1959 United Kingdom general election

← 1955 8 October 1959 1964 →

All 630 seats in the House of Commons
316 seats needed for a majority
Opinion polls
Turnout78.7%, Increase1.9%
  First party Second party Third party
Leader Harold Macmillan Hugh Gaitskell Jo Grimond
Party Conservative Labour Liberal
Leader since 10 January 1957 14 December 1955 5 November 1956
Leader's seat Bromley Leeds South Orkney and Shetland
Last election 345 seats, 49.7% 277 seats, 46.4% 6 seats, 2.7%
Seats won 365 258 6
Seat change Increase20 Decrease19 Steady
Popular vote 13,750,875 12,216,172 1,640,760
Percentage 49.4% 43.8% 5.9%
Swing Decrease0.3% Decrease2.6% Increase3.2%

Colours denote the winning party—as shown in § Results

Composition of the House of Commons after the election

Prime Minister before election

Harold Macmillan

Prime Minister after election

Harold Macmillan

The 1959 United Kingdom general election was held on Thursday, 8 October 1959. It marked a third consecutive victory for the ruling Conservative Party, now led by Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. For the second time in a row, the Conservatives increased their overall majority in Parliament, this time to a landslide majority of 100 seats, having gained 20 seats for a return of 365. The Labour Party, led by Hugh Gaitskell, lost 19 seats and returned 258. The Liberal Party, led by Jo Grimond, again returned only six MPs to the House of Commons, but managed to increase its overall share of the vote to 5.9%, compared to just 2.7% four years earlier.

The Conservatives won the largest number of votes in Scotland, but narrowly failed to win the most seats in that country. They have not made either achievement ever since. Both Jeremy Thorpe, a future Liberal leader, and Margaret Thatcher, a future Conservative leader and eventually Prime Minister, first entered the House of Commons after this election.


After the Suez Crisis in 1956, Anthony Eden, the Conservative Prime Minister, became unpopular. He resigned early in 1957, and was succeeded by Chancellor of the Exchequer Harold Macmillan. At that point, the Labour Party, whose leader Hugh Gaitskell had succeeded Clement Attlee after the 1955 general election, enjoyed large leads in opinion polls over the Conservative Party, and it looked as if Labour would win.[1]

The Liberal Party also had a new leader, Jo Grimond, so all three parties contested the election with a new leader at the helm.[1]

However, the Conservatives enjoyed an upturn in fortunes as the economy quickly recovered from the Recession of 1958 under Macmillan's leadership, and his personal approval ratings remained high. At the same time, the Labour Party's popularity suffered due to the rise of industrial disputes in the 1950s and controversies over the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. By September 1958, the Conservatives had moved ahead of Labour in the opinion polls.[1] Parliament was dissolved on 18 September 1959.[2]


All the three main parties had changed leadership since the previous election. The Conservatives fought under the slogan "Life is better with the Conservatives, don't let Labour ruin it" and were boosted by a pre-election economic boom. Macmillan very effectively "summed up" the mood of the British public when he said that most of the people had "never had it so good". Macmillan was very popular, and was described as a politician of the centre ground; in the 1930s he had represented a constituency in northern England (Stockton-on-Tees), which had experienced large-scale unemployment and poverty during the Great Depression. The first week of polling put the Conservatives ahead of Labour by over 5%, but this narrowed as the campaign continued. The Labour Party fought a generally effective campaign, with television broadcasts masterminded by Tony Benn under the umbrella of their manifesto entitled Britain Belongs to You, which accused the Conservatives of complacency over the growing gap between rich and poor.[3] Labour's manifesto pledged to reverse reductions in welfare benefits, pensions, and National Health Service expenditure; renationalize the steel industry and road haulage; reform secondary education; expand consumer protections; and create the Welsh Office. It notably promised not to fully nationalise industries which were performing efficiently and profitably, pivoting away from its earlier emphasis on socialism towards welfare capitalism.[4] Hugh Gaitskell made a mistake in declaring that a Labour government would not raise taxes if it came to power—even though the Labour manifesto contained pledges to increase spending; especially to increase pensions. Although Gaitskell argued revenue would be provided by economic growth, this led some voters to doubt Labour's spending plans, and is cited as a key reason for their defeat.[1][4]


