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British Election Panel Study, 1992-97

The Findings

The Labour Party reforms itself…

The Labour Party changed considerably between 1992 and 1997. The survey shows that the reforms made an impact on voters. By the time of the 1997 election people were less likely to think that Labour was in favour of nationalising industries, increasing taxes, or giving a high priority to the reduction of inequality. But much of the change in people's perceptions took place before Tony Blair became leader in 1994.

Interestingly, the panel reveals that although Labour was seen as having moved to the centre, voters themselves were moving leftwards. Compared with 1992, the average voter was by 1997 keener on nationalisation, higher spending (even if that meant higher taxes) and on government attempts to reduce inequality. As a result even more voters were closer to Labour than before.

Voters also believed that the Conservative Party had moved to the right on these issues. It seems, then, that during the nineties the public were moving in the opposite direction to that which they thought both main political parties were moving.

Labour’s new supporters…

Normally it isn’t that common for people to switch their vote directly from Conservative to Labouror vice-versa. What people do is switch between the main parties and the Liberal Democrats, or not vote at all.

However, between 1992 and 1994 (before Tony Blair became Labour leader) Labour gained a lot of new support from former Conservative voters. But even during this period more Conservative voters were switching to the Liberal Democrats than to Labour.

After 1994 the usual pattern was restored: five times as many people switched from the Liberal Democrats to Labour than from the Conservatives to Labour. It would appear, therefore, that Tony Blair's re-branding of his party as ‘New’ bour was most successful at winning over Liberal Democrat voters - indeed much of Labour's local campaigning in key seats in the 1997 election was aimed at winning over Liberal Democrats.

The Tony Blair effect…

The Labour Party has historically been seen as a working class party with strong trade union links. Some people suggest, however, that with Tony Blair as its leader the Labour Party has become more attractive to the middle classes - and that this was vital for its success in winning the 1997 election.

The survey shows that middle class people were indeed more likely to switch to Labour between 1992 and 1997 than were working class people. But at the same time it also suggests that there may have been a price to pay - some of the party's more traditional working class supporters appear to have opted to stay at home.

…The Referendum Party

Some people think that the Referendum Party was very important in the 1997 election, costing the Conservatives as many as 19 seats. Most Referendum Party voters had indeed voted Conservative in 1992. However the panel shows that many of these people had already defected from the Conservatives by 1994 - well before the Referendum Party was founded. Like many other voters who switched from the Conservatives they were dissatisfied about issues such as the NHS, the economy and the Government’s competence, but in 1997 they chose to vote for the Referendum Partyrather than for Labour or the Liberal Democrats because of its distinct Eurosceptic position. So in practice may of the people who voted for t he Referendum Party in 1997 would otherwise have voted Liberal Democrat or Labour rather than for the Conservatives.

…Europe & the rise of Euro-scepticism

Although the Referendum Party wasn’t itself a major source of the Conservatives' problems i the 1997 election, the European issue caused many problems for John Major during the 1992-7 parliament, not least because it occasioned numerous rebellions amongst his back-benchers.. During this period, however, voters became more sceptical in their attitude towards Europe. Meanwhile on average they were also more likely to think that the Conservat ives were Eurosceptic. All of this should have meant that the issue of Europe helped the Conservatives in 1997.

However, the panel shows that only 31% thought that the Conservatives were closest to their views on Europe while 41% put Labour closest to their view? How was this possible?

Voters had varying views about what they thought the Conservatives’ policy position was. Pro-European voters tended to see the Conservatives as Eurosceptic, while Eurosceptic voters believed the Conservatives were pro-European. In short , many voters thought that the Conservatives’ views were the opposite of their own. This may be a reflection of the divisions that the Conservatives suffered on Europe after 1992.

…the role of newspapers & the press

The panel has helped us to understand the role of the press in elections in a unique and interesting way. In 1992 The Sun claimed that it was ‘The Sun wot won it’ as they strongly ba cked the Conservatives in the election. In 1997 however, the newspaper changed sides to back Labour. But can newspapers influence election results?

After 1992 a number of traditional Conservative supporting papers became disparaging of the Government. This meant that many people reading pro-Conservative papers were exposed to more critical coverage than is normally the case.

