1959 United Kingdom general election

Last updated

1959 United Kingdom general election
Flag of the United Kingdom.svg
  1955 8 October 1959 1964  

All 630 seats in the House of Commons
316 seats needed for a majority
Opinion polls
Turnout78.7%, Increase2.svg1.9%
 First partySecond partyThird party
  Harold Macmillan (cropped).jpg Hugh Gaitskell crop.jpg Jo Grimond in 1963 (3x4 crop).jpg
Leader Harold Macmillan Hugh Gaitskell Jo Grimond
Party Conservative Labour Liberal
Leader since10 January 1957 14 December 1955 5 November 1956
Leader's seat Bromley Leeds South Orkney and Shetland
Last election345 seats, 49.7%277 seats, 46.4%6 seats, 2.7%
Seats won3652586
Seat changeIncrease2.svg20Decrease2.svg19Steady2.svg
Popular vote13,750,87512,216,1721,640,760

UK General Election, 1959.svg
Colours denote the winning party—as shown in § Results

Composition of the Commons in 1959.svg
Composition of the House of Commons after the election

Prime Minister before election

Harold Macmillan

Prime Minister after election

Harold Macmillan

The 1959 United Kingdom general election was held on Thursday, 8 October 1959. It marked a third consecutive victory for the ruling Conservative Party, now led by Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. For the second time in a row, the Conservatives increased their overall majority in Parliament, this time to a landslide majority of 100 seats, having gained 20 seats for a return of 365. The Labour Party, led by Hugh Gaitskell, lost 19 seats and returned 258. The Liberal Party, led by Jo Grimond, again returned only six MPs to the House of Commons, but managed to increase its overall share of the vote to 5.9%, compared to just 2.7% four years earlier.


The Conservatives won the largest number of votes in Scotland, but narrowly failed to win the most seats in that country. They have not made either achievement ever since. Both Jeremy Thorpe, a future Liberal leader, and Margaret Thatcher, a future Conservative leader and eventually Prime Minister, first entered the House of Commons after this election.


After the Suez Crisis in 1956, Anthony Eden, the Conservative Prime Minister, became unpopular. He resigned early in 1957, and was succeeded by Chancellor of the Exchequer Harold Macmillan. At that point, the Labour Party, whose leader Hugh Gaitskell had succeeded Clement Attlee after the 1955 general election, enjoyed large leads in opinion polls over the Conservative Party, and it looked as if Labour would win. [1]

The Liberal Party also had a new leader, Jo Grimond, so all three parties contested the election with a new leader at the helm. [1]

However, the Conservatives enjoyed an upturn in fortunes as the economy quickly recovered from the Recession of 1958 under Macmillan's leadership, and his personal approval ratings remained high. At the same time, the Labour Party's popularity suffered due to the rise of industrial disputes in the 1950s and controversies over the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. By September 1958, the Conservatives had moved ahead of Labour in the opinion polls. [1] Parliament was dissolved on 18 September 1959. [2]


All the three main parties had changed leadership since the previous election. The Conservatives fought under the slogan "Life is better with the Conservatives, don't let Labour ruin it" and were boosted by a pre-election economic boom. Macmillan very effectively "summed up" the mood of the British public when he said that most of the people had "never had it so good". Macmillan was very popular, and was described as a politician of the centre ground; in the 1930s he had represented a constituency in northern England (Stockton-on-Tees), which had experienced large-scale unemployment and poverty during the Great Depression. The first week of polling put the Conservatives ahead of Labour by over 5%, but this narrowed as the campaign continued. The Labour Party fought a generally effective campaign, with television broadcasts masterminded by Tony Benn under the umbrella of their manifesto entitled Britain Belongs to You, which accused the Conservatives of complacency over the growing gap between rich and poor. [3] Labour's manifesto pledged to reverse reductions in welfare benefits, pensions, and National Health Service expenditure; renationalize the steel industry and road haulage; reform secondary education; expand consumer protections; and create the Welsh Office. It notably promised not to fully nationalise industries which were performing efficiently and profitably, pivoting away from its earlier emphasis on socialism towards welfare capitalism. [4] Hugh Gaitskell made a mistake in declaring that a Labour government would not raise taxes if it came to power—even though the Labour manifesto contained pledges to increase spending; especially to increase pensions. Although Gaitskell argued revenue would be provided by economic growth, this led some voters to doubt Labour's spending plans, and is cited as a key reason for their defeat. [1] [4]


