The Times has reported the results of a poll of political scientists about which elections since 1945 have been the most important. Nobody asked me, but I would have had to agree with the verdict that the top two were 1945 and 1979. Both set the course for a long period thereafter and shifted things ideologically.
However, it did prompt some less conventional thoughts.
How does one measure how influential and important an election has been? There is some room for saying that 1983 was incredibly influential, because there were three very different options then – a radical Labour government that would have disarmed and pulled out of Europe, a breakthrough by the Alliance, or the Thatcher project being placed on firm foundations. However, there was a sense that 1983 was not important, because it was a foregone conclusion. The same can be said for several other elections – probably 2005 and 1959, and definitely 2001, 1987 (although that election rescued Labour from being a third party), Oct 1974, 1966 and 1955. There have been other elections which although dramatic at the time, gave a sense that what they produced was essentially washed away by the tides of history because broader trends in politics and economics took over – 1970 and February 1974 for instance (although Feb 1974 did break up the Lab-Con duopoly in votes if not seats).
There is an argument that 1950 was a very important election. Labour won, but by a small majority (thanks to anti-Labour bias in the electoral system). Labour’s majority was so small that Attlee called another election, in October 1951, at about the worst possible time for the party, and the Conservatives came back to power. If Labour had won by, say, 40 seats, the party could have survived the rough economic times of 1950-51 and perhaps coasted to victory for the rest of the decade. The result would have been a greatly extended public sector, perhaps an earlier more liberal society – in effect, Britain would be more like Scandinavia than it became. There was a choice of futures and by giving an indecisive verdict in 1950 the electorate (and the electoral system) created the pattern for the next 30 years of the middle way between socialism and liberal capitalism.
1964 is perhaps overrated as a turning point – the Conservatives chose the wrong leader and could have won under Reggie Maudling. The Tories then did have an impressive argument that they could be the party of modernisation. 1964 was perhaps the mirror image of 1992 – what would Labour have looked like by 1969 after a defeat?
I think also that people tend to diminish the significance of 1997 too much. It has been consequential, in that the initial burst of constitutional reform was highly significant and did really change things from the previous government. Culturally it has also had important consequences.
If we had electoral reform, would there be decisive elections in the same way? It would depend on the system. Germany has had elections that mark decisive shifts (1998) or confirm party realignments (1983, 1969). But perhaps it would be harder to discern the consequences of particular elections. This may not be a bad thing, as rapid alternations in government between 1964 and 1979 did not produce particularly good results and those arose from relatively small changes in opinion being magnified by the system. And in any case, some of the great turning points are not actually punctuated by elections at all – like the Labour government’s turn against controls (1947), Suez, decolonisation, Europe, monetarism and Black Wednesday.