Industrial strife has often been cited as a major reason for weakness in the British economy during the 1970s. For much of the 1970s, UK politics appeared to be a battle between the government and the unions. In 1979, Margaret Thatcher was elected to power. She won the battle against the trade unions.

What were the factors that aided Margaret Thatcher in her victory against the trade unions when her predecessors failed?

  • 2
    Probably the Falklands War - without that she would have been turfed after one term, but after it even the trade unionists had to grant her a begrudging respect. Dec 8, 2013 at 15:16

1 Answer 1


You firstly have to know that the major reasons her predecessors didn't win their battle against the trade unions was that they never actually had a battle.

Her immediate predecessors were Labour, and hence did not battle the unions as both the Labour party and the unions were a part of the same workers movement and to some extent was made up of the same people.

The previous conservative prime minister was Edward Heath. He did end up in a conflict with the unions, and called an early election in an attempt to face them down. However, it failed since Labour won, so that battle was lost almost even before it started.

So what made Thatcher succeed then? Well, I think there were two major reasons. The first one was that she actually remained in government. This in turn have two reasons:

  1. She was elected by a disgruntled middle class who was tired of Labour failing to do anything to fix Britain's economic problems, and indeed failing to even look like they wanted to fix them. The fact that the economy started going better during Thatchers period, and continues doing so during her premiership, meant she retained the support of most if this group, and won two further terms.

  2. Labour split in 1981, and since Britain has a first-past-the-post system and the Labour vote ended up split, she won the 1983 election easily, (even though the Conservatives actually got fewer votes than before).

The Falklands war probably helped, but the common claim that she would have lost if it hadn't been for the war has little support in actual numbers. Although her popularity peaked after the war, it was already on the way up after reaching a bottom in the end of 1981, and it also went down between the end of the war and the election. One year before the 1983 election her ratings were no worse than one year before the 1987 election and she got similar amount of votes in both elections. So the Falklands war may have helped, but there is little support for the claim that she would have lost the election without it.

The second reason she won the battle with the unions was pure stubborness. She let the unions strike until they ran out of strike funds. She let unions strike until the companies the strikers worked for went bust. She was willing to take an economic penalty by letting the strikes go on and on, in exchange for fixing the economy long-term. That sort of long-term view is unusual amongst politicians elected on four-year stints and usually only interested in getting re-elected.

  • 3
    How much was ideological (hatred of socialism) tactical (destroy the unions and destroy labour's funding) and how much strategic (new economy, new Britain, new party) will be debated for another few decades
    – none
    Dec 9, 2013 at 0:34
  • 2
    @mgb: Only by those who think there is a difference. Dec 9, 2013 at 15:05
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    yes - I suspect "all of the above" is the correct answer!
    – none
    Dec 9, 2013 at 17:06
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    I think it fair to say that Edward Heath was not opposed to the unions. He tried to work with them, and had cordial relations with many of the leaders, according to Dominic Sandbrook's 'State of Emergency'. Thatcher's popular union reforms have their roots not just in disaffection with the previous Labour administration, but can also be seen as a Tory reaction to what her wing of the party saw as Heath's attempted appeasement of the unions.
    – marchanti
    May 9, 2016 at 20:54

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