Why do Leaders of the Opposition find it so hard to win general elections?

Over forty years the United Kingdom has seen eight Leaders of the Opposition face the electorate. The UK has shown a tendency to reelect the governing party in that time. This feature establishes where past Leaders of the Opposition have gone wrong and just how crucial the centre ground is. 

In 1979 Margaret Thatcher became the third leader of the opposition to assume the office of Prime Minister in a decade, but those swift changes in government were not to be repeated. Since Thatcher’s victory, only two Leaders of the Opposition have matched the same feat. 

The problem has affected both Labour and the Conservatives who have both spent a considerable amount of time on the opposition benches throughout the decades since 1979. In the last forty years, both parties have endured lengthy spells in power as well as long spells in opposition. 

From 1979 to 1997, Labour spent eighteen years in the wilderness as the Conservatives continued to govern and become an unbreakable force which Labour couldn’t defeat. 

After 18 years of Tory rule, Labour finally found their solution to their electoral woes in Tony Blair who became the first first elected Labour Prime Minister since Harold Wilson in 1974, and the first opposition leader to win an election since Margaret Thatcher. 

As Blairism broke out in the United Kingdom, so did a long stay in opposition for the Conservatives. Following defeat after defeat after defeat, the Conservatives decided to place their trust in a young fresh faced David Cameron, who eventually led the Conservative party back into power alongside the Liberal Democrats. The Conservatives have been in power ever since.

So why have Leaders of the Opposition struggled to win elections in the last forty years? 


The failure to shift to the centre ground

One of the biggest debates in politics for an opposition party is whether they shift towards the centre ground to win an election. The ideology behind shifting to the centre ground is to maintain your support and harvest votes from other political parties, to ultimately put you in power. 

This has been successfully executed by former Labour leader Tony Blair in 1997 and former Conservative leader David Cameron in 2010. Both leaders were credited with modernising their respective parties. 

Co-founder of Centre for Opposition studies Nigel Fletcher says,

 “It’s quite clear that parties do better when they are seen to occupy the centre ground, because that’s where there are most votes. What some leaders have tried to do is to redefine what is the centre ground, that’s a difficult thing to achieve.” 

Clear evidence of one Leader of the Opposition moving the goalpost of where the centre ground was held, was in 2017. Following Labour’s surprise resurgence at the polls, Jeremy Corbyn declared that his left-wing party was the new centre ground. This was a surprise move from Mr Corbyn who was not known for his centre ground politics. 

Labour’s opposition woes

Although Tony Blair successfully transformed the Labour party by shifting the party towards the centre ground, it was a hard recovery for the party who spent eighteen years in opposition, losing four general elections. 

In 1981, a group of rebels in the Labour party, labelled ‘the gang of four’, led a rebellion and formed the new political party called the Social Demcratic Party (SDP). The party was formed as they believed Labour had become too left-wing. This was the beginning of the centre ground in British politics. 

Following Labour’s big election defeat in 1983, many people claimed the split as one of the main reasons why the party did so badly. Labour MP at the time Gerald Kaufman blamed the extreme left-wing manifesto which he later labelled ‘The longest suicide note in history.’

Fast forward to 1992, with a new Conservative Prime Minister at the helm in John Major. The modernisation of the Labour party was well underway under leader Neil Kinnock, as the party shifted towards the centre ground. 

The shift towards the centre ground helped Labour gain forty-two seats in the 1992 general election. However, the party was defeated for a fourth time in a row and this left Kinnock with no other option but to resign after two election losses as leader. 

The modernisation of the Labour party would not end in 1992. In 1997, Labour agony in opposition came to an end, as the party swept to power on the foundations that Kinnock set from the late 80s to the early 90s.


Party infighting 

Infighting has never helped political parties, both parties would and will experience infighting at some point but it is common knowledge that split parties don’t tend to win general elections. So could this be one of the main factors to why leaders of the opposition struggle to win general elections? 

In 2003 the Conservative party took infighting to another level when they decided to overthrow leader Iain Duncan-Smith.

The Conservatives aren’t the only ones who start their own coups against their leaders.In 2016 following the United Kingdom’s decision to vote to leave the European Union, the Labour MPs turned against its leader and declared a vote of no confidence in Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. 

This led to one of the biggest political splits in recent times as Labour MPs declared war on its members’ choice of leader with Mr Corbyn, who had won almost nearly 60% of the vote in the previous leadership election in 2015. 

A damaged Jeremy Corbyn saw off what many of his supporters labelled ‘the chicken coup’, but at a price of huge Conservative lead in the polls, and in 2017 Prime Minister May was ready to seize the opportunity as she called a general election for June the 8th. 

At the election the Prime Minister suffered a humiliating night, after the opposition performed considerable better than most people were expecting. Labour gained around thirty seats to deny Mrs May a majority government. 

Many Corbynistas still insist to this day that Mr Corbyn would have been residing in Downing Street now if his parliamentary colleagues had not stabbed their leader in the back in 2016. 

All these cases have proven that split parties do not win general elections even if the party tries to paper over the cracks during an election campaign. In both 1997 and 2010 when Labour and Conservatives retrospectively came to power, both parties were united behind their leaders even if some people in the parties had their doubts. 


What must the next leader of the opposition do to win the 2024 general election?

The next Labour leader faces a mountain of a challenge to overturn Boris Johnson’s majority of 80. It is very rare in politics in general, let alone modern politics to see such a majority overturned in one go.

Labour councillor for Westbourne ward David Boothroyd says “Labour needs a fundamental, non-ideological review of its approach to fit with the situation of the nation – along the lines of traditional values in modern settings. Only once that review is completed should policies be formed, a process that needs a single person to stop the overpromising which was a problem in the 2019 general election.”

If the party is to improve their fortunes in the polls and become the next government, it would seem crucial that they unite and come together behind whoever is leader and end the civil war which has broken out over the last four and half years. 

It is also seen as crucial that the opposition is seen to occupy the centre-ground which has been abandoned by both parties since Brexit. This will help to retain and regain a lot of the support which the party lost at the 2019 general election. It has also been said that opposition needs to build up credibility, which in turn makes them look like a party who would be capable of governing. It’s important to earn the United Kingdom’s trust ahead of a general election.