“The Labour party is in danger more mortal today than at any point in the over 100 years of its existence… If Jeremy Corbyn becomes the leader, it won’t be a defeat like 1983 or 2015 at the next election. It will mean rout, possibly annihilation…” (Tony Blair, writing in the Guardian, 13th August 2015)
A myth is a story handed down by a tradition, a story that is told and retold, and which, in its classical form, is usually about the origins of the world. Modern politics and the Labour Party have their myths, stories that are retold, and shared as a sound-bite, used to reinforce a created narrative. One of these more enduring myths is that surrounding the 1983 General Election. So the story goes: “Labour drastically lost that election because of its hard left policies and left-wing leader”. (The leader at that time was Michael Foot.) And, the myth continues, as a consequence of this defeat, we must “never return to the dark days of the 1980s”. Or at least this is the story told by the BBC, the Daily Mail, the Guardian, and those in the Labour Party today who are hostile to Jeremy Corbyn and the policies and ideas he is seen to represent.
You might, of course, wonder why Labour losing one single election, the one in 1983, was so critical, such that it should shape all future policy. After all, Labour has failed to win some nineteen General Elections since it was founded, most of these under leaders who could reasonably be regarded as being on the right wing of the Labour Party. Five of these election defeats came after 1983, with four of these under right-wing Labour leaders, except the 2017 election under Jeremy Corbyn. And in this case, it was a situation where Labour did not win, but did destroy an existing Conservative majority. So why is the one election defeat in 1983 presented as some type of existential crisis, while all the other elections defeats are seen differently, with responses as flippant as putting it down to the need to improve election presentation? (This was the “analysis” made after the second Labour defeat under Kinnock.)
Labour entered the 1983 General Election under the left-wing leadership of Michael Foot and with an NEC comprised of a majority from those on the left of the party. Labour had already endured some three years of back-biting and negative stories in the press from MPs on the right of the party, angry that the left now had a majority and that a prominent left-winger was the party leader. Sound-bites designed to undermine the Labour Party were used. Phrases that often had their origins in the editorial offices of the Daily Mail, now regularly appeared on the lips of these hostile MPs, along with damaging “leaks” and disparaging remarks about the party leader.
If all this has a familiar ring, it is because once again Labour has a left-wing leader and once again we have several MPs writing regularly for anti-Labour papers, appearing in the media with stories designed to undermine the party, along with the inevitable “leaks”. Although the words, themes and sound-bites have changed, we appear very much to be in déja vu territory.
The defeat of the 1983 General Election was immediately used by those who had been attacking the party for the previous three years to go into overdrive and attack the left within the party. The progressive and radical policies developed over the years at party conferences in the early 1980s were made “responsible” for the 1983 defeat. They were even “’a threat to the future existence of the Labour Party” (a tome repeated by Blair about Corbyn in 2015). In consequence, these commentators concluded, Labour needed to move to the “’centre-ground” and adopt “sensible policies”, which, in the context of that time, meant adopting some of the policies of the Thatcher government.
The base facts of the 1983 election results are clear enough. The three largest parties were the Conservatives with 397 seats, Labour with 209, and the Alliance (Liberal Party and the Social Democratic Party SPD) with 23 seats. In terms of actual votes, the Conservatives had 13,012,316, Labour 8,456,934, and the Alliance 7,794,770. The Conservatives received 42.4% of the total votes cast, Labour 27.6%, and the Alliance 25.4%, with all other parties, totalling less than 5%.
In terms of parliamentary seats, and because of the peculiarities of the election system, the Conservatives gained a large majority, but the principle reason for this was the three-way split in the votes, with non-Conservative voters split between the Labour Party and the Liberal/SDP Alliance. At the same time, there was no viable contender to challenge the Conservatives for their votes, such as UKIP and the Brexit Party have done in recent politics. In actual fact, support for the Conservatives in that election dropped by several hundred thousand votes compared to their vote share in 1979. In a situation where the majority of those voting (nearly 60%) did not vote Conservative, alongside the actual drop in voting numbers, it would be hard to present the election results as a national endorsement of Conservative philosophy and policies. Yet, the media and those on the right of the Labour Party went into overdrive to present it as such, and in turn to attack existing Labour Party policy and its leadership. What the establishment wanted was a Conservative- lite Labour Party, not a Labour Party with socialist policies.
Fifteen years later, under Tony Blair, that wish came true. With the right-wing now firmly in control of a muted Labour Party and on the back of mounting disgust and hostility towards the then Conservative government, election success eventually came in 1997. Labour was now seen by the establishment as more the inheritor and child of the Thatcher period, than its socialist history. What was the result?