Early on during election night, it became clear that the Conservative Party had been returned to government with an increased majority, performing better than it had been expected to. For the fourth general election in a row, the Conservatives increased their number of seats, despite experiencing a slight decrease in their share of the vote. However, there were swings to Labour in parts of north-west England, and in Scotland; where Scottish Labour had overtaken the Conservative-aligned Unionist Party as the largest single party in terms of seats, despite winning a slightly smaller share of the vote, thanks to overturning narrow majorities in several constituencies. Future Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was elected to the House of Commons for the first time as the MP for Finchley, where she would represent until her retirement from politics 33 years later at the 1992 general election.

For Labour, the result was disappointing; despite appearing more united than they had in recent years under Gaitskell's leadership, the party suffered a third consecutive defeat. James Callaghan believed that the Conservatives increased their majority in part because working-class Labour voters were still angry at the party for opposing the Suez conflict. [5] Many of both the Labour Party's supporters and opponents, including Prime Minister Macmillan himself, also blamed the Gaitskellite leadership for spending more time preparing to form a government with the assumption that they would win the election than actually campaigning or offering criticism of the Conservative Party's leadership. Political scientists Mark Abrams and Richard Rose blamed Labour's electoral losses from 1959 onwards on an "embourgeoisement" in which British voters identified increasingly with the middle class, leaving Labour's appeals to the working class less effective. Another key factor was the decline of support of younger voters after 1955, although older voters over the age of 65 increased support for the party in 1959 because of its pledges to expand pensions. [4]

While the Liberal Party earned more than twice as many votes compared to the previous general election, this was largely the result of them nominating nearly double the number of candidates that they did four years prior; their average number of votes-per-candidate only slightly improved. Future Liberal Party Leader Jeremy Thorpe was elected to Parliament for the first time, as the MP for North Devon.

The Daily Mirror , despite being a staunch supporter of the Labour Party, wished Macmillan "good luck" on its front page following his election victory.

The BBC Television Service's election coverage, presented by Richard Dimbleby, was shown on BBC Parliament on 9 October 2009 to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the election and again on 9 October 2019 to mark the sixtieth anniversary.

The 1959 general election was the first election to be covered by commercial television in the United Kingdom. The ITV network provided election night coverage from the studios of Independent Television News (ITN) in London, with ITV given permission by the Independent Television Authority to use all of the ITV companies on air in 1959 for election links to the main studio in London. Ian Trethowan was the presenter for the ITV coverage. [6]

1959 UK parliament.svg
1959 United Kingdom general election
PartyLeaderStoodElectedGainedUnseatedNet % of total %No.Net %
  Conservative Harold Macmillan 625365288+2057.949.413,750,8750.3
  Labour Hugh Gaitskell 6212589281941.043.812,216,1722.6
  Liberal Jo Grimond 2166 1 1 01.05.91,640,760+3.2
  Plaid Cymru Gwynfor Evans 2000000.377,571+0.1
  Sinn Féin Paddy McLogan 1200220.263,4150.4
  Communist John Gollan 1800000.130,8960.0
  SNP Jimmy Halliday 500000.121,7380.0
  Ind. Labour Group Frank Hanna 1 00000.120,062N/A
  Ind. Conservative N/A2 1 1 0+10.20.114,118N/A
  Independent N/A500000.07,492N/A
  Fife Socialist League Lawrence Daly 1 00000.04,886N/A
  Independent Liberal N/A200000.04,473N/A
  Union Movement Oswald Mosley 1 00000.02,821N/A
  Lancastrian Tom Emmott 1 00000.01,889N/A
  National Labour John Bean 1 00000.01,685N/A
  Fellowship Ronald Mallone 1 00000.01,189N/A
  Ind. Labour Party Fred Morel200000.09230.0
  Socialist (GB) N/A 1 00000.0899N/A
 Alert PartyGeorge Forrester 1 00000.0788N/A
All parties shown. [lower-alpha 1]
Government's new majority100
Total votes cast27,862,652

