From the beginning of the campaign on 11 March, the parties were neck and neck in the opinion polls, with Labour fractionally ahead. The commentators predicted a hung parlia ment; the only question, it seemed, was whether Labour or the Tories would be the largest party. Even the exit polls suggested a hung parliament.
The result, when it came on 9 April, was one that nobody, not even the Tories, had expected. The Government had 42.8 per cent of the vote, Labour 35.2 per cent. The Tories had lost only a fraction of the vote they recorded in 1987. Labour, admittedly, was well up on its 1987 vote; but its share was still lower than it recorded in 12 consecutive elections between 1935 and 1979.
So did Labour blow its golden chance? And, if so, how? The 1992 British Election Study, part of a series that has been carried out for every election since 1964, provides the most authoritative answer we are ever likely to get. It is based on interviews with some 3,800 electors who were interviewed just after the 1992 election, and with another 1,300 who were first contacted in 1987 and then interviewed again both during and after the 1992 campaign. The analyses in our study were carried out by 25 leading political scientists many of whom are carrying out separate research into voting behaviour.
We have examined a variety of popular suspects for Labour's unexpected defeat:
The press. 'It was The Sun wot won it', boasted Britain's highest-selling tabloid newspaper immediately after the result; and, in his resignation speech, Neil Kinnock said that 'the Conservative-supporting press has enabled the Conservative Party to win yet again'.
We found no support for this theory. Among readers of pro-Tory tabloids, support for the Conservatives fell by three points during the election campaign, and it also fell by one point among readers of pro-Tory broadsheets. Just as perversely, support for the Tories rose slightly among readers of the pro-Labour Daily Mirror. It also rose among people who did not read any newspaper.
This may look like good news for Labour. But there is a sting in the tail. Since 1992, much of the traditional Tory press has turned its fire on John Major's government. Some Labour supporters have hailed this as a decisive change. If the press failed to help the Tories in 1992, however, it must be equally unlikely to do much for Labour in 1996 or 1997.
Kinnock and Major. Many commentators suggested that the voters took a personal dislike to Mr Kinnock, but warmed to Mr Major. As the Sun put it, 'voters just did not believe Mr Kinnock was fit to run Britain'. Or, in the Daily Express's words, 'it was John Major the voters knew they could trust'.
Throughout the 1992 election campaign, Mr Major's personal standing remained much higher than Mr Kinnock's. And the data from our interviews suggests that the Labour leader's standing deteriorated slightly between 1987 and 1992. Voters saw Mr Kinnock as more 'extreme' than Mr Major, less inclined to 'look after all classes' and less 'capable of being a strong leader'.
But do party leaders make a difference to people's votes? The findings showed that they do, but only a little. Some 54 per cent of 'Tory identifiers' - people who normally think of themselves as Tories regardless of how they vote in any election - rated Mr Major highest of the three party leaders, whereas only 36 per cent of 'Labour identifiers' similarly rated Mr Kinnock. 'Identifiers' who did not rate their own party leader highly were more likely than other 'identifiers' to desert the party of their primary loyalty.
But the effects were not enough to make a decisive difference to the election result. Mr Major's appeal as leader, compared with Mr Kinnock's, was probably worth no more than one percentage point to the Tory share of the vote.
Fear of a Labour victory. The argument here is that people who intended to vote Liberal Democrat switched to the Tories at the last minute because they feared letting Labour in. Late in the campaign, Mr Major spoke of Paddy Ashdown as the doorkeeper to a Labour Britain. But the surveys found no evidence of any net movement from Liberal Democrats to the Tories during the campaign. During the final week, only 5 per cent of intending Liberal Democrats thought that Labour would have enough MPs to form a government on its own. And many of these would have preferred a Labour to a Tory government anyway.
An alternative explanation is that Liberal Democrats intending to cast 'tactical' votes for Labour in constituencies where their own party had no chance may have taken fright. Although there is some support for this theory, the effects are too small to have made any material difference.
Labour taxes. Labour's proposals for taxation and national insurance contributions - outlined in John Smith's 'alternative Budget' - were relentlessly attacked by the Conservatives. Faced with the prospect of a cut in their disposable income, the argument runs, voters had second thoughts about the wisdom of letting Labour in.
But our surveys find little evidence to back this argument. It arose because the polls showed a small Labour lead throughout a campaign in which taxation was one of the dominant issues and yet the Tories won. Our research, however, confirms that the pollsters had it wrong all along: they consistently underestimated the Tory vote. The Conservatives were ahead throughout the campaign. There was a late swing, but far too small to account for Labour's defeat. And the people who deserted Labour were not particularly averse to high taxation; rather, they seemed to have relatively little faith in Labour's ability to improve services such as health and education.
Sheffield rally and 'Jennifer's Ear'. Labour's Sheffield rally, on 1 April, was widely criticised by journalists and some Labour politicians for over-confidence. A week earlier, a Labour election broadcast had led to a row when the name of a small girl who had been waiting for an ear operation on the NHS was leaked. Some change in opinion may have taken place after the 'Jennifer's Ear' broadcast. But, if it was connected with the broadcast, the Liberal Democrats, who had refused to get involved in the bickering, were the beneficiaries, winning support from Labour and the Tories equally.
An error-free campaign (if such a thing can exist) might have pushed Labour's share of the vote up from 35 to 36 per cent. That might well have been enough to deprive the Tories of their overall majority but nothing like enough to make Labour the largest party. Like most of its predecessors, the 1992 election was won and lost before the official campaign began.
