What if...Labour had won in 1992?

Prospect’s counter-factual column
March 27, 2014

John Major’s victory in the general election of 1992 was both convincing and precarious. The Conservatives won the endorsement of over 14m people, the largest popular vote ever, but ended up with a majority of only 21 in the House of Commons. So concentrated was Tory support in safe seats that if just 1,284 voters in 11 marginal constituencies had switched allegiance, the result would have been a hung parliament. A slightly increased swing to Labour and it would have been Neil Kinnock moving into Downing Street.

What if that had been the case? What if Kinnock had won with the kind of wafer-thin majority that Harold Wilson had achieved in 1964 and 1974?

Some of the legislative programme would merely have pre-empted what actually happened later in the decade. A Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly would have been created; Britain would have signed up to European social and employment rights and introduced a minimum wage (set some 12 per cent higher than it turned out to be); and private finance would have been used for reviving public services, particularly for the still-nationalised railways.

All this was spelled out in the Labour manifesto, as was a commitment to “maintain the value of the pound within the European Exchange Rate Mechanism” (ERM). And that, of course, was precisely the issue that did for the Major government on Black Wednesday, when the markets moved against sterling and forced the currency out of the ERM. That was in September 1992; under a Labour government the crisis would simply have come sooner, as speculators sought to exploit an untried administration.

Economically, the result would have been the same: the pound forced out of the ERM, the economy in recovery.

Politically, though, it would have been very different. The inexperience of Kinnock, and of Chancellor John Smith and Foreign Secretary Gerald Kaufman, would have told against Labour, and provided some compensation for satirists deprived of Tory sleaze. But it wouldn’t have needed a great deal of spin to lay the blame for the debacle on Major, the man who took Britain into the ERM as Chancellor. A short period of panic early in the parliament would soon have been forgotten as wages rose, interest rates and unemployment fell, and inflation remained under control. By the time of the next election—probably in 1996—Labour would be able to point to its track record of four years of growth, fuelled by the post- Cold War boom and cheap imports from the Far East.

In that election, a confident and assured Kinnock would have faced a new Conservative leader. For it’s hard to see how Major could have remained in office. After Margaret Thatcher’s hat-trick of election victories, the 1992 loss would not have been tolerated. The ensuing leadership contest would have seen Michael Heseltine making one final bid and finding his reputation as Thatcher’s assassin again counting against him, while the loyalist Thatcherite vote would have split between the lightweight candidatures of Kenneth Baker and Norman Lamont. The victor would surely have been Kenneth Clarke, the 51-year-old ex-grammar schoolboy who could boast 22 years as an MP and valuable experience as Health and then Education Secretary. His major handicap— his pro-European stance—would have meant little in the spring of 1992. That would change with the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty and Labour’s first tentative steps (despite union opposition) towards joining a single currency. Clarke’s support for those measures would not have been matched by his backbenchers and, with the comfort of opposition, even his front-bench would have been uncooperative. The splits that bedevilled Major would have been visited on Clarke, and he would have led a divided party to defeat in 1996. At which point his ambitious young Shadow Employment Secretary, Michael Portillo, would have made his move as the keeper of the Thatcherite flame.

With Kinnock looking secure enough to go for a third term, and with an obvious long-term successor in the shape of the new Chancellor, Gordon Brown (appointed following Smith’s untimely death), this might have been the time for Portillo’s opposite number, Tony Blair, to decide to move on from politics. If Labour was winning, there would be no need for that product of despair, New Labour.

As for Major himself, there was one obvious role for a politician who made conciliation his priority. The 1993 approach by the IRA (“The conflict is over”) would still have been made, but to ensure bipartisan support, a Labour government would have been wise to appoint a Conservative to front their response. It was, after all, Tory politicians who had been the target of the IRA over the previous two decades. And Major would have been the ideal candidate for the job. Like Neil Kinnock, who would have proved a highly competent Prime Minister, Major’s place in history might have looked very different indeed.