The Labour Party under Neil Kinnock, who had cut the Conservative government's majority at the previous election in 1987, ended 13 years in opposition by winning the 1992 general election by a majority of 9 seats. His key ministers included chancellor John Smith, deputy PM Roy Hattersley, Home Secretary Tony Blair, Trade Secretary Gordon Brown, Environment Secretary Bryan Gould and Health Secretary Robin Cook.
Labour returned to government at a time when the UK economy was nearly 2 years into recession, more than 2.5million were unemployed (up from 1.6million in early 1990) and interest rates were above 10%, although inflation was down to 3% from more than 10% 2 years earlier. However, the party had been up front about taxes in the run-up to the election and many wealthier voters stuck to the Tories due to the Labour plan to put the top rate of income tax up to 50%.
The party's share of the vote stood at 42%, while the Tories had 36% of the votes and their leader John Major, at the helm for barely 18 months, held onto his leadership in opposition. Opinion polls over the summer of 1992 showed support for the 2 main parties unchanged.
However, Black Wednesday in September 1992 saw the Labour government under PM Neil Kinnock face its first crisis. Interest rates were put up from 12.5% to 15% by lunchtime, up to 17.5% halfway through the afternoon, and then back down to 15% by the evening. The right-wing press tore into Kinnock's government with a fury and the British public did likewise, as by Christmas the opinion polls were showing the Tories on well over 40% with Labour down to around 30% - a Tory lead well into double figures.
Local council election results in 1993 saw the Tories do considerably better than Labour, although it was not quite the hammering of Labour by the Tories which the opinion polls had suggested would happen. Health Secretary Robin Cook had challenged Kinnock's leadership in April 1993 and failed miserably, the number of MP's backing him only in low double figures. Cook responded by resigning from the cabinet and heading for the backbenches, declaring that he would be not be seeking re-election at the next general election.
Labour's increased taxes came into force in April 1993, just days before the end of the recession was officially declared. Unemployment started to fall in 1993 as economic growth was slowly re-established, but by the end of 1994 unemployment was rising again as the economy slid back towards recession. Labour's first real test at the ballot boxes came in June 1994 with the European parliament elections and the local council elections. They were routed by the Tories in both, and with the party reeling from the sudden death of chancellor John Smith in May that year, suffered fresh misery at the end of June when Smith's Monklands East seat was seized by the SNP in an impressive by-election triumph. Labour had already lost the Rotherham seat to the Lib Dems earlier that year. Smith's successor as chancellor was Gordon Brown, who challenged Kinnock's leadership in February 1995 but narrowly failed. By the summer of 1995, unemployment remained high and the economy was still back in recession, and in June that year Kinnock faced his third leadership challenge as PM, this time from backbencher Ian Pearson who had only been elected to parliament at the 1992 election. Although he survivied this challenge, Pearson's backing was impressive for such a novice MP and opinion polls now showed Kinnock as the most unpopular PM in decades. He cut taxes for the first time in the 1996 budget, but this did little to assist his dismal poll ratings, and Labour's performance in the 1996 local council elections was only marginally better than the previous 3 years. Kinnock also scrapped plans for renationalisation of all industries except the steel industry, while firmly resisting calls to privatise the remains of the coal industry. He also scrapped plans for a referendum on membership of the EU - a move which cost his party valuable votes, and one which the Conservative opposition was not at all prepared to consider. Labour suffered 2 humiliating by-election defeats in 1996 to Arthur Scargill's newly formed Socialist Labour Party - the Hemsworth seat in West Yorkshire in February and the Barnsley East seat in December - which saw the government's majority reduced to a single seat by Christmas with a general election due within the next 5 months.
The UK economy had exited recession by the end of 1995, but unemployment was now pushing 3million. It had falen to just over 2.5million by May 1997 as the economy was well on the road to recovery, and when the country went to the polls on 1 May 1997 it returned John Major's Conservatives to government with a majority of 113 seats. Major's promise of reduced taxes proved particular popular with top rate taxpayers, who had been paying a top rate of 60% since 1994 (even higher than the 50% rate promised by Labour in 1992) and would now be paying 45% income tax from 1998.
The Conservative government's economic policies proved very popular with voters as the economy went from strength to strength and unemployment fell and fell (down from 2.5million in May 1997 to 2million by the end of 1998 to 1.6million by the spring of 2000), along with a fall in interest rates, but as had happened a decade earlier a long run of unsustainable economic growth saw inflation creep upwards. The Tories had inherited 5.5% inflation from Labour, got it down to 2.5% by the end of 1998, but it was back at 5.5% by the summer of 2000 and by early 2001 was pushing 10%. The Conservatives responded by putting up interest rates from 5.5% to 9%. This squeezed inflation down to 9% by the summer, but the fall in unemployment halted and there were fears of a recession, especially when economic figures released in July 2001 showed the weakest economic growth since the end of the last recession 6 years earlier. Opinion polls were showing Labour (now led by Tony Blair) in the lead again, and Major's decision to send UK forces to Afghanistan in November 2001 proved a controversial one, and made the Tories even less popular with voters in the traditional Labour supporting areas. By Christmas, inflation was down to 4.5% but interest rates were now at 10%, a level not seen since 1994.