Early on during election night, it became clear that the Conservative Party had been returned to government with an increased majority, performing better than it had been expected to. For the fourth general election in a row, the Conservatives increased their number of seats, despite experiencing a slight decrease in their share of the vote. However, there were swings to Labour in parts of north-west England, and in Scotland; where Scottish Labour had overtaken the Conservative-aligned Unionist Party as the largest single party in terms of seats, despite winning a slightly smaller share of the vote, thanks to overturning narrow majorities in several constituencies. Future Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was elected to the House of Commons for the first time as the MP for Finchley, where she would represent until her retirement from politics 33 years later at the 1992 general election.

For Labour, the result was disappointing; despite appearing more united than they had in recent years under Gaitskell's leadership, the party suffered a third consecutive defeat. James Callaghan believed that the Conservatives increased their majority in part because working-class Labour voters were still angry at the party for opposing the Suez conflict.[5] Many of both the Labour Party's supporters and opponents, including Prime Minister Macmillan himself, also blamed the Gaitskellite leadership for spending more time preparing to form a government with the assumption that they would win the election than actually campaigning or offering criticism of the Conservative Party's leadership. Political scientists Mark Abrams and Richard Rose blamed Labour's electoral losses from 1959 onwards on an "embourgeoisement" in which British voters identified increasingly with the middle class, leaving Labour's appeals to the working class less effective. Another key factor was the decline of support of younger voters after 1955, although older voters over the age of 65 increased support for the party in 1959 because of its pledges to expand pensions.[4]

While the Liberal Party earned more than twice as many votes compared to the previous general election, this was largely the result of them nominating nearly double the number of candidates that they did four years prior; their average number of votes-per-candidate only slightly improved. Future Liberal Party Leader Jeremy Thorpe was elected to Parliament for the first time, as the MP for North Devon.

The Daily Mirror, despite being a staunch supporter of the Labour Party, wished Macmillan "good luck" on its front page following his election victory.

The BBC Television Service's election coverage, presented by Richard Dimbleby, was shown on BBC Parliament on 9 October 2009 to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the election and again on 9 October 2019 to mark the sixtieth anniversary.

The 1959 general election was the first election to be covered by commercial television in the United Kingdom. The ITV network provided election night coverage from the studios of Independent Television News (ITN) in London, with ITV given permission by the Independent Television Authority to use all of the ITV companies on air in 1959 for election links to the main studio in London. Ian Trethowan was the presenter for the ITV coverage.[6]

1959 United Kingdom general election
Candidates Votes
Party Leader Stood Elected Gained Unseated Net % of total % No. Net %
  Conservative Harold Macmillan 625 365 28 8 +20 57.9 49.4 13,750,875 −0.3
  Labour Hugh Gaitskell 621 258 9 28 −19 41.0 43.8 12,216,172 −2.6
  Liberal Jo Grimond 216 6 1 1 0 1.0 5.9 1,640,760 +3.2
  Plaid Cymru Gwynfor Evans 20 0 0 0 0 0.3 77,571 +0.1
  Sinn Féin Paddy McLogan 12 0 0 2 −2 0.2 63,415 −0.4
  Communist John Gollan 18 0 0 0 0 0.1 30,896 0.0
  SNP Jimmy Halliday 5 0 0 0 0 0.1 21,738 0.0
  Ind. Labour Group Frank Hanna 1 0 0 0 0 0.1 20,062 N/A
  Ind. Conservative N/A 2 1 1 0 +1 0.2 0.1 14,118 N/A
  Independent N/A 5 0 0 0 0 0.0 7,492 N/A
  Fife Socialist League Lawrence Daly 1 0 0 0 0 0.0 4,886 N/A
  Independent Liberal N/A 2 0 0 0 0 0.0 4,473 N/A
  Union Movement Oswald Mosley 1 0 0 0 0 0.0 2,821 N/A
  Lancastrian Tom Emmott 1 0 0 0 0 0.0 1,889 N/A
  National Labour John Bean 1 0 0 0 0 0.0 1,685 N/A
  Fellowship Ronald Mallone 1 0 0 0 0 0.0 1,189 N/A
  Ind. Labour Party Fred Morel 2 0 0 0 0 0.0 923 0.0
  Socialist (GB) N/A 1 0 0 0 0 0.0 899 N/A
  Alert Party George Forrester 1 0 0 0 0 0.0 788 N/A
All parties shown.[a]
Government's new majority 100
Total votes cast 27,862,652
Turnout 78.7%