Votes summary

Popular Vote
Conservative and Unionist

Seat summary

Parliamentary seats
Conservative and Unionist
Independent Conservative

Transfers of seats

Labour Labour (HOLD)many
National Liberal 1 Bristol North East
Conservative 25 Acton, Barons Court, Birmingham All Saints, Birmingham Sparkbrook, Birmingham Yardley, Brierley Hill, Bristol North West, Clapham, Cleveland, Coventry South, Derbyshire SE, The Hartlepools, Holborn and St Pancras South, Keighley, Lowestoft, Meriden, Newcastle upon Tyne East, Nottingham West, Reading, Rochester and Chatham, Rugby, Swansea West, Uxbridge, Wellingborough, Willesden East
Sinn Féin Ulster Unionist 2 Mid Ulster 1, Fermanagh and South Tyrone 2
Liberal Labour 1 Carmarthen
Liberal (HOLD)5 Bolton West, Cardiganshire, Huddersfield West, Montgomeryshire, Orkney and Shetland
National Liberal National Liberal (HOLD)16 Angus North and Mearns, Angus South, Bedfordshire South, Bradford North, Bradford West, Dumfriesshire, Fife East, Harwich, Holland with Boston, Huntingdonshire, Luton, Norfolk Central, Plymouth Devonport, Renfrewshire West, Ross and Cromarty, St Ives
Conservative 3 Denbigh, Newcastle upon Tyne North†, Torrington 3
Conservative Labour 6 Ayrshire Central, Glasgow Craigton, Glasgow Scotstoun, Lanark, Oldham East, Rochdale
Liberal 1 Devon North
Conservative (HOLD)many
Ind. Conservative 1 Caithness and Sutherland*
Ulster Unionist Ulster Unionist 10 North Antrim, South Antrim, Armagh, Belfast East, Belfast North, Belfast South, Belfast West, Down North, Down South, Londonderry
Speaker Conservative 1 Cirencester and Tewkesbury
1 Sinn Féin winner in 1955 overturned on petition. The second-placed Ulster Unionist candidate was also overturned, by resolution of the House; eventually the 1956 by-election was held, which returned an Independent Unionist. This candidate later defected to the Ulster Unionists.
2 Sinn Féin winner in 1955 overturned on petition for criminal conviction. The second-placed candidate, an Ulster Unionist, was awarded the seat. He retained it in 1959.
3 Seat had been won by the Liberals in a 1958 by-election.

See also


Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">1997 United Kingdom general election</span>

The 1997 United Kingdom general election was held on Thursday, 1 May 1997. The governing Conservative Party led by Prime Minister John Major was defeated in a landslide by the Labour Party led by Tony Blair, achieving a 179-seat majority.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">1979 United Kingdom general election</span>

The 1979 United Kingdom general election was held on Thursday 3 May 1979 to elect 635 members to the House of Commons.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">1983 United Kingdom general election</span> British 1983 election

The 1983 United Kingdom general election was held on Thursday 9 June 1983. It gave the Conservative Party under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher the most decisive election victory since that of the Labour Party in 1945, with a majority of 144 seats and the first of two consecutive landslide victories.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">1970 United Kingdom general election</span>

The 1970 United Kingdom general election was held on Thursday 18 June 1970. It resulted in a surprise victory for the Conservative Party under leader Edward Heath, which defeated the governing Labour Party under Prime Minister Harold Wilson. The Liberal Party, under its new leader Jeremy Thorpe, lost half its seats. The Conservatives, including the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), secured a majority of 30 seats. This general election was the first in which people could vote from the age of 18, after passage of the Representation of the People Act the previous year, and the first UK election where party, and not just candidate names were allowed to be put on the ballots.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">1987 United Kingdom general election</span>

