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General Election 2015 - 79Rewind

Updated Friday, 9 January 2015
Join us as we count down to the 2015 General Election with a step back in time... 

This page was published over 9 years ago. Please be aware that due to the passage of time, the information provided on this page may be out of date or otherwise inaccurate, and any views or opinions expressed may no longer be relevant. Some technical elements such as audio-visual and interactive media may no longer work. For more detail, see how we deal with older content.

Arrow on a brick wall shows people where to vote In the lead up to the 2015 General Election, we're launching our #79Rewind campaign via The Open University Twitter account. Each week, we'll be tweeting key milestones from the 1979 election campaign that correspond with the 2015 election countdown. 

Here on OpenLearn, you'll find a wealth of content from our academics comparing and contrasting the two events as well as some interesting archive materials. Anyone fancy reading Thatcher's beauty tips, for example? Or have any of the structural economic problems faced by the UK back in 1979 been resolved? 

We'll be delving into the Winter of Discontent and discovering which MPs defected; exploring the state of the NHS and seeing which politicians played the right games among many more topics. 

Check back every week for content under our 'Countdown' heading below, and follow our campaign on Twitter using the #79Rewind hashtag. Make use of our comments facility too by sharing your views: how much do you think the two election campaigns and the contexts against which they played out differ or seem to be the same? 


1 day: Tories won 1979 election with 43 seat majority. Jeremy Thorpe, leader of Liberal Party, lost his seat. And so our #79Rewind campaign comes to an end! If it's piqued your interest in politics, treat yourself to some free learning.

Try one of our free open courses:

2 days: Step back in time and see BBC 1979 election coverage:

See Part Two here

4 days: 1979 NOP poll published in Daily Mail put Labour slightly ahead for 1st time in election campaign.

7 days: Teachers go Tory as '79 NOP poll showed 52% of sample supported Thatcher.

9 days: 1979 Tory lead dropped by 7% in 7 days according to poll conducted for The Observer

PDF document Transcript 94.1 KB

11 days: Ipsos MORI poll found Callaghan was preferred as PM over Thatcher. 

12 days: Tory election broadcast aired in 1979 using the Sun's headline "Crisis? What Crisis?".

14 days: Cardiff SE Lib candidate pulled out of '79 election, urging people to vote Tory.

15 days: PM Callaghan claimed credit for fall in unemployment in '79 election broadcast.

17 days: Liberal leader David Steel accused of being 'illiberal' at '79 Young Liberal conference.

19 days: Thatcher bids farewell to the middle way with 'this is my faith and my vision' speech in Cardiff.

20 days: Thatcher ruled out Lib-Con coalition or pact if she did not have an overall majority in 1979

24 days: This time on the 1979 election timeline, the Tories published their manifesto. 

25 days: Liberals published 1979 manifesto with focus on electoral reform, tax cuts and a new look at devolution

28 days: PM Callaghan said Tories would turn British regions into 'deserts of unemployment' if in power and Heath accused Labour of 'lying its way back into office' in 1974 with 'dishonest slogans'.

  • In a democracy, has the public created a demand for politicians to perform - and does that mean we can't trust them? Mike Saward and guests consider this in Performing Politics: perspectives - 

If there is anyone out there…

Barack Obama

…who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible…

Many writers have described him as the greatest orator of his generation.

…who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time…

He’s a politician who really knows how to appeal to his audience.

…who still questions the power of our democracy…

I’m Professor Michael Saward and in this podcast I’ll be examining how and why politicians have to perform.

… tonight is your answer.


Politics without performance may be no politics at all – just routine administration and backroom deals.

Politicians have to appeal to a wide range of groups. And a good performance – one that looks good, sounds good, is convincing – can be crucial to convey that appeal.

Oscar winning actor and politician Glenda Jackson believes all the world is a stage for today’s political leaders:


Obama clearly struck a chord, not only in America, but around the world.I mean that was something that people had been wanting to hear for a very, very long time - the capacity, the ability to connect .And to connect with individuals, even though those individuals are standing in crowds of hundreds of thousands.

We expect our politicians to perform well - even if we complain about the fact that they may sometimes be 'acting'. There’s a huge pressure on politicians to be good performers. And, as author Pauline Melville explained to Evan Davies on Radio Four’s Today programme recently, there’s a long history of politicians being trained.

