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 start of the 80s saw some monster CND demonstrations in London. The 1981 demo, which I remember well, attracted at least 250,000 people and took five hours to snake through London to Hyde Park. As we approached the park, I could hear Michael Foot’s voice very clearly – the then Labour leader and veteran unilateralist.
Later, outside McDonalds on Charing Cross Road, some old biddy came up to me and said I was as bad as those Peace Pledge Union types in the 1930s who’d have left us defenceless in the face of Hitler, etc.
The reason for the big turnouts on these CND protests was mainly the election of Ronald Reagan, seen as a dangerous militarist by us lefties at the time. The world was dominated by the superpower struggle between the Soviet Union and the United States and it seemed to be hotting up. There were widespread concerns in the UK over the stationing of American nukes on British soil with Tony Benn calling for the closure of US military bases here.
Here’s a video telling you how to survive a nuclear war – from the late 1970s. It’s absolutely bizarre to anybody today. Duck under a table or hide in a ditch to avoid being irradiated by a hydrogen bomb. Sure – that’ll work!
The first term of Thatcher – 1979 to 1983 – was many things politically but never dull. For the Labour Party, there was a move to the left among the rank and file after what was felt to have been lost years under Wilson and Callaghan from 1974 to defeat in 1979.
I remember being at meetings where you could divide the party members present into those that wanted to nationalise the top 25 monopolies and those that wanted to nationalise the top 250 monopolies (Tribune for the lower figure and Militant for the higher).
New Socialist was a monthly magazine in the 1980s and in this June 1982 issue you get a snapshot of what vexed the left. Norman Tebbit – the Chingford Skinhead (or Conservative MP for Chingford and government minister if you prefer) – dominated the front page with his bovver boot about to stamp on the trades unions.
From 1979 to 1981, Jim Prior had been employment secretary. A more consensual Tory grandee, he fitted in with a view that the Conservatives should have some kind of modus vivendi with the trades unions. This view was chucked out of the window by the more suburban petit-bourgeois Tebbit who had no qualms about taking on organised labour.
Other articles in this issue of New Socialist included a debate between Frank Field on the right and Pat Wall on the Marxist left about who should own the soul of the Labour Party. Both were MPs in the 80s with Wall being a Militant supporting MP in Bradford.
The militarisation of the police, the terrorising of women by the Yorkshire Ripper, Ronald Reagan and the “problem” of Europe were the subjects of other articles. The latter is interesting because the left hadn’t yet bought into the idea that Europe was a friend of the left. Europe – whether it was the Common Market, European Economic Community or European Union – was seen as a ‘capitalist club’ by many socialists in the early 1980s.
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…
The Olympics were held in Moscow in 1980 when it was at the centre of the Soviet Union and under the thumb of President Brezhnev. By this time, the Soviet Union was in economic and political decline but that wasn’t immediately obvious to the rest of the world. What was only too clear was the growing hostility between Reagan’s America and the Kremlin. And the Olympics being in the USSR for the first time didn’t help matters.
In fairness to Reagan (and I’ll never use that phrase again) it was outgoing US president Jimmy Carter who urged a boycott of the Games because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. This was at a time when the West thought radical Islamist groups were our friends and allies against communism – what a difference three decades makes!
The Moscow Olympics was not just notorious because of the Afghanistan boycott, it was also the scene of so much doping that it was referred to as the Chemists’ Games. We all knew there was something a bit odd about those East German athletes who won gold medals but seemed to be of indeterminate gender!
The opening ceremony was a riot of communist era chic – a Stalinist fantasy. Looks a bit weird now but very much in line with the May Day parades that used to roar through the Kremlin while a bunch of geriatric bureaucrats waved from the government podium.