Why governments lose: UK elections since 1922

By Stephen Fisher, 12th April 2023.

Governments in the UK tend to win elections, but lose if there is an economic crisis. That pattern explains the outcomes of 19 out of the 27 elections since 1922. A further three elections can be accounted for by governments averting electoral disaster by changing prime minister after a crisis. The combination of economic crises and political changes at the top can explain 22 of the 27 elections, including all the elections since 1987.

That is the main conclusion from my recent working paper. A simplified version of the key table from the paper is shown below. The first row shows that governments won 10 of the 13 elections that were not preceded by an economic crisis. Governments tend to win these elections because governments have a lot of power in Britain. The three elections that were lost without a crisis were all extraordinarily early elections that should not have happened. The 1923 and 1951 elections were gambles, needlessly called by a majority government. To make things worse, on both occasions the government was offering an unpalatable economic policy (tariffs and rationing respectively). The third, 1924, only happened because 1923 produced a seriously hung parliament. None of the three are serious challenges to the idea that governments ordinarily win elections.

 Post-Crisis Political Change of PMGovernment wonGovernment lostTotal
No economic crisisNo10 (1935, 1955, 1966, Oct 1974, 1987, 2001, 2005, 2015, 2017, 2019)3 (1923, 1924, 1951) 13
Economic crisis since the last electionNo2 (1950, 1983)9 (1929, 1931, 1945, 1964, 1970, Feb 1974, 1979, 1997, 2010)11
 Yes3 (1922, 1959, 1992)03
Total 151227 
Table: Economic crises, post-crisis political changes of PM and government electoral fortunes

The bottom two rows of the table show what happened after economic crises. For pragmatic reasons, economic crises are identified by recessions and devaluations from fixed exchange rate systems (such as Wilson’s 1967 devaluation and the 1992 ERM crisis). Unemployment, inflation, strikes and other economic problems still matter, but recessions and devaluations are used because they are indicative of broader crises. 

Out of the 14 post crisis elections, the government lost 9. Using polls, and by-elections before there were polls, the paper sets out how, in each of the 9 cases, the economic crisis contributed to the eventual electoral defeat of the government.   

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