Margaret Thatcher had voice lessons… People can be taught to mirror their clients’ body language, to look empathetic or to have power walking.


Power walking?

Yes, walk with confidence to present themselves with confidence. Actually that reminds me of seeing Blair and Bush power walking towards the podium to talk about the Iraq War. You know you wonder if they’d learned…

They’d been taught how to power walk?


All this effort put into performing well may reflect the fact that images are now so powerful in our culture now that acting establishes what counts as 'real'.

Parliamentary Sketch writer and theatre critic Quentin Letts:

The greatest example of acting British politics in the last 100 years or so, Winston Churchill.

Those speeches during the war, Britain was really up against it, we were not winning the war at the time, and yet Churchill presented this bulldog character which was very much at odds with his personal character -- he was a drunk, he was a … he was a difficult tortured, complex man, and yet he presented this image of the bulldog.

And that was a wonderful bit of acting; and that was an example about how acting could really help the national cause. So, you know, it’s too glib just to say 'acting is bad in politics'. Acting can be essential.

So acting in politics is not lying – it might be, sometimes, but the connection is not that common, and certainly it’s not automatic.

Politicians have to gather information on issues and to negotiate competing values. They can’t do these things if they are totally open about what they think at all times. Not being precise, or not giving everything away at once, is not lying – it is just being careful, being 'politic', often for good reasons.

This is not an easy role, and putting on a good performance, one conveying sincerity and authenticity, is crucial to success.

Sometimes 'lying' is not knowing. Or not knowing enough; sometimes it is strategic openness to the future.

Sometimes, of course, truth, lies and performance are connected. Performances that try to gloss over or avoid truths are common enough.

And who can blame politicians- if they get caught out it can be embarrassing to say the least.

I did have a relationship with Miss Lewinsky that was not appropriate. In fact, it was wrong. I misled people, including even my wife. I deeply regret that.


President Bill Clinton finally admitting an affair with Monica Lewinsky.

In a democracy, politics has to be seen to be done. It has to be performed, staged, scripted. If it wasn’t, as citizens, we might not have a clue what’s going on.

Democracy needs effective engagement and communication. Quentin Letts:

Well I think the problem with this whole issue is that we, the voters, are terrible hypocrites.

We say we don’t like actors in our politics, and yet, when the politicians don’t act, they don’t get so many votes.

So we as an electorate have to sort out our attitude to this. And I think the honest answer is that they need to do a bit of acting - but they probably have been overdoing it recently.

Performances create democratic politics. Performances create audiences – citizens who pay attention. But can’t we have authentic leaders? What is authentic? We shouldn’t confuse truthful content with an authentic person.

Authentic can mean a strong sense that they are genuinely grappling with the issues – even if they are 'acting', and even if they are not yet telling us everything.

There is always the frontstage politician on show for the media and the backstage one. Do we really want to collapse the two?

Quentin Letts thinks that sometimes being a good performer will never be enough.

If you get the policy right, then you’ve got to find the personality and the promotional skills to punt it up field. So you’ve got to have the base camp of the policy and you’ve got to have worked out your philosophy.

A great performance without that policy is absolutely pointless.

Paddy Ashdown was in some respects a really good performer, politically. He was good at sound bites; he looked good; ex-Army man, he had a great back story; had hopeless policies and it was never going to work.

Perhaps as voters we’re accepting stage managed politics and we want good, justified performances. Glenda Jackson agrees.

I do sometimes sit and fulminate when I’m watching either PMQs or questions to Ministers, MPs stand up and they haven’t rehearsed their question, and there’s a kind of lot of humming and ahhing and taking ages to get to the point.

So what is a citizen to do? Quentin Letts thinks we the voters should become critics of the political theatre.


We’re now pretty sophisticated about the way that we look at politics.

If we look at a TV debate, we know that they’ve all been prepping like made; we know that they’re trying not to make a mistake.

If we look at political events on television, we know that there is a certain amount of fraudery involved, and yet we somehow discount that and we buy into it because we realise that they’ve got to have some way of establishing their platform.

As citizens we need to judge those political performances that are timely and justified, and those that are not.It’s not about getting upset because politicians act.It’s about how justified that act is, and who and what it is aimed at.


