The 2001 British General Election was seen by many in British politics as a foregone conclusion and this was borne out in the result. Very few people expected William Hague’s Conservatives to challenge Tony Blair’s Labour Party position within the Commons. Elections are a fundamental part of a democracy and British politics has decreed that there is a general election every five years – though one can be called within the duration of a government. 

The 2001 election – originally scheduled for early May but postponed as a result of the foot and mouth crisis – was called by Tony Blair on May 8th. The announcement caused some consternation as it was done during a speech to pupils at St Saviour’s and St Olave’s Church of England School in Bermondsey, South London. Blair was criticised even in his own party for this choice; Clair Short called the decision to announce the election in a school as “odd” while the Lib Dem MP for Bermondsey, Simon Hughes, called it “bizarre”.

The major parties quickly released their election manifestoes. The Labour Manifesto promised a large increase in the number of people employed in the public services especially teachers and nurses. The Liberal Democrats Manifesto, officially released on May 15th, promised a similar enlargement of the public services but matched it with a claim that such increase would have to be paid for with an increase in taxation for some. The Tory Party Manifesto announced a cut in taxation by £8 billion but with an expansion of the public services.

The first polls predicted a large Labour majority. On May 9th the Gallup poll for the “Daily Telegraph” claimed that Labour would get the support of 49% of the voters, Tories 32% and the Lib Dems 13%. 

The first few days of the election campaign were marked with a lack of public interest. Labour used to its advantage the announcement that the mortgage rate was at its lowest in 40 years while the Tory Party reeled under the complaint by former Prime Minister and Tory Party leader, Ted Heath, that William Hague, had become a “laughing stock” and that his policies made no sense. On May 13th, an ICM poll claimed that middle class backing for the Tories had dropped to 17% while the same social group backed Labour at 59%.

Labour received a boost in mid-May when 58 company chiefs announced that they would vote for Labour including Sir Alan Sugar and Sir Terence Conran. Half-way during the campaign, the polls showed a similar trend – Labour 46%, Tories 32% and Lib Dems 13%.     

The Tory Party hit a problem mid-way through the campaign when their tax plans were thrown into confusion the Tory’s Treasury spokesman Oliver Letwin who apparently claimed that the Tories planned to make tax cuts of £20 billion as opposed to the published £8 billion. This was later corrected to the party’s desire to do this if and when the circumstances were right. However, the campaign was not running smoothly either in the Labour camp as Peter Mandelson claimed that there was the party was not presenting itself well enough and that the orchestration of the campaign needed tightening.

May 16th was Labour “Black Day” during the campaign though it did liven up proceedings which were starting to turn off the public. John Prescott, Deputy Prime Minister, threw a punch at a man who had thrown an egg at him. The media had a field day as to how ministers should behave in public even though Prescott claimed that he had been defending himself. Outside of Britain, the foreign press claimed that Prescott had acted like a “bully boy” and a football hooligan. Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, was heckled at a Police Federation meeting and Tony Blair was given a severe dressing down by a lady whose partner could not find a hospital bed despite having cancer. The dressing down was very public and in full view of the media. The BBC’s political correspondent, Andrew Marr, claimed that it was Labour’s worst day since the era of Michael Foot.

Two polls taken before the above events, still showed Labour with a healthy majority. (Gallup : Labour 48%, Tories 32% and Lib Dem’s 13% while MORI showed Labour at 54%, Tories at 28% with the Lib Dems at 12%)

In the third week of the campaign, the Tories were starting to show their split on Europe. Three candidates – Nick Serpett, Anthony Steen and Patrick Nickols – all stated that they felt Britain’s future lay outside of Europe. They saw the potential introduction of the Euro as “the biggest constitutional change since Charles I had his head cut off”.

All three parties concentrated their campaigns on how the public services would prosper under their leadership. For example, Tony Blair promised an extra £300 million for cancer scanners and treatment machines under a re-elected Labour government. However, his statements were overshadowed by a media campaign to clarify where Labour stood on National Insurance contributions. The Labour Party’s second in the Treasury, Alastair Darling, failed to give a clear answer to the question “Would a re-elected Labour government put up National Insurance contributions ?”

On May 22nd, Baroness Thatcher made a marked entrance into the election campaign with a speech in Plymouth that she would never give up the £ citing that the £ stood for the nation’s sovereignty and that a nation without its own currency was not a nation at all. The Tory faithful at Plymouth gave Baroness Thatcher a long applause but commentators later noted that the hall was far from  full and that in the “old days” not one seat would have been left spare.

The overriding concern of the main parties was the seeming lack of any interest in an election by the public. Political commentators spoke in terms of potentially the worst turn out in voters since 1918 which would seriously question whether the future government had a real mandate from the people to govern. The polls all showed Labour gaining a large victory. They only differed on the size of Labour’s victory. The average poll of polls conducted at the half-way mark gave Labour 48%, Tories 32% and the Lib Dems 14%.

With just days left until the election, a poll of polls for ITN came up with the following result : Labour 48%, Tories 31% and Lib Dems 16%. The only discernable difference was that the Lib Dems had shown an increase of 2%. If the ITN figures proved correct, these figures would translate as Labour winning 439 seats, Tories 155 seats and the Lib Dems 37 seats.

The election itself gave Labour its predicted landslide victory. It left the Tories in disarray but far more damaging was the fact that the turn out was very low – less than 50% in some constituencies – and near enough 40% of those who had registered to vote did not do so. On the day of the election, the “Daily Telegraph” had predicted via a Gallup poll, that Labour would get 47%, Tories 30% and the Lib Dems 18%. 

The final verdict of the people gave Labour 413 seats (43% of the vote), Tories 166 seats (33% of the votes) and the Lib Dems 52 seats (19% of the votes) with the “others” getting 28 seats (5% of the votes) 

Labour had lost just 5 seats but had maintained its percent of the votes; the Tories had gained 1 seat and had gained 2% of the popular vote. The Lib Dems had gained 6 seats and a 2% increase in popular votes.

The result of the 2001 Election

% of votes 2001 % of votes 1997 MP’s 2001 MP’s 1997
Labour 43  43 413 (-5) 418
Tories        33 (+2) 31 166 (+1) 165
Lib Dem        19 (+2) 17 52 (+6) 46
Others         5 (-4) 9 28 (-1) 29

Fractionally over 18 million people registered to vote did not do so which represents 41% of all registered voters. From the figure of 44 million registered voters, the Labour Party gained just 25%; the Tories 19% and the Lib Dems 11%. The political analyst for the “Daily Mail”, Edward Heathcoat Amory, claimed that the election had been a victory for the “Stay at Home Party”. Statistics seemed to indicate that apathy towards politicians was paramount during the whole of the campaign and that it showed itself clearly in the final result. 

This election had the lowest voter turnout since 1918 – 59%. The figure was near enough 71% in 1997. In 1979, 76% of registered voters voted and in 1950, 84% of registered voters did so.  

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  • Total seats contested : 659 Labour : 419 seats (63.6% of total seats); 43.2% of popular vote. Gained 146 seats from 1992; lost no seats…