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Margaret Thatcher and Public Opinion: It Was the Best of Times; It Was the Worst of Times

10/04/2013 14:49 | Updated 10 June 2013

Over the last few years YouGov has asked the British public many different questions about Margaret Thatcher and her legacy. For example, more than once we have asked people their opinion on who was the greatest of the post-war prime ministers. Margaret Thatcher wins by some distance. We have also asked who was the worst. Again, Margaret Thatcher comes out on top.

Clearly she divides opinion like no other leader of modern times, and when it comes to explaining the British public's view of Margaret Thatcher and her legacy, the picture is inevitably complicated.

For any political leader there is no greater measure of public opinion than a general election. Margaret Thatcher won three of them in a row, making her the longest serving prime minister of the 20th century.

Indeed, she never lost a general election and, as she was apparently fond of pointing out, never lost the leadership election for her party either - choosing instead to resign rather than face a second ballot in November 1990.

When she was elected Conservative leader in February 1975 the party was 14 points behind Labour in the polls. By the time of the 1979 election the Tories were ahead, achieving a swing of 5.2% at the ballot box and winning with a 44-seat majority.

Four years later she increased this majority to 144, at that time the highest in the post-war period. Another three figure majority followed in 1987, completing her hat-trick of wins. However, the truly interesting public opinion story was not the volume of ballot papers she drew to her party, but who was casting those ballots because of the Thatcher factor.

'Thatcher factor' brought new groups of voters to the Tories

Socio-demographic groups of voters that had historically been aligned with Labour switched their support to the Conservatives, including many of the traditional 'working classes' and most famously the Essex Men and Essex Women of places like Basildon, Brentwood and Thurrock. At the same time many areas of Wales, the North East and Scotland moved far beyond the reach of prospective Conservative candidates.

Various factors are often cited as being crucial for Margaret Thatcher's electoral success in the 1980s, with victory in the Falklands mentioned most often. However, while the Falklands War was certainly a factor in the election victory of 1983, it was not the factor.

More important to both the 1983 and 1987 victories was the way the Thatcher governments successfully managed to boost the personal economic expectations of the British electorate. In other words, the public's own economic circumstances became a very important issue for them and sufficiently large numbers felt that their situation would improve with Margaret Thatcher in Downing Street. This was the perception (if not necessarily the reality) for many voters and it was the foundation on which her electoral successes were built.

By contrast, the public was often significantly less positive about Margaret Thatcher between general elections, with both her and her party experiencing some of the worst periods of significant unpopularity between elections. Support for the Conservative Party dipped as low as 23% between 1979 and 1983, and to 24% between 1983 and 1987. The percentage of people satisfied with Thatcher's own performance as prime minister was similarly in the low twenties during the same periods.

Of course, in both cases the situation was turned around and election victories followed, but by 1990 the situation worsened to the point where she would never recover. She was increasingly seen as dictatorial and out of touch and in April 1990 her ratings dropped as low as 20%. Fearing that they would lose the support of both the newly-won demographic groups and also their 'Middle England' heartland, the Conservative Party replaced her that November.

'She won not just many public opinion battles, but arguably also many public opinion wars'

Unlike many politicians, it is worth emphasising that Margaret Thatcher's public opinion legacy extends far beyond electoral performance.

Away from the issues of personality, her legacy continues to be defined by the policies she championed - once controversial but now accepted by much of the mainstream of public opinion. Issues such as nuclear weapons, secret ballots for strikes and privatisation once divided the country and were the cause of no end of debate. However, in each case public opinion has evolved.

Regardless of whether you support these policies or not, the fact that such issues are no longer widely discussed and that Thatcher's positions are now so often the political orthodoxy, demonstrates that she won not just many public opinion battles, but arguably also many public opinion wars. To use an (admittedly extreme) example, it is highly unlikely that more than a handful of people believe Pickfords, the removal company privatised in 1982, should be re-nationalised.

Finally, Margaret Thatcher approached the business of dealing with (and managing) public opinion in a way that - to some degree - no other politician had done up until her time in office. In many ways she changed the way politics was conducted in this country, making it smarter, slicker and more professional.

It has been said that 'she didn't use focus groups', but if that is indeed true (which is doubtful), Tim Bell and the rest of her army of advisors at Saatchi and Saatchi would most certainly have done. She understood the importance of her public image. Borrowing tried and tested techniques from America she embraced, among many other things, the photo opportunity on a previously unseen scale.

Today's politicians from all sides of the political spectrum have taken this on board and many of them have also taken whole swathes of her policies. For right or wrong they - along with the rest of the country - are to some extent all Thatcher's children. This is likely to be her lasting legacy.

See all YouGov research on Margaret Thatcher