When Jeremy Corbyn unveiled the Labour Party manifesto for the 2017 general election, some Labour MPs, journalists and pundits made an immediate comparison with the ill-fated 1983 general election campaign.
In that year, Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher had gone to the polls slightly earlier than she had to and hammered the Labour Party, then led by Michael Foot. Labour’s left-wing manifesto was described by one right of centre Labour MP as being “the longest suicide note in history”.
Having canvassed for Labour in 1983, I can see both differences and similarities that might explain why we ended up with a better performance this year than three decades ago. Here are some thoughts:
- Labour had split in the run up to the 1983 election: A group of MPs formed the Social Democratic Party (SDP) in reaction to the growing power of the Left under Tony Benn. This caused turmoil in many constituencies and the media piled in on the SDP’s side against a more left-wing Labour Party. In 2017, in spite of simmering discontent within the parliamentary Labour Party, disgruntled MPs did not peel away this time.
- Michael Foot was not an insurgent: Michael Foot, Labour leader in 1983, was a very different proposition to Jeremy Corbyn. Yes he had started on the left of the party but had moderated after holding ministerial office in Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan led Labour governments. Foot wasn’t elected to lead the Left to power in the Labour Party. He was elected with right wing support to stop Tony Benn and the Left taking power. Corbyn, on the other hand, has led a grassroots insurgency against the parliamentary party.
- Foot did not appeal to young people: Michael Foot was very much a product of the Left from the 1930s to the 1950s. He was an intellectual, a journalist, a great writer and orator. Foot grew up with Aneuran Bevan and could have been best mates with George Orwell. But by the 1980s, he seemed to have climbed out of a time machine from another era. Although he was the same age as Corbyn, Foot just couldn’t connect with young people.
- Brexit was not the Falklands: Theresa May might have hoped that Brexit would be her Falklands. In 1982, Thatcher sent UK armed forces to repel an Argentinian invasion of the Falkland Islands, a colonial dependency in the south Atlantic. There was a massive wave of patriotism that knocked Labour over. Foot had always supported unilateral nuclear disarmament and the Tories crucified him. The same trick did not work with Corbyn. Unfortunately for May, Brexit just isn’t the Falklands War – no matter how bitter the discussion gets with Brussels.
- Neo-liberalism was in the ascendant: From 1979, neo-liberal politics and economics became the new norm. Post-war state capitalism, the mixed economy, Keynesian policies and strong trade unions all went out the window. This was to be the era of privatisation, flexible labour markets, rolling back of the state and the same of council homes. That experiment foundered with the 2008 recession. It’s now getting easier for the Left to argue again for state ownership and intervention after a thirty year gap.
- Digital: It’s an obvious thing to point out but we lived in a pre-digital age in 1983. There was no social media and no websites – and no mobile phones. Thatcher had the overwhelming support of the non-digital newspapers, particularly the tabloids. It was almost impossible to cut across the rubbish asserted by The Sun in those days. And the front page of that newspaper really could make or break a party in an election campaign.
- Theresa May is not Margaret Thatcher: How we hated Thatcher back in those days. But one thing that can’t be denied is that she was a figure of global standing, with a clearly defined ideology and a ruthless team around her. Like Blair, she knew how to punch above Britain’s true weight and assert the country’s position on the world stage. Theresa May, in sad contrast, looks like she should have been left to run Essex county council and not an entire country.
- The 1983 manifesto: Corbyn in 2017 inspired many with his persona, style of leadership and attractive giveaways on tuition fees and child allowances. The 1983 manifesto was left-wing but lacking in what might be termed connecting narratives to the voters. It included abolition of the House of Lords, nationalising the banks, leaving Europe and unilaterally disarming. The leader who had to argue all of this, Michael Foot, was an appalling TV performer surrounded by MPs who clearly didn’t believe a word of the manifesto.
- Worst slogan ever: Think Positive, Act Positive, Vote Positive. Yes – that really was the slogan in 1983. What did it even mean? I was at a rally when Dennis Skinner mocked it saying “that’ll really get them flooding out of the council estates to vote”. It was third rate ad agency tripe.
- The South: What really struck me in this 2017 election was the performance of Labour in the south of England with a crushing dominance in London and towns like Canterbury falling to Labour. In 1983, it was a different world. Scotland, the north and the Midlands with their industrial heritages and labour movement traditions were solidly Labour. The south and the shires were Thatcher country. London swung between the two parties. Theresa May has made inroads in Scotland and north of Watford Gap but Corbyn has made astonishing advances in the south east.