Patrick Seyd and Paul Whiteley
In 1983 the Labour Party came within two percentage points of losing its position as one of the two major parties in Britain. It won just 28 per cent of the total vote, its lowest percentage since 1918. With the simple majority, plurality electoral system discriminating against minor parties, its existence as a major player in British politics was under serious threat. In the two subsequent general elections in 1987 and 1992 the party managed to re-establish its position as the major electoral alternative to the Conservative Party, but still obtained only marginal improvements in its share of the total vote. Conservative electoral hegemony appeared to be overwhelming.
Some commentators argued that the long-term prospects of the Labour Party were bleak (see, for example, Crewe 1987, 1991). They claimed that socio-economic trends and, in particular, a decline in the traditional manufacturing industries and in the number of trade unionists, a growth of the middle class, and a movement of population away from large urban areas to the suburbs, were working to Labour's disadvantage. Furthermore, a growing 'culture of contentment' (Galbraith 1992) among voters had created a mood of tax resistance such that they were no longer willing to pay taxes to fund the public provision of goods upon which social democracy was based. Labour's permanence as a major electoral contender was therefore judged to be in doubt.
The party's task of electoral recovery was therefore both problematic and herculean. Nevertheless, from the electoral low points of the 1980s the Labour Party steadily recovered its electoral support and by 1997 had again re-established itself as a major electoral player. In the 1997 general election a Labour government was elected with the largest parliamentary majority in the party's history and, in the following election in 2001, a Labour government was re-elected with a large majority. Again, for the first time in its history, the party had won large parliamentary majorities in two consecutive general elections. Such an achievement is a testament to the party's resilience and resourcefulness and an admonition to those socio-economic determinists who had argued in the 1980s and 1990s that the Labour Party was doomed.