The 1987 United Kingdom general election was held on Thursday 11 June 1987, to elect 650 members to the House of Commons. The election was the third consecutive general election victory for the Conservative Party, who won a majority of 102 seats and second landslide under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher, who became the first Prime Minister since the Earl of Liverpool in 1820 to lead a party into three successive electoral victories.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Jo Grimond</span> British soldier, politician and academic (1913-1993)

Joseph Grimond, Baron Grimond, was a British politician, leader of the Liberal Party for eleven years from 1956 to 1967 and again briefly on an interim basis in 1976.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">February 1974 United Kingdom general election</span>

The February 1974 United Kingdom general election was held on Thursday 28 February 1974. The Labour Party, led by Leader of the Opposition and former Prime Minister Harold Wilson, gained 14 seats but was seventeen short of an overall majority. The Conservative Party, led by incumbent Prime Minister Edward Heath, lost 28 seats. That resulted in a hung parliament, the first since 1929. Heath sought a coalition with the Liberals, but the two parties failed to come to an agreement and so Wilson became Prime Minister for a second time, his first with a minority government. Wilson called another early election in September, which was held in October and resulted in a Labour majority. The February election was also the first general election to be held with the United Kingdom as a member state of the European Communities (EC), which was widely known as the "Common Market".

<span class="mw-page-title-main">October 1974 United Kingdom general election</span>

The October 1974 United Kingdom general election took place on Thursday 10 October 1974 to elect 635 members of the British House of Commons. It was the second general election held that year; the first year that two general elections were held in the same year since 1910; and the first time that two general elections were held less than a year apart from each other since the 1923 and 1924 elections, which took place 10 months apart. The election resulted in the Labour Party, led by Prime Minister Harold Wilson, winning a bare majority of three seats. That enabled the remainder of the Labour government to take place, but it saw a gradual loss of its majority.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">1964 United Kingdom general election</span>

The 1964 United Kingdom general election was held on Thursday 15 October 1964, five years after the previous election, and thirteen years after the Conservative Party, first led by Sir Winston Churchill, had regained power. It resulted in the Conservatives, led by the incumbent Prime Minister Alec Douglas-Home, narrowly losing to the Labour Party, led by Harold Wilson; Labour secured a parliamentary majority of four seats and ended its thirteen years in opposition. Wilson became the youngest Prime Minister since Lord Rosebery in 1894. To date, this is also the most narrow majority obtained in the House of Commons with just 1 seat clearing Labour for a majority government.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">1966 United Kingdom general election</span>

The 1966 United Kingdom general election was held on Thursday 31 March 1966. The result was a landslide victory for the Labour Party led by incumbent Prime Minister Harold Wilson.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Unionist Party (Scotland)</span> Former centre-right political party in Scotland

The Unionist Party was the main centre-right political party in Scotland between 1912 and 1965.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">1950 United Kingdom general election</span>

The 1950 United Kingdom general election was the first ever to be held after a full term of Labour government. The election was held on Thursday 23 February 1950, and was the first held following the abolition of plural voting and university constituencies. The government's 1945 lead over the Conservative Party shrank dramatically, and Labour was returned to power but with an overall majority reduced from 146 to just 5. There was a 2.8% national swing towards the Conservatives, who gained 90 seats. Labour called another general election in 1951, which the Conservative Party won.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">1951 United Kingdom general election</span> October 1951 general election

The 1951 United Kingdom general election was held twenty months after the 1950 general election, which the Labour Party had won with a slim majority of just five seats. The Labour government called a snap election for Thursday 25 October 1951 in the hope of increasing its parliamentary majority. However, despite winning the popular vote and achieving both the highest-ever total vote until it was surpassed by the Conservative Party in 1992 and again in 2019 and the highest percentage vote share, Labour won fewer seats than the Conservative Party. That was caused mainly by the collapse of the Liberal vote, which enabled the Conservatives to win seats by default. The election marked the return of Winston Churchill as Prime Minister and the beginning of Labour's 13-year spell in opposition. It was the third and final general election to be held during the reign of King George VI, as he died the following year on 6 February and was succeeded by his daughter, Elizabeth II. It was the last election in which the Conservatives did better in Scotland than in England.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">1955 United Kingdom general election</span>