Popular capitalism. The Tory government's council house sales, involving more than 1.5m tenants, greatly increased owner-occupation in Britain. Between 20 and 30 per cent of the electorate bought shares in privatised companies. And trade union membership declined by more than 3.5 million people. All these developments, it is argued, make people more likely to vote Conservative, less likely to vote Labour.
The theory stands up but it is not a significant factor. True, people who had bought council houses between 1983 and 1992 were less likely than local authority tenants to have voted Labour. So were those who bought shares in privatised companies, compared with those who did not, and those who left trade unions after 1983, compared with those who stayed members.
But popular capitalism reforms probably gained the Conservatives no more than 1 per cent of the vote. The more serious news for Labour is that the advantage may endure: for example, those who bought shares before 1987 were still slightly more likely than non- shareholders to vote Tory
Poll tax de-registration. Our findings suggest that as many as 500,000 voters did not register because they wanted to avoid paying poll tax. The gain to the Conservatives' lead in overall votes was only 0.5 per cent, however. This is enough, in theory, to have cost Labour as many as seven extra seats and the Liberal Democrats three, but only if one makes some heroic assumptions about the distribution of the votes.
Labour lost skilled workers. Many commentators have argued that social class does not matter as much as it did in the past and that increasing affluence and widening opportunities have detached the skilled working class from their traditional roots and voting habits.
We dispute this view. Labour has indeed lost support among the working classes, but no more so than it has lost support among other classes. It was simply never the case that Margaret Thatcher was particularly good at appealing to the skilled working classes.
The working class is getting smaller. In 1964, the working class amounted to 51 per cent of the electorate (60 per cent if we include manual foremen). In 1992, it has fallen to 35 per cent (40 per cent with the foremen). The figures speak for themselves but we should not exaggerate the effects for Labour because other social trends have been working in the opposite direction. For instance, ethnic minorities, a pro- Labour group on the whole, have increased in numbers. So have people with higher education, who are less likely to vote Tory. Moreover, regular church-goers, who are more inclined to vote Conservative, have diminished.
Overall, however, social trends over the last three decades have damaged Labour's electoral prospects. We looked at the share of the vote that each party got from each social class in 1992. Then we looked at what would have happened if the social composition of the electorate had been what it was in 1964. We conclude that, in 1992, Labour might have got five percentage points more, the Conservatives four points fewer.
This looks like terrible news for Labour. It has become the 'natural' party of a minority social class. But that was the cross the Conservatives bore until well into the 1960s and it never stopped them from regularly winning elections.
So far, we have concentrated on the factors that may have damaged Labour in 1992. But our research also found factors that boosted Labour. Those voters who felt that either their own or the country's finances had stagnated since 1987 did punish the Tories. The economy, far from being irrelevant, probably cost the Conservatives around two percentage points. We found, too, that Labour's Policy Review probably gained the party an extra percentage point. Labour's more moderate image, indirectly created by the review, may have gained it another two points.
What hurt Labour was that the effects of all these things were so small. Despite the depth of the recession, and the effort the party put into its pol-
icy review, Labour achieved little more than a 2 per cent swing from the Tories.
We are forced to look for more long-term explanations. Successive surveys have shown that Labour loyalties - not just voting behaviour but emotional identification with the party - declined steeply between 1979 and 1983, when the party had its protracted row about nuclear disarmament and the split which led to the formation of the Social Democratic Party. These difficulties did not just cost the party votes in the short term; they also broke long-term bonds for many voters. Throughout the 1980s, Labour may well have suffered from the lack of an underlying emotional sympathy.
There is some evidence that the same thing may now be happening to the Conservatives. Gallup, using the same questions as we used to establish party loyalty (an attachment to a party that goes beyond voting for it in a particular election), found a sharp decline in the numbers identifying with the Tories since the 1992 election. It is at least plausible that events since 1992 have had the same effect on the public's image and affection for the Conservative Party as the 'winter of discontent' and the internal splits had on its image of Labour 10 to 15 years ago.
In one sense, the task facing Labour's new leader at the next election is a daunting one. He or she needs a 5 per cent swing from 1992 if the party is to win an overall majority, more than it has achieved in any post-war election. And each election becomes a little harder for it to win because of the shrinking working-class base.
But, in other senses, the signs are encouraging for Labour. Even after the boundary review a 1 per cent swing from 1992 could be enough to deny the Tories an overall majority. This is clearly within Labour's reach; even a 3 per cent swing, which would make Labour the largest party, is within the bounds of possibility. Indeed, if sufficient voters defect from the Tories to the Liberal Democrats, Labour could win the next election with the same share of the vote as in 1992. Labour is a close challenger to the Conservatives in far more seats than the Liberal Democrats are; any fall in the Conservative vote, therefore, is likely to benefit Labour.
And it seems that a number of trends are in Labour's favour. The electorate had moved ideologically towards Labour between 1987 and 1992 - on some issues, it was more left-of- centre than it was when Labour last won in October 1974. More people favour spending money to get rid of poverty, more want to put extra money into the NHS, fewer favour privatisation. Further, we found that substantial numbers of voters who had thought that Labour was extreme in 1987 considered it moderate in 1992 and that this gave the party extra votes. And neither taxation nor the Tory press are the albatross around Labour's neck that many think them to be.
Labour, we conclude, can easily end the long Tory dominance - but, without an unprecedented and improbable swing, it cannot win outright.
Adapted from 'Labour's Last Chance?', edited by Anthony Heath, Roger Jowell and John Curtice, and published tomorrow by Dartmouth Press, pounds 47.95 and pounds 17.95. The research was carried out by the Centre for Research into Elections and Social Trends at SCPR and Nuffield College, Oxford.