Performing Politics was an Open Politics podcast produced by the Open University. You can watch the accompanying video or listen to more politics podcasts at


29 days: Labour Party manifesto was released under 'The Labour way is the better way' strapline. 

32 days: Dennis Healey delivered a 'Caretaker Budget' framed with the co-operation of the Conservatives.

36 days: Saatchi & Saatchi 'Labour isn't working' campaign relaunched by Tories. 

Image of Labour isnt working campaign

37 days: Callaghan announced 3 May election, asking party to resist personal campaign against Thatcher.

38 days: Callaghan lost vote of no confidence by 1 vote, forcing him to call General Election

43 days: Thatcher set the ball rolling on no-confidence motion back in 1979. Find out why the events of the 1979 Winter of Discontent went down in political folklore by watching our video below by Dr Richard Heffernan:

PDF document Transcript 91.5 KB


44 days: Callaghan delivered statement in the House of Commons about rescuing Scottish devolution. 

49 days: Strike suspended at Britain's largest blood transfusion unit due to acute shortage of blood.

50 days: Thatcher revealed her special beauty tips in interview for The Sun in 1979. 



51 days: PM Callaghan admitted to Commons that inflation is to move back into double figures.

  • Why do economies go into recession, and what should policymakers do? How do governments use money to influence the economy? Listen to this podcast to find out. 
  • A pre-election rise in interest rates would confirm Britain’s economic recovery. And might also sink it, writes Alan Shipman in this Society Matters article
  • Each year, the Office of National Statistics tweaks the contents of the baskets used to track inflation. What gets added or dropped tells how our tastes and habits change as a nation. Read this article to see a comparison of 2004-2014. 
  • Learn about the Phillips' Curve in by watching this animation below - 60 Second Adventures in Economics - The Phillips Curve. You can download this entire series for free from iTunesU. 

56 days: Thatcher pledged more defence spending during her speech at this point of '79 election countdown. 

65 days: This time on '79 election countdown, Scottish and Welsh devolution referendum results were announced.

  • How do they compare to now? Compare the 1979 results with the 2014 results.
  • Study this free course on devolution. 
  • In this video, Professor Richard Wyn Jones of the Wales Governance Centre talks to Professor Linda Colley of Princeton University about her book 'Acts of Union and Disunion' and the wider issues of the union of the United Kingdom, national identity and devolution. This event was hosted by The Open University in Wales in partnership with Cardiff University's Wales Governance Centre in March 2014.

66 days: It was announced 29,474,000 working days were lost to strike action during the winter. Hear Open University Reader in Government Richard Heffernan talk about the Winter of Discontent in this short video

68 days: This time in 1979, there was a landslide Liberal victory in Liverpool Edge Hill by-election.

74 days: Teachers in England and Wales submit pay claim of 36.5 per cent. 

80 days: 'Saint Valentine's Day Concordat' marked end to 1979 Winter of Discontent. What led up to this period of strife? Read this article about strike action during the time.

81 days: This point of '79 election timeline, polls showed Tories up 20 points on Labour. 


82 days: The Guardian reported Welsh Assembly would cost less than underground car park for Westminster MPs (and in Welsh: Adroddodd y Guardian y byddai’r Cynulliad yn rhatach na maes parcio tanddaear i ASau San Steffan). To find out more about the long road to Welsh devolution, try this free course on OpenLearn Cymru.

83 days: Chairman of Volunteer Centre criticised Tory plans to rally ‘mass voluntary service’ to deal with future economic crisis.

85 days: TUC and government talks on new social pact made ‘good progress’ this time on 1979 election countdown. 

88 days until the election: In 1979, Labour MPs said charitable status of public schools amounted to 'subsidies by the state'. 
Rubbish piled up  90 days: Rubbish piled up during dustmen's strike this time in 1979. Discover more about how this happened in this short video.
91 days until the election: PM Callaghan gave green light to settle manual workers' pay claim at up to 10% in 1979. 
96 days until the election: Lorry drivers in south west accepted 20% pay rise, a model eventually accepted throughout the country. 
95 days until the election: Dire picture painted for NHS with 1,100 of 2,300 NHS hospitals only treating emergencies in 1979. 
100 days until the election: Thatcher delivered rousing speech as UK struggled in 'Winter of Discontent'. Watch Dr Richard Heffernan discuss why the events of the 1979 Winter of Discontent went down in political folklore in this short video.



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