The 1955 United Kingdom general election was held on Thursday 26 May 1955, four years after the previous general election in 1951. It was a snap election: after Winston Churchill retired in April 1955, Anthony Eden took over and immediately called the election in order to gain a mandate for his government. It resulted in a majority of 60 seats for the government under new leader and Prime Minister Anthony Eden; the result remains the largest party share of the vote at a post-war general election. This was the first general election to be held with Elizabeth II as monarch. She had succeeded her father George VI the year after the previous election.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">1918 United Kingdom general election</span>

The 1918 United Kingdom general election was called immediately after the Armistice with Germany which ended the First World War, and was held on Saturday, 14 December 1918. The governing coalition, under Prime Minister David Lloyd George, sent letters of endorsement to candidates who supported the coalition government. These were nicknamed "Coalition Coupons", and led to the election being known as the "coupon election". The result was a massive landslide in favour of the coalition, comprising primarily the Conservatives and Coalition Liberals, with massive losses for Liberals who were not endorsed. Nearly all the Liberal MPs without coupons were defeated, including party leader H. H. Asquith.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">2004 European Parliament election in the United Kingdom</span> Election

The 2004 European Parliament election was the United Kingdom's part of the wider 2004 European Parliament election which was held between 10 and 13 June 2004 in the 25 member states of the European Union. The United Kingdom's part of this election was held on Thursday 10 June 2004. The election also coincided with the 2004 local elections and the London Assembly and mayoral elections. In total, 78 Members of the European Parliament were elected from the United Kingdom using proportional representation.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">2005 United Kingdom general election</span>

The 2005 United Kingdom general election was held on Thursday 5 May 2005, to elect 646 members to the House of Commons. The governing Labour Party, led by Tony Blair, won its third consecutive victory, with Blair becoming the second Labour leader after Harold Wilson to form three majority governments. However, its majority fell to 66 seats; the majority it won four years earlier had been of 167 seats. This was the first time the Labour Party had won a third consecutive election, and remains the party's most recent general election victory.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">History of the Conservative Party (UK)</span> Aspect of British political history

The Conservative Party is the oldest political party in the United Kingdom and arguably the world. The current party was first organised in the 1830s and the name "Conservative" was officially adopted, but the party is still often referred to as the Tory party. The Tories had been a coalition that more often than not formed the government from 1760 until the Reform Act 1832. Modernising reformers said the traditionalistic party of "Throne, Altar and Cottage" was obsolete, but in the face of an expanding electorate 1830s–1860s it held its strength among royalists, devout Anglicans and landlords and their tenants.

"One more heave" was a slogan used by British Liberal Party leader Jeremy Thorpe during the October 1974 general election and a phrase used to describe the political strategy of John Smith, leader of the Labour Party from July 1992 until his death in May 1994.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">2019 United Kingdom general election</span> Election to the 58th United Kingdom House of Commons

The 2019 United Kingdom general election was held on Thursday 12 December 2019 to elect members of the House of Commons. The Conservative Party won a landslide victory with a majority of 80 seats, a net gain of 48, on 43.6% of the popular vote, the highest percentage for any party since the 1979 general election.


  1. 1 2 3 4 "8 October 1959", BBC Politics 97, retrieved 20 May 2013
  2. "Parliamentary Election Timetables" (PDF) (3rd ed.). House of Commons Library. 25 March 1997. Retrieved 3 July 2022.
  3. "1959: Macmillan wins Tory hat trick", BBC News, 5 April 2005, retrieved 20 May 2018
  4. 1 2 3 Thorpe, Andrew (1997). A History of the British Labour Party. London: Macmillan Education UK. pp. 145–147. doi:10.1007/978-1-349-25305-0. ISBN   978-0-333-56081-5.
  5. James Callaghan, Time and Chance (London: Collins, 1987), p. 515.
  6. "Political Television 1955-59". Archived from the original on 1 December 1998. Retrieved 13 September 2019.