There was a quip in John O’Farrell’s book where he predicts that John Major would become some sort of quiz question that everyone would get wrong – in an attempt to predict that Major would be some sort of caretaker Prime Minister between the Thatch and Kinnock governments. Despite being Prime Minister for 6 and a half years, Major’s reputation is akin to being an extended caretaker, or worse… Yet at the height of the worst recession since the 1980/81 recession, Major pulled off an election win that is the very description of the phrase “victory from the jaws of defeat”.
Yet when the election was called, 24 hours after a tax cutting budget, many though that the gamble would backfire – that Labour would win. Yet Labour proceeded to make two errors, which was compounded by their non awareness of the power of spin. Firstly there was the “Shadow Budget”, which contained proposals to raise the top rate of tax to 50% and the removal of the exemption from 9% of NI contributions on higher earners. The Tories had a campaign already up and running regarding “Labour’s tax Bombshell”, but created another poster “Labour’s Double Whammy” – which became the most successful political poster since “Labour Isn’t working”. Secondly there was the furore over the PEB designed to push the message about Labour’s plans over the NHS. Instead “The war of Jennifer’s Ear” obscured and caused more harm than good to Labour’s message. Both the Shadow City Minister and the candidate for Hartlepool must have been taking notes on how to overhaul Labour’s campaigning techniques.
Strangely enough, watching a re-run of some of the coverage, it’s striking that some of the old arguments about regulation and tax have returned to the media. The arguments at that point against the Minimum Wage and for keeping (the top rate of) tax low are the same ones that popped up recently in respect of providing employment rights to temporary workers and… er… the abolition of the 50% tax rate. In this sense, the lesson learned from the Shadow budget was the wrong one. As a result of the Shadow Budget controversy, New Labour distanced themselves from any sort of rise in Income tax for as long as possible.
If the state of the economy was a key issue for the last time in an election until 2010, then 1992 saw the constitution emerge as an issue for the first time. The SNP were defending 4 seats (three won in 1987 and the seat of Govan won in a by election in 1988). For the first time as well, the SNP were supported by “The S*n”. Whether they were genuinely supporting the SNP is debatable. In the rest of the UK, they supported the re-election of a Tory government. This line would have seen them lose readers, so they took the line of supporting the SNP. Of course it’s coincidental that the Tories were beneficiaries of a split in the centre-left vote in the non solid Labour supporting parts of Scotland. Just as in last years Holyrood Election it’s coincidental that depriving a supposedly left wing Labour leader of a morale boosting election win was the by-product of The S*n’s intervention. Since then of course, there’s another motive to The S*n’s support for the SNP – the cooling of “The Digger’s” relationship with Cameron.
The importance of the 1992 election is however much overlooked. The winners enjoyed a phyric victory. Soon afterwards they were plunged into scandal and infighting, while the events of 15 September – Black Wednesday – shredded the economic reputation of the Tories. The Maastricht Treaty – or Major & Lamont’s negotiations which had previously been hailed as a triumph for providing the UK with an “opt-out” of the European Single Currency and the Social Chapter – became a headache as it was continually ambushed throughout it’s ratification process in the Commons as the 21 seat majority took it’s toll on Government discipline.
For the defeated, much of the talk afterwards was about how Labour could win again, about the possibility of there being a re-alignment of the left. This did not look like happening under Labour’s new leader John Smith. Yet a re-alignment of sorts did occur – with election defeat providing key lessons that needed to be learned – not just for Labour, who under Smith’s successor eradicated most of what Labour once was, but for the SNP too – though their 1992 moment was more to do with an unpardonable folly and a penny for Scotland.
We did not jump straight from the Thatcher years to the Blair years and the post Devolution era of politics. The result delivered on 10 April 1992 created the climate for the return of Labour, and also cemented the desire for Devolution – the “settled will of the Scottish People” as Smith put it. The quote from Major - that this was “a nation at ease with itself” – made in the immediate aftermath of his election victory was soon shown to be untrue as many people began to think about what they had done. The big lesson though was that the saying “Oppositions don’t win elections, governments loose them” was proved to be wrong.