The clock was ticking towards a general election and the country went to the polls on 16 May 2002. Labour returned to government under Tony Blair with an 11-seat majority, his trade union reforms and abandonment of nationalisation having proven popular with floating and traditional Tory voters, but cost him valuable votes in other areas where the likes of the Socialist Labour Party split the vote and enabled the Tories, Lib Dems and (in Scotland and Wales) nationalists to win or hold seats which Labour had been expected to win. He kept interest rates high, peaking at 13.5% in the autumn of 2002, with unemployment now pushing 2million, but with the resumption of economic growth announced in January 2003, he almost immediately cut interest rates to 10.5%, which enabled an economic upturn and fall in unemployment during 2003 while inflation also fell to 3%. The opinion polls showed a comfortable Labour lead, but this lead was cut - largely by the Lib Dems - from March 2003 when Blair gave the go-ahead for UK forces to join in with the USA-led invasion of Iraq. This cost Labour 3 seats to the Lib Dems in by-elections, which cut their majority to 5 seats by July 2004.
Blair surprisingly called another general election for 5 May 2005, despite the opinion polls casting doubt over his hopes of increasing his majority, although Labour remained ahead of the Tories, who had been unimpressive in opposition. Major had resigned after the 2002 election defeat, ending more than a decade as party leader and a total of more than 6 years as PM, and his successor Iain-Duncan Smith had lasted just over a year before being ousted by Michael Howard in a November 2003 leadership challenge.
The 2005 general election saw Labour re-elected with a majority of 30 seats, gaining some seats from the Tories and Lib Dems while losing others to both of their 2 key rival parties as well as a few to the Scottish and Welsh nationalists but more worryingly it had now lost 4 seats (2 in Yorkshire and in 2 South Wales including Neil Kinnock's old Islwyn seat) to the Socialist Labour Party and another to one of its own former MP's, George Galloway, who had formed the Respect Party just over a year earlier after being expelled from Labour.
The 2005-2010 parliament was a long and hard one for the Labour government. Just 4 months after the general election, it lost the Livingston seat in Scotland to the SNP in a by-election following the death of ex-minister Robin Cook. February 2006 saw the loss of the Dunfirmline and West Fife seat to the Lib Dems. There was more success for the Lib Dems at the expense of Labour in the 2006 local council elections, with Labour suffering a string of heavy losses to the Lib Dems who also siphoned their support to claim many of their councillors at the expense of the Conservatives, led by David Cameron since December 2005 following Howard's resignation. An even worse showing at the 2007 council elections saw Labour fall behind both the Tories and Lib Dems, as support for nationalist and minor parties (namely the SLP, UKIP and BNP) increased. Blair finally stood down as PM on 19 July 2007 and was succeeded by Gordon Brown, who had been a chancellor under himself and previously under Neil Kinnock.
Brown's appointment as PM saw Labour cut the Tory lead which had emerged in opinion polls since late 2006 and by the autumn the polls were showing Labour ahead and likely to win if an election was held. However, as this would have been the UK's third general election in just over 5 years (a mere few months longer than the maximum parliamentary term) Brown resisted. This decision would come back to haunt him.
With unemployment slowly rising and fears of a crisis in the banking system rife, there was talk of a recession over the winter of 2007-08, with fears deepened in July 2008 when the economy failed to grow in Q2 of the year, for only the second time since the mid 1990s. Brown was forced to nationalise several failing banks to avoid financial meltdown, and while he received praise from some quarters for this, the opinion polls showed the Tories up to 20 points ahead of Labour by May 2008, when they trounced the government in local council elections. By-election defeats in 2008 saw the government's majority cut to 14 seats by Christmas, and in May 2009 Brown survived a leadership challenge by his deputy Harriet Harman, who then resigned from the cabinet to be succeeded by David Miliband. However, 2009 brought more dismal results in council and European parliament elections for Labour (who finished 4th in the latter behind the Tories, UKIP and Lib Dems) and by the end of the year its majority had been cut to 12 seats and its popularity was now down to the low 20s as another recession, relentlessly rising unemployment and the expenses scandal damaged its reputation even further.
Brown was finally forced to go the country on 6 May 2010, when the Tories returned to power under David Cameron with a 114-seat majority and Brown stepped aside, with Ed Miliband being announced as his successor on 25 September 2010. As well as the many losses to the Tories, Labour also lost many seats to the Lib Dems as well as Scottish and Welsh nationalists, although it did manage to claim seats previously occupied by the Socialist Labour Party and 1 of the 2 held by Respect.
Labour trailed by the Tories by some distance in the 2011 council elections in spite of public anger of the public spending cuts and increased tuition fees. It was a similar story in 2012 despite further spending cuts and a brief return to economic contraction as well as a lack of new jobs being created to reverse the rise in unemployment that had blighted the UK under Brown.