Votes summary

Popular Vote
Conservative and Unionist

Headline swing: 1.2% to Conservative

Seat summary

Parliamentary seats
Conservative and Unionist
Independent Conservative

Transfers of seats

From To No. Seats
Labour Labour (HOLD) many
National Liberal 1 Bristol North East
Conservative 25 Acton, Barons Court, Birmingham All Saints, Birmingham Sparkbrook, Birmingham Yardley, Brierley Hill, Bristol North West, Clapham, Cleveland, Coventry South, Derbyshire SE, The Hartlepools, Holborn and St Pancras South, Keighley, Lowestoft, Meriden, Newcastle upon Tyne East, Nottingham West, Reading, Rochester and Chatham, Rugby, Swansea West, Uxbridge, Wellingborough, Willesden East
Sinn Féin Ulster Unionist 2 Mid Ulster1, Fermanagh and South Tyrone2
Liberal Labour 1 Carmarthen
Liberal (HOLD) 5 Bolton West, Cardiganshire, Huddersfield West, Montgomeryshire, Orkney and Shetland
National Liberal National Liberal (HOLD) 16 Angus North and Mearns, Angus South, Bedfordshire South, Bradford North, Bradford West, Dumfriesshire, Fife East, Harwich, Holland with Boston, Huntingdonshire, Luton, Norfolk Central, Plymouth Devonport, Renfrewshire West, Ross and Cromarty, St Ives
Conservative 3 Denbigh, Newcastle upon Tyne North†, Torrington3
Conservative Labour 6 Ayrshire Central, Glasgow Craigton, Glasgow Scotstoun, Lanark, Oldham East, Rochdale
Liberal 1 Devon North
Conservative (HOLD) many
Ind. Conservative 1 Caithness and Sutherland*
Ulster Unionist Ulster Unionist 10 North Antrim, South Antrim, Armagh, Belfast East, Belfast North, Belfast South, Belfast West, Down North, Down South, Londonderry
Speaker Conservative 1 Cirencester and Tewkesbury
1 Sinn Féin winner in 1955 overturned on petition. The second-placed Ulster Unionist candidate was also overturned, by resolution of the House; eventually the 1956 by-election was held, which returned an Independent Unionist. This candidate later defected to the Ulster Unionists.
2 Sinn Féin winner in 1955 overturned on petition for criminal conviction. The second-placed candidate, an Ulster Unionist, was awarded the seat. He retained it in 1959.
3 Seat had been won by the Liberals in a 1958 by-election.

See also



  1. ^ a b c d "8 October 1959", BBC Politics 97, retrieved 20 May 2013
  2. ^ "Parliamentary Election Timetables" (PDF) (3rd ed.). House of Commons Library. 25 March 1997. Retrieved 3 July 2022.
  3. ^ "1959: Macmillan wins Tory hat trick", BBC News, 5 April 2005, retrieved 20 May 2018
  4. ^ a b c Thorpe, Andrew (1997). A History of the British Labour Party. London: Macmillan Education UK. pp. 145–147. doi:10.1007/978-1-349-25305-0. ISBN 978-0-333-56081-5.
  5. ^ James Callaghan, Time and Chance (London: Collins, 1987), p. 515.
  6. ^ "Political Television 1955-59". Archived from the original on 1 December 1998. Retrieved 13 September 2019.