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.
The sinking of the Belgrano during the Falklands War was arguably the most controversial event during that conflict and one that haunted Thatcher for years. The Belgrano itself was an ancient bit of kit, launched in the 1930s, used by the US in WWII and then sold to Argentina in 1951. This would have been one of the last engagements for this warship had it not been hit by a missile fired from a British nuclear submarine.
The question that Thatcher struggled to answer – and we see her here getting an uncharacteristic roasting from a member of the public – was whether the Belgrano was sailing towards or away from the Falklands. Interestingly, Thatcher doesn’t claim that it was either inside the Exclusion Zone or even sailing towards the islands (in fact, she infers it was sailing away).
The Belgrano sinking became as notorious as the sinking of the Lusitania in WWI. That said, sympathy was in short supply among the majority of the population after the attack by Argentina on HMS Sheffield. But for the left, this issue became a stick to beat Maggie and this video certainly makes compelling viewing.
Maggie had been in power for eight months at the end of 1979. The Economist magazine (broadly sympathetic to her aims) was making its predictions for a new decade – the 1980s. So how did The Economist think Thatcher was going to fare in the years ahead? Well, the next election was due in 1984 and they thought that was way too close for a government rapidly losing the level of popular support it had enjoyed in the May, 1979 General Election.
Like Cameron today, Thatcher was pleading for more than one term in office to achieve her aims but at the end of 1979, the polls were suggesting Labour would come back to power. The Economist thought the Labour faces just rejected by the electorate – Peter Shore, Dennis Healey, John Silkin – would be back in ministerial posts.
And there wouldn’t have been much surprise there. After all, through the 1960s and 1970s, Labour and the Tories took turns in power. Nobody would have thought in 1979 that Thatcher would last to 1990. The Economist believed it was “conceivable” that Thatcher would be dumped as Tory leader before 1984.
Europe was a big problem for Thatcher – senior Tories were horrified by her roughing up of the EEC (as the EU was called then). Foreign minister Lord Carrington was seen as a restraining influence on the Prime Minister (he would resign when the Falklands War broke out).
The Economist wrote that Carrington and Home Secretary William Whitelaw might move to “bell the cat” – put Thatcher under firm control and force her into a U-turn towards more traditional One Nation Toryism. She would be forced to adopt a more Ted Heath approach or resign.
The revival of the Liberal Party made a Lib-Con coalition – similar to what we have now – a real possibility. But The Economist thought that Labour – under Dennis Healey, who by 1984 would have defeated the left wing of the party – was more likely to return to power. The magazine correctly predicted that Roy Jenkins and Shirley Williams would form a new political party and for a while, that party would exercise a big influence.
So, how wrong was The Economist? The election was called early in 1983; an unexpected war in the Falklands boosted Thatcher; the Labour left put up a stronger fight and Dennis Healey did not become Labour leader; Thatcher purged her enemies within the Tory party and no bell was put on that cat!
Back in 1983, Thatcher went to the country for a fresh electoral mandate after a rocky first term as prime-minister. From 1979 to 1981, unemployment had skyrocketed and large parts of the manufacturing sector had collapsed. The summer of ’81 saw riots and interest rates were fearsomely high. But electoral salvation came in 1982 when Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands giving Thatcher a huge boost in the polls.
So what was going to happen if the Tories got back in? The leader of the Greater London Council (GLC) Ken Livingstone was interviewed by the New Musical Express a few weeks before the general election and he believed political activists could be rounded up and detained. This was by no means an isolated opinion. Many on the left took the view that democracy was being eroded, power was being centralised, the unions emasculated, local councils abolished and the police and courts being used in a more politically explicit manner.
Ken said he thought camps could be established to hold anti-government activists. The memory of internment in Northern Ireland during the 1970s ‘Troubles’ and use of jury free Diplock courts undoubtedly contributed to this fear among many socialists. There had also been the threat of tougher anti-crime measures after the 1981 riots, which Ken references in the article. However, Thatcher was not about to establish a fascist dictatorship.
Papers just released under the 30 year rule show that Thatcher was completely amazed when Argentina invaded the Falklands. I remember seeing the first news of the war broadcast on ITN and it was a bit surreal. There was the footage of Argentine ships heading towards the islands with some admiral on deck with his binoculars.
We look back on the war from the post-1982 world where the Iron Lady looks utterly resolved to defeat the damned Argies. Don’t believe a word of it. The government was caught in headlights. Foreign minister Lord Carrington resigned. There had been warnings about Argentina’s intentions since 1977 and the British embassy in Buenos Aires had been alerting London for months. But when Argentina struck – the Tories initially reeled.
Students of the Thatcher years may wish to investigate what the Tories would have done to the Falkland islanders if the war hadn’t happened. President Reagan and the US establishment wanted Britain to reach some kind of accommodation with the then military dictatorship in Argentina. In those days, the US had installed anti-communists military juntas in Chile, Argentina and elsewhere in Latin America – no talk of democracy back then!
Also, the idea of the British sending troops into the Americas made many in Washington feel a little queasy – wasn’t this what 1776 had been all about stopping?
Here’s some of the stuff that came out during the Falklands War from my extensive archive…