Apart from a couple of good policies, such as the introduction of a minimum wage and creation of Sure Start Centres (both which had been strongly pushed by the trade union movement rather than the “leaders office”), the New Labour government fully embraced pro-capitalist and neo-liberal policies. Thus, we saw the introduction of PFI, which has since ripped off hundreds of billions from the public sector. We saw the beginning of the privatisation of the education system, through the introduction of the Academies programme. And we saw the continuation of Conservative policy to block the building of council houses and a refusal to end the sale of council houses, both polices which have contributed to the housing and rent crisis of today. Eventually, as a sort of tragic culmination of these attitudes, we saw Britain becoming part of America’s war machine which bombed Iraq, leaving hundreds of thousand dead and millions in destitution and poverty.
As these neo-liberal policies came to fruition, and working people continued to suffer under the New Labour brand, not only were people’s individual lives ruined, but deep damage was done to traditional communities of Labour supporters. In the election that followed that of 1997, in 2001, Labour retained a majority, but the result was marked by a dramatic increase in voter apathy, with turnout falling to 59.4%, the lowest since the General Election of 1918. In the 2005 General Election, Blair was again returned as Prime Minister, with Labour having 355 MPs, but with a popular vote of only 35.2%, another record figure, being the lowest percentage of any majority government in UK election history. These were the historic fault-lines for future election defeats and brought with them the rise of xenophobic attitudes, and fears and worries about the quality of life. These fault-lines would be inflamed and built upon after the 2008 crash and the Coalition government’s ramping up of their austerity programme, a programme that was actually begun under New Labour.
What then of the policies and programme of Labour in 1983?
One of the lines of attack on the left in 1983 was Labour’s policies and programme and the contents of the 1983 Election Manifesto. The mainstream media and right-wing Labour MPs have consistently echoed a phrase used by right-wing Labour MP, Gerald Kaufman, that the manifesto was “the longest suicide note in history”. The phrase has even garnered its own Wikipedia page.
Yet, there is little or no evidence that the policies of the Labour Party at this time were an issue of concern for the majority of voters. We should leave aside the Alice-in-Wonderland suggestion that in 1983 all Labour voters ordered the manifesto and read it. Or that their behaviour was entirety different from all other elections, where decisions are based on a range of factors, including leaflets, discussions on the door and at work, people’s own circumstances at that moment, and, of course, the baneful influence of the media.
In reality, only a few thousand ever read the actual manifestos, and this remains the case today, even with such manifestos being available through the Internet; whereas in 1983 they were only printed in limited numbers. But the reality, in this case, should not spoil a good sound-bite. What is important in any election campaign is the dynamism of that campaign, and the policies and programme put forward and highlighted during the campaign itself. Here there were clear failings in the organisation of the election by the Labour Party, and undoubtedly this could have been better. But such failings were not critical in themselves to the final result, and related much more to campaigning rather than problems with individual policies.
Specific Factors in the 1983 Election: The Social Democratic Party (SPD) and Falklands War
The outcome and results of all General Elections are always influenced by a range of factors. This can be a short up- or downturn in the economy, perhaps due to world economic factors, or changes in the price of oil, as well as changes influenced by government policy. There are also longer, more deep-seated, moods, such as that which brought Labour to power in 1945, when there was a clear demand for the type of society Labour was offering and a rejection of Conservatism, in spite of Churchill’s personal popularity at that time.
The structure of the electoral system can also heavily influence outcomes and results. The UK’s First Past The Post (FPTP) election system means that the candidate in each constituency with more votes than the next single candidate wins. However, in many cases, the winning candidate does not have a majority over all other candidates combined, which means that MPs can be elected on a vote of less than 50 per cent. Roll that forward, and we find that governments are nearly always elected by a minority of the people who voted because governments are formed if they have a majority of MPs in the House of Commons, not because they have a majority of votes.
In the 1983 election, the FPTP system helped the Conservatives win a bigger majority than mere voting numbers would indicate. In marginal parliamentary seats, where Labour might have won, the newly established Social Democratic Party took some of Labour’s votes. As the anti-Tory vote was thus split, it meant that the Conservative could sneak through and become the winning candidate. In some Liberal marginal seats, the competition between Labour and the SPD/Alliance also helped the Conservative candidates win. Without this factor, the Conservatives are still likely to have won the election, but on a much smaller majority.
The other specific issue of the 1983 election is known as the Falklands Factor, or a spin-off from the Falklands War. The war lasted for around twelve weeks, from April to June 1982. Before April, the Conservative ratings in opinion polls regularly put them in a potentially losing position should an election be called. However, from the start of the war through to its aftermath rolling into 1983, Conservative ratings shot up, with the highest rating being achieved in May 1982, which was at the height of the conflict. The higher ratings although falling a little after, generally retained a higher level of support for the Conservatives, although this support was beginning to wear-off when Thatcher called the snap election for June 1983.
Labour’s front-bench stand on the war was not actually against British intervention, and as a front bench, they acted in the standard manner of Her Majesty Opposition, supporting the government in the war. Some Labour MPs rightly did question the rush to war, rather than attempts at negotiation; they questioned what appeared to be careless warmongering by Thatcher. But these issues of holding the government to account, much like Corbyn’s recent questioning of the Gulf oil tanker attacks in June 2019, was immediately branded by the mainstream media as anti-war, as being “against our troops”, and that Labour as a political party “would stab our troops in the back”, etc. The vitriol in 1982/3, as it is today with Corbyn, was unfounded, and was constructed to push an anti-Labour political agenda. Nevertheless, in 1983 it was a contributory factor in the Conservative victory.
