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May 25, 2007

Harry Phibbs re-views the BBC's coverage of the 1992 Election Results - and realises that 1992's election night was a lesson in humility for everyone

Posted by Harry Phibbs

1992 Election Results
BBC Parliament

It looks as if the Conservatives have lost their overall majority.
Or so declared Labour's Trade and Industry spokesman Gordon Brown a couple of hours after the polls had closed, even after Basildon had been declared.
The one thing that is clear is that the Conservatives at the end of this evening will have no mandate to Govern. They've lost this election.
These comments were made in that weird but very brief period of time when we given to understand we had elected a Labour Government when in fact we had reelected a Tory one. In an act of self flagellation the BBC recently allowed us to see it all again on their Parliament Channel.

While Labour eventually returned to power in 1997, much of the time of Conservative rule between 1979 and 1997 they were always expecting to get elected at the following election. This was particularly the case prior to the 1992 General Election. There had been the bruising ousting of Margaret Thatcher, the Poll Tax, the ERM exacerbated recession and there was the strong message "Time for a Change". Labour were ahead in the opinion polls and while distinctively Socialist had already ditched the more controversial and extreme elements of their programme.

The first couple of hours of this programme were devoted to the assumption that there would be a hung parliament with the Tories just fractionally ahead of Labour in terms of seats and therefore unable to continue in Government. The expectation of the pundits would be that Neil Kinnock would come to some sort of accommodation with Paddy Ashdown.

Peter Snow declared that the likeliest outcome would be Conservatives short by 25 of an overall majority. They would get 310 MPs elected, just ahead of Labour with 298.

We asked 14,000 people in a hundred seats around the country and asked them to put how hey voted on a piece of paper and put it into a box. We have to allow something like 15 seats either way because of the possible error in the polls. The best the Tories can do would be to be short by 10.
Repeated stress was placed on how the Exit Poll would be far more accurate than an opinion poll.

Labour politicians started popping up to claim victory. Jack Cunningham stated,

The Conservatives have suffered a humiliating defeat. They have lost the confidence of the people and they should lose office.
Roy Hattersley said:
A Government of consensus is offered by Labour.
Bryan Gould said:
The one thing we can be pretty sure of is that the election has been lost by Mr Major and the Tories. That means Neil Kinnock in Downing Street.
The tension was interrupted by random appearances by young new comedian Rory Bremner - for example declaiming in the manner of Peter Snow declaring in manic tones:
Hello, hello. Can you hear me? May Day. May Day. Deciding the Government for the next five years. Just a bit of fun.
Still we waited for the first result. Would it be Guildford? Or Torbay? Or Portsmouth South? Gavin Hewitt reported breathlessly,
Such is the determination to be first that some of the tellers that should have been counting for Portsmouth North have moved across to Portsmouth South.
In Cheltenham Jane Corbin reported:
It may just be an omen but the barman in the Queen's Hotel across the way has already labelled his election punch Major's Knockdown.
Actually the first result was Sunderland South which was missed by the cameras and denounced as being of no interest. A couple more came through, in Torbay and Guildford, also felt to be of not much interest
beyond being disappointing for the Lib Dems.

Then came the Basildon result and the smiling face of David Amess which told us, before the Returning Officer had uttered a syllable, that the Tories had won this key seat. Those with any sense immediately put more stress on this than the BBC's Exit Poll. But the BBC weren't going to abandon their poll so easily. The computer made a very modest adjustment to its projection still showing a very hung parliament. But Anthony King and Peter Kellner quickly conceded that
the Basildon result could well mean a Conservative overall majority. There was even some hesitancy from Peter Snow. He was charged with putting forward the projected results amidst special effects that were already rather dazzling. But he didn't really believe it himself after Basildon.

Kellner, whose own allegiances have never been in much doubt, tried to keep his spirits up.

I haven't lost hope that the Exit Poll is right about the seats that haven't declared yet.
Hope? Surely you mean to say expectation. Come on, Kellner, at least pretend to be objective.

Next up pops Robin Cook to say:

They are going to find very few Tories surviving in Scotland today.
In fact the number of Tory seats went up from 10 to 11.

Frank Dobson dismissed the significance of Basildon. He said:

It looks as though the Tory Government has lost the General Election. I don't think even in Basildon they think the whole world resolves around Basildon.
The expectation of a hung parliament propped interest as to what the minor parties would do. John Taylor of the Ulster Unionists declared:
We would support whichever was the largest party because that would be the wish of the British people.
Then there was Alan Beith of the Lib Dems:
Without PR we would be prepared to vote against the Government.
As the results came in the BBC gradually faced up to reality. In many ways the natural smugness of the Tories probably accentuated their arrogance. This is not a charge I would level against John Major himself but certainly against David Mellor. Mellor was vindicated in his early scepticism of the BBC's Exit Poll. But shortly after the election he then launched the era of Tory sleaze by telling the press they were
"drinking in the last chance saloon" thus provoking them into investigations into his private life. Given his status as a relatively lowly and obscure cabinet minister they would normally have ignored him on the grounds that scarce resources should more properly be directed at soap stars, pop singers and footballers. But his provocation told them it was him or them. I wonder if he would have been quite so arrogant if it had not been for this election night coverage.

So the 1992 election was a lesson in humility for everyone.

Harry Phibbs is a journalist.

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