Why did Labour do better in 2017 than in 1983?


labourmanifesto1983When 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
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Peter Tatchell, Michael Foot and Margaret Thatcher


Peter Tatchell – the prolific human rights campaigner – first came to national prominence as the Labour candidate in a by-election held in Bermondsey, south London, in 1983. If ever an episode in politics revealed the prejudices and bigotries of the age, then it was this one. Even to look back on it now just makes me depressed.

The reason for the by-election was the decision in 1981 of old Labour stalwart Bob Mellish not to run again for the seat.  Mellish was a die-hard Harold Wilson loyalist who once announced in 1976 that he was NOT an “anti-racialist” and opposed letting the Malawi Asians in to the UK, in spite of the fact they had UK passports and had been forcibly expelled by the Malawi government. It’s worth noting that 1976 was, in this humble scribe’s view, the high water mark of National Front activity and attacks on Asians in Britain – particularly those who had come from Uganda, fleeing Idi Amin.

Needless to say that Mellish did not appreciate the Bennite and Militant swing to the left within his constituency party in the early 80s. First he announced his intention not to run again, then decided to sit as an Independent MP before finally finding a home with other Labour renegades in the newly formed Social Democrat Party. Just to stick up a final two fingers to the Bermondsey comrades, he resigned his seat precipitating a by-election in 1983.

His constituency party had already selected Australian born Peter Tatchell. It should be noted that contrary to some misinformation, the Militant Tendency did not support Tatchell – they had their own preferred candidate who if my memory serves me right had an impressive 80s mullet.

Tatchell’s opponents would go on to use his place of birth and sexuality as door-to-door campaigning issues. The Liberals – now the Lib Dems – squirmed on this issue for years but if you’ve ever campaigned against a Lib Dem candidate (I have), you won’t be surprised by any tactic they employ. I’m not going to repeat the anti-gay slogans and innuendos – just Google away and you’ll find them.

From his selection in 1981, elements in the Labour Party goaded on by their former colleagues now in the SDP tried to get rid of Tatchell – trying to rule him out as a candidate in Bermondsey. In 1981, Tatchell penned an article on his political views that advocated direct action against the Thatcher government.

The inappropriately named Labour turned SDP MP James Wellbeloved rose to his feet in parliament and asked Margaret Thatcher – and Labour leader Michael Foot – to denounce this call for extra-parliamentary action. What Tatchell had written was no different to what many MPs and Labour activists advocated at that time but the vehemence towards him was, to my mind, very much tinged with the casual homophobia of the era. There was a sneering vitriol employed towards him – and he’s spoken since of the threats he faced as a candidate.

Michael Foot, in a reaction that even surprised me at the time, denounced Tatchell and said he would never be accepted into the Labour Party, let alone run as a candidate. Needless to say those words and no doubt his hat were force fed to the party leader at a later date as Tatchell did indeed run – though he would be defeated by Liberal Simon Hughes (who subsequently declared his own sexuality decades later).

 

 

 

Michael Foot – a great intellectual, not such a great party leader


I once heard Michael Foot give a speech at the Gay Hussar restaurant in London just a few years before his death. He talked to a small gathering about a conversation he’d had with the Soviet ambassador in the restaurant about World War Two and as he went on, I realised he was talking about a chat he’d had in 1939!!

Foot was a great journalist, writer but had a tougher time as a politician. He led the Labour Party after James Callaghan threw in the towel. Within Labour, the left and right were at war and the leadership embarked on a series of expulsions of members of the Militant Tendency – none of which helped the party’s electability.

After leading Labour to a shocking defeat in 1983 – he stepped aside for Neil Kinnock. His style of rhetoric was deemed to be old fashioned, over-intellectual and essentially a relic from another age. Listening to his clashes in the Commons with Thatcher – I think he was better than the media reported at the time. But he was an easy target for poison pens on Fleet Street and his image was cruelly lampooned.

Here’s Private Eye sticking the boot in.