The election of 1979 marked a watershed moment in British politics. This is not to say that everything about the vote was black-and-white. It is, for example, indeed true—as many contemporary historians are wont to point out—that Thatcher was careful to avoid making her proposals sound too radical and that the Conservative manifesto (the party program) included little in the way of detailed policies for change. It is true that she might have faced a much different political landscape if Callaghan had called for a general election back in the early fall of 1978 (as some of his advisers had counseled), before the Winter of Discontent had left British voters conclusively disgusted with the direction of the country. And it is even true that her personal popularity rating remained well below Callaghan’s right up to the end. Yet despite these qualifiers, there can be no mistaking the fact that Thatcher used the election of 1979 to offer a fundamental break with the way the country had been governed. Voters saw that she was offering a dramatically new approach to dealing with the unions, and it was also clear to them that she was proposing a new set of policies on management of the economy. She pledged change to an electorate that was deeply disillusioned with the status quo—and she did this less through election documents than through her own speeches and campaign appearances. Along the way she also departed decisively from the received wisdom on British electioneering. The message here was, at least in part, the medium—Margaret Thatcher herself.
Conservative leaders before her had focused their campaigns on the classic Tory electorate—those members of the middle and upper classes living in the more affluent parts of the country. Thatcher and her advisers, however, set out to target voter categories long neglected by Conservative campaigners. She made a point, for example, of specifically wooing skilled laborers of the type that Tebbit was courting in his home district. Known in the mysterious argot of British pollsters as “C2s,” these workers had long been considered automatic Labour voters. Thatcher disagreed. She believed that many union members resented the undemocratic ways and the cynical tactics of their leaders, and she surmised that many working-class voters would be correspondingly receptive to her calls for greater constraints on union power. She also felt that upwardly mobile workers would welcome her proposals to allow the tenants of public housing to buy their homes. She reasoned that many C2s were also tired of inflation and runaway spending. This was why she staged her first big election rally in the traditional Labour stronghold of Cardiff in Wales. “Labour, the self proclaimed party of compassion, has betrayed those for whom it promised to care,” she told her audience. “So in this campaign we’ll not only extend and consolidate Conservative support, we’ll carry the fight right into what were once the castles and strongholds of Labour, and in many places we’ll win.”
Her campaign tactics were equally novel. She shunned the traditional Conservative support network in the broadsheet newspapers and favored instead the tabloids and daytime TV—an approach that allowed her to tap into a new electorate in the embattled middle classes who felt threatened by the growing power of the state and the unions and also allowed her to avoid probing questions about policy specifics. She made aggressive use of television, whereupon she was accused (comical as it might seem to a modern audience) of the egregious sin of importing “American-style campaigning” to Britain. She proved very effective at exploiting the medium—especially once her adviser Gordon Reece prevailed upon her to lower her voice, an adjustment that lent her gravitas and authority.
This might seem trivial, but it was especially important in light of Callaghan’s magisterial efforts to use her gender against her. It was not so much what he said as how he said it; he was a master at sardonically implying that whatever the leader of the opposition said was made even sillier by the fact that it was being said by a woman. She countered this by doing what she had always done to beat so many male competitors before: she worked harder, sleeping just a few hours a night as she relentlessly studied her briefing papers and learned her lines. At the same time, she turned her gender to her own advantage by slipping, when she chose to, into the role of a commonsensical housewife, hoisting sample grocery bags to drive home the corrosive effects of runaway prices on the ordinary household budget. Nor was she afraid to give interviews to women’s magazines in which she shared recipes and stressed her fussy mastery of good housekeeping. Not only did this help to draw in female voters, but it also underlined her point that the economic remedies she was proposing were less a matter of abstract theories than of the everyday ethos of thrift and moderation on which many British households prided themselves.
26 December 2016
Thatcher's Unorthodox Campaign, 1979
From Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century, by Christian Caryl (Basic Books, 2014), Kindle Loc. 3391-3428: