The general election of 1983 saw Labour badly divided. The 1974-79 Labour government of Harold Wilson and James Callaghan had been seen by the left as a betrayal of socialist values and capitulation to the International Monetary Fund. These had been years of incomes policies to curb pay and the first major cuts in public spending since the war.
Many of the policies Thatcher would implement in her first term were already in play in the last years of the Labour administration – though with less of the monetarist ideology that Thatcher espoused.
1979 to 1983 saw a horrific recession and the collapse of large swathes of manufacturing industry. This wiped out Tory support in the north and Midlands and there was initially strong hopes that Labour might be returned to office. But the party was ripping itself apart over what direction to take. Right-wingers like Shirley Williams and David Owen left to form the Social Democrat party (SDP). While Dennis Healey and Roy Hattersley remained within Labour to fight a bitter rearguard action against the Left led by Tony Benn.
Benn wanted mandatory re-selection of MPs, exit from the Common Market (European Union) and nuclear disarmament. To the left of him were groups like Tribune and the Militant advocating large scale nationalisation and a wholesale transformation of society. I often joked that you could walk into some Labour meetings and the Tribunites would be on one side of the room calling for the top 25 monopolies to be taken into public ownership. While the other side, Militant supporters, put a zero on that number and called for 250 nationalisations. That ‘zero’ separated reformists from Marxist-Leninists.
The 1983 manifesto was referred to be right-wingers as a ‘suicide note’ though, as with Corbyn’s policy platform, I’m not sure the demands were as unpopular as claimed. The bigger problems on the doorstep were a leader seen as ineffective (Michael Foot), Thatcher’s leadership in the Falklands War against Argentina and the overall impression of disunity. It often seemed that there were many in the party more interested in the internal civil war and winning that – than taking power.
It would be another 14 years until Labour entered Downing Street again.