconsciously) and focus should therefore be on the medium rather than the short term.

“Labour faced fundamental and long – standing problems. The surveys showed that, however critical people were of the Conservatives, there was no enthusiasm for voting Labour….The opinions and voting intentions of the real majority of electors have been shaped over the long term. It was apparent that many voters were torn between resentment at the government’s record (especially the handling of the economy and the imposition of the Poll Tax) and distrust of Labour.. in the end more voters proved fearful of Labour than of the government….the 1992 election seems to reflect a cheque-book outcome in the classic mould”

                                                                        Butler and Kavanagh

Image result for nightmare on Kinnock street

This view is complemented by Kellner[11] who addresses the issue of Kinnock’s leadership. He stated “Blaming Kinnock will not do. Labour lost because it was Labour.”

The 1992 election then seems to vindicate the rational choice model as the best explanation of voting behaviour in that it posits the view that it is a combination of medium to short term factors that influence voting behaviour. It is worth emphasising the words ‘combination’ and ‘medium term’. Whilst it is the case then, no one single factor provides an adequate explanation of voting behaviour and Aat different times, the relative importance of each of these factors may vary; there is, I believe a strong case for particular emphasis on the issue of economic competence. This hypothesis is relatively easily tested by an examination of subsequent elections. [12]


The earlier Conservative victories under Mrs Thatcher could be readily explained ;

            1979 followed the Winter of Discontent;

            1983 followed the successful Falklands Campaign and a divided Labour opposition;

            1987 followed four years of steady economic growth and prosperity.

The 1992 election, however, was won against the background of a disastrous recession and against a revived and seemingly electable Labour party…..The outcome confirmed the Conservatives’ domination of government. There had only been two Labour administrations since the war which have enjoyed comfortable majorities (1945 – 50 and 1966 – 70). By the time of the 1997 election the Conservatives would have been in office for 66 years since 1900. Hence a dominant one party system might have been a more appropriate description of the status quo rather than the traditional two party system term that was ascribed to the period.

            It may have been the case that the recession actually worked against Labour in that people need affluence in order to support policies for social reform, the recession made voters more cautious and therefore reluctant to vote for change. In this respect then it would appear that in spite of all their reforms, the Labour party was still perceived poorly by the electorate. Labour failed to capture even half of the Working Class vote. It seemed to be out of touch with the ordinary voters’ desires for greater opportunity and ownership, that it was outdated, not forward looking, the legacy of the 1970s and the early 80s still seemed to dog Labour hence the need for further reforms which Smith and Blair sought to implement.  


Party                           %Votes           %Seats           MPs

Conservative              41.9% vote      51% seats      336 MPs

Labour                        34.4% vote      41% seats      271 MPs

Liberal Democrat      17.8% vote        3% seats        20 MPs

                                                                                    Government majority 21.

1.) The fourth election in a row in which Lab were 7% or more behind the Cons.

2.) There was a 3% swing from Con to Lab (2.8% swing in 1987), the third election in a row that the Conservative vote fell. The two party vote increased by 3% to 78%

“This is still lower than any election since 1929 and suggests that any conclusion that the election heralds a return to two party politics is premature.”

3.) REGIONAL VARIATION – In marked contrast to previous elections there was a reversal of the traditional north south divide in voting with the Cons being more successful in the North and Scotland and Lab in the South.

This is explained by the effects of different economic geography, the recession was felt more harshly in London and the South East. Compared to 1987 the South experienced increases in unemployment whilst the Midlands, North and Scotland all had lower levels of unemployment. Similarly house prices in the South also fell by a greater amount.

“At first glance the regional variation in the election results would appear to confirm that the recent economic experiences do influence voters and that this relationship was responsible for the reversal of the North South divide. Each 1% rise in unemployment cost the Cons 0.7% of the vote.”

Although recent economic performance is useful in providing some insight it does not provide a complete explanation for voting behaviour. The press, income levels, taxation, local councils and long term cultural changes i.e. a Thatcher effect are also identified as having an effect.

4.) TATICAL VOTING – the swing to Lab was greater in marginals (4.7%) compared to non marginals (2.5%) which suggests that Lab did well at the Lib Dems expense.

Tactical voting may have cost the Cons 10 seats and halved Major’s majority; nearly one in five of Lab’s gains was the result of tactical voting. The Libs gained 2 seats due to tactical voting ( out of 4 gains )

“At no previous election has tactical voting had such a large impact.”

If one takes the long term trend, tactical voting seems increasingly important as the anti-Conservative vote would appear to be growing increasingly concentrated.

“This increased concentration of the non-Conservative vote clearly poses a potential challenge to the party’s continued ability to win elections on little more than 40% of the national vote.”

This might mean that the Lib Dems start to threaten the Cons in the South and Lab do the same in the North adding yet “another chapter to the denationalisation of UK politics.”

One further point to bear in mind is that the electoral system no longer seems so able in turning a minority of votes into a majority of seats, the Tories had a 7.6% lead over Lab but only 21 additional seats, therefore predictions that Labour will not be able to defeat the Tories at the next election, by which time the Boundary Commission should have given them an additional 20 seats, would appear to be wide of the mark.[14]

[1] Conservatives                 42.4% vote   60% seats

Labour                                27.6%  vote  31% seats

Liberal/SDP Alliance        25.4%  vote    3.5% seats

The impact of First Past the Post is plain to see. Discriminating against third parties whose spread is not regionally concentrated.

[2] Militant Tendency were rather like Momentum today. A left wing (Trotskyite) organization who had been able to infiltrate and effectively takeover many constituency Labour organisations. They were able to select left wing candidates. Kinnock managed to expel Militant after a bitter battle.

[3] The 1983 manifesto was called “the longest suicide note in history” as its left wing policies seemed out of synch with the mood of the nation at the time

[4] The number of floating voters was estimated as follows

               1992      17%

               1987      13%

               1983      16%

However it is difficult to provide precise figures as to the % of unattached voters. Many would argue a figure of 30 -40% would be a more accurate number.



[7] Philo, Cultural Effect Theory 1990.

[8] The willingness to accept the Sun’s claim at face value, that it was a major influence on voting behaviour, is a frequent mistake made by students.

[9] A key advisor to Blair

[10] This it can be argued was the rationale behind Blair and NewLabour. He sought to further the groundwork done by the Kinnock in establishing the party as one which accepted the benefits of market economics as pioneered by Thatcher and as such dispel fears about its economic competence.

[11] Peter Kellner, The Independent, 11.4.92.

[12] See Appendix and papers on 1997, 2001, 2005, 2010 and 2015. 2017 will be the other in-depth case study.

[13] The British General Election 1992 ed. Butler & Kavanagh.

[14] Labour landslide 1997. First Past the Post started to work against the Conservatives.