Drawing together these general factors that influenced the 1983 elections, we see that none of them relates directly to the political composition of the Labour Party, or more specifically, to the fact that it was left-wing and therefore supposedly unelectable. Rather, they relate specifically to the election circumstances at that time.
Different or similar factors could also be looked at about any of the nineteen General Elections that Labour has lost. The creation of the 1983 myth, however, was necessary for the right-wing to use that election defeat as a battering ram to regain control of the Labour Party. As we look back in history, we can say that they were uniquely successful in their attempts to do so.
The story of the aftermath of 1983, leading up to the Blair years is, however, another story. What we can say is that the right-wing succeeded. They did so principally because they were able to pull over a significant proportion of trade union leaders and a significant number of MPs who had previously been on the left. Individuals such as David Blunkett, who had once been the radical socialist leader of Sheffield Council, but who became an arch-Blairite. The role of these ex-lefts was critical in the journey away from Labour’s socialist roots and towards neo-liberalism. Leading this move was ex-left MP Neil Kinnock, who replaced Micheal Foot as leader. Kinnocks “credentials” as a left-wing MP helped him subdue and minimise the influence of the left in the Labour Party for what became more than 30 years.
The shift of some of the left in the Labour Party towards a right-wing agenda was more complicated and nuanced than merely a gut reaction to the 1983 defeat. The election did play an important role, particularly for trade union leaders, but this was in the context of both a massive media campaign against the Labour Party and shifts in the attitudes and views of some on the left.
There was an influx of ideas that believed the old working class had changed, and that capitalism was now more about consumer society and life-style. These trends within capitalism inevitably had an influence. And in the wake of the ’83 election these ideas were given voice by some of those on the left in the Labour Party.
Capitalism’s effects on people’s lives has always been a changing experience. In the early 1980s we saw the beginnings of a feature that dominates our world today: a greater predominance of finance capital, with the rapid flow of capital across national boundaries and a greater commodification of everyday life. In this climate, a variation on the old idea that capitalism could be reformed rather than completely changed emerged; the emphasis of working “with” capitalism rather than changing it re-emerged with a vengeance.
This was described colloquially as working with capitalism “as you found it”. In an irony of history, this set of ideas – loosely termed Euro-Communism – had germinated in the Communist Parties of Western Europe, in a reaction to their previous subservience to the Soviet Union. These ideas were also dominant in the British Communist Party, and through this party trickled into both the trade unions and the Labour Party itself.
Perhaps most notable, in terms of the 1983 myth, was an article by Eric Hobsbawm titled Labour’s Lost Millions, published in October 1983 in the Communist Party journal, Marxism Today. Hobsbawm effectively provided an intellectual justification for moving away from what was then Labour’s policies and, by implication, blamed the left within Labour for the defeat of 1983. There is insufficient space in this article to look at these ideas in detail, but I will do so in a future article in this journal. It is perhaps interesting, however, to note that Hobsbawm himself was consulted by Kinnock as he began the attack on the left within the Labour Party and as he started the organisational changes in the Labour Party that would lay the basis for the Blair years.
The myth of 1983 is still with us today, lying in the background to be taken out, brushed off, and used when the opportunity arises. Like hungry wolves, right-wing Labour MPs are waiting in the wings to pounce on any poor election results under the Corbyn leadership. They are also happy to help such results along the way. In what is becoming an almost regular-as-clockwork occurrence, there is a sudden upsurge in denunciations and complaints about “Corbyn’s Labour” by several Labour MPs in the lead-up to elections and during campaigns. We see a series of carefully placed articles in the newspapers, and these same stories are then run at length by the BBC. The narrative the right wishes to create around Jeremy Corbyn includes linking him to the myth of 1983. In one such desperate response, while Corbyn was still standing in the election for leader in 2015, Tony Blair wrote: “Those of us who lived through the turmoil of the 80s know every line of this script [referring to Corbyn]. These are policies from the past that were rejected not because they were too principled, but because a majority of the British people thought they didn’t work.” Blair here repeats the lies about Labour’s policies and stokes up an image of a maligned and miscreant decade of the 1980s. Presumably, before he brought sanity and goodness into the world.
What was learnt from this episode and the myth of ’83 is that one of the key dangers to the Labour Party comes from its determined right-wing MPs – and the PLP has plenty of these at the moment. But danger also comes from influential figures on the left, who use their past left credentials to undermine and subvert the political processes in the party, pulling democratic decision-making away from the membership, and creating a leader-centred model of control. Are there such figures lurking within Labour at the moment? When we look at the leadership of Momentum today and the series of announcements from their London offices that have been undermining Jeremy Corbyn, we can only hope that history will not repeat itself, even if this happens as a farce.