This does seem to have had some effect. Between 1992 and 1997 readers of those newspapers that were traditionally pro-Conservative but which during this period were more critical were not particularly likely to remain loyal to the Conse rvative. In contrast between 1987 and 1992 they had been. It seems then that the critical coverage meant that much of the traditionally pro-Conservative press did not perform its usual role of helping to maintain Conservative support.

But, this doesn’t mean that the press influenced the outcome of the election in a big way. For although readers of Conservative newspapers were not particularly loyal to their party after 1992, they were not particularly disloyal either. They were simply as likely to switch from the Conservatives as any other voter. Despite the effort made by the Labour Party to woo papers like The Sun and The Daily Mail, it was in fact readers of the traditionally pro-Labour paper The Mirror who were most likely to switch to Labour.

Moreover, the influence of pro-Labour and pro-Conservative papers can often cancel each other out. So although some voters are influenced by the newspapers they read this might not have a very big impact on the overall election o utcome. We should remember too that not all voters read newspapers - and not all newspaper readers vote

Key events April 1992 – May 1997


BEPS fourth survey .

April 9 Conservatives win the general election with a majority of 21.

May 25 Conservatives lose Perth & Kinross by-election.

BEPS first survey .

Jun 22 John Major resigns as Conservative Party leader but later wins a leadership contest.

April 13 Neil Kinnock resigns as Labour leader.

July 5 Jonathan Aitken resigns from Cabinet to fight a libel action against The Guardian newspaper.

May 7 Nationwide local elections, Conservatives gain 300 seats.

July 27 Conservatives lose the Littleborough & Saddleworth by-election.

July 18 John Smith elected Labour Party leader.

Oct 7 Conservative MP Alan Howarth defects to Labour Party.

Sept 16 ‘Black Wednesday’, Britain leaves the Exchange Rate Mechanism, sterling is devalued. Labour overtakes the Conservatives in the polls.

BEPS fifth survey .

Sept 24 David Mellor resigns from Cabinet after a highly publicised extra-marital affair.

Dec 29 Conservative MP Emma Nicholson defects to the Lib Dems.



May 6 Local elections - Conservatives lose 15 Councils and the Newbury by-election.

Feb 15 Damaging arms-to-Iraq report published.

BEPS second survey .

Mar 20 Government admits a link exists between CJD and BSE. EU bans exports of British beef.

May 27 Norman Lamont resigns as Chancellor of the Exchequer.

April 11 Conservatives lose Staffordshire South East by-election.

July 22 Govt loses a vote on the Maastricht Treaty, but later wins a confidence vote.

May 2 English council elections: Conservatives lose 578 seats.

July 29 Conservatives lose Christchurch by-election.

BEPS sixth survey .

October 6 John Major launches his ‘back to basics’ campaign.

Jun 27 Labour announces it will hold referendums on Scottish and Welsh devolution.


Oct 12 Conservative MP Peter Thurnham defects to Lib Dems.

January 5 Tim Yeo MP resigns ministerial post after extra-marital affair exposed.

BEPS seventh survey (partial survey).

May 5 Local elections - large number of Conservative losses.

Nov Parliament begins inquiry into cash-for-questions allegations.

May 12 John Smith, Labour Party leader, dies.

Dec 11 David Willets MP resigns as Paymaster General after his role in parliament’s inquiry into cash for questions causes controversy.

June 9 European elections - Conservatives get 28% of the vote, lose 14 seats and the Eastleigh by-election.


October 25 Neil Hamilton, MP for Tatton resigns ministerial post over cash for questions allegations.

Jan 20 Labour Party announces it will not raise income tax if elected.

BEPS third survey .

Feb 27 Conservatives lose Wirral South by-election.

July 21 Tony Blair elected Labour Party leader. Labour’s support in the polls rises to over 50%.

Mar 8 Conservative MP George Gardiner defects to Referendum Party.

Nov 27 Referendum Party established.

Mar 17 General Election set for May 1st.

Nov 29 Govt removes whip from 8 Euro-rebels.

Mar 18 The Sun announces it will back Labour.

Dec 9 Conservatives lose the Dudley West by-election.

April 8 Martin Bell stands against Neil Hamilton as an independent candidate in Tatton.


May 1 Labour wins the general election with a majority of 179.

May 4 Local elections - Conservatives lose half their councillors.

BEPS eighth and final survey .

For further information about BEPS contact:

Catherine Bromley
National Centre for Social Research
35 Northampton Square
London, EC1V 0AX

Telephone: 020 7549 9572

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