In 1979, the Liberals faced a general election that wasn’t going to be good news for the ruling Labour government. And that mattered because the Liberals under leader David Steel had been in a semi-official coalition with Labour since 1978 – the so-called Lib-Lab Pact.
Prime Minister James Callaghan had been expected to go for an election in late 1978 but changed his mind, deciding to hold out till the following year. Bad mistake. That winter saw major industrial unrest – the “winter of discontent” – and Labour’s hopes of winning another general election began to sink.
The Liberals struggled to distance themselves from the horse trading with the Labour leadership. They’d also been dogged in the late 70s by the Jeremy Thorpe affair. Their former leader, Thorpe, had been accused in court of being gay and plotting to kill his secret male lover. In 70s Britain, a far less tolerant place, this was toxic stuff. It still hung over the Liberals in 79.
Within the Liberal Party, their youth wing positioned themselves as a radical libertarian movement – even influenced by anarchist philosophers like Kropotkin. It smacked of a desperate bid for intellectual credibility.
Anyway, the election happened and the Liberals took a pounding helping Margaret Thatcher and her Conservative Party surge to power.
Steel campaigned on rejecting the “Punch and Judy” politics of Labour and Tories saying the public was tired of swings leftwards and rightwards at every election. But the public decided otherwise – voting in the most right-wing Conservative government of the post-war era.
In the years that followed, the Liberals formed a new party – the Liberal SDP Alliance – by allying with right of centre Labour politicians who had deserted their party to form the Social Democrats. This eventually evolved into the Lib Dems.
In the 1979 general election, a local Liberal campaigner came round to our family house and as a chatty, politically obsessed 15 year old, I got into a long conversation with her. She was convinced that the electorate would reject the right wing economics being proposed by Margaret Thatcher as too extreme. Most people, she continued, didn’t wish for a rupture with the post-war consensus – they just wanted it to work better.
I was very sceptical. Pessimistic even. I had no doubt as a political swot even by that tender age that Labour was doomed. My school was trending heavily Tory. At a mock election, the Labour candidate was treated like a leper or pariah. The Liberal was jeered and sheepishly exited the school stage as if expecting to be lynched. The Tory, by marked contrast, was cheered to the rafters. That told me everything I needed to know.
But – Jim Callaghan fought a brave campaign. And even managed to narrow the Tory lead. However….it was too little, too late.
1979 was a pivotal year for world politics – only rivalled by 2016 with the election of Donald Trump as US president. Back in 79, Margaret Thatcher swept to power in the UK followed by Ronald Reagan in the United States. It heralded an era of free market economics and initially a drift to socially conservative attitudes – especially towards ethnic minorities and LGBT people.
The election marked the end of a post-war era of political and economic consensus. Since 1945, both main parties had accepted a mixed economy – part state and part privately owned. Industry was managed in a tripartite arrangement between bosses, unions and government with formalised structures for regular talks.
State owned bodies had run the utilities and key industries with commissions regulating pay and prices. Government departments determined policy and practice in large swathes of the economy because Whitehall owned the steel, gas, mining and other sectors.
All of this came to an end in 1979. Thatcher and her free market coterie took on organised labour but also elements in her own party who preferred a “One Nation” vision of society to her more aggressively individualist vision. On the left, there was a parallel movement of Marxists and socialists who also rejected the post-war consensus but wanted a very different kind of society with workers’ control and the end of capitalism.
The 1979 election saw three main protagonists duke it out for the keys to Number Ten. Thatcher was by far the most energetic and with everything to win. Labour leader Jim Callaghan was more popular as a person but had dithered over calling an election for a year in which the unions had staged major industrial action – the so-called Winter of Discontent – eroding Labour’s standing in the polls. By the election, he came across as a man weary of high office.
In the middle was David Steel, the Liberal leader, who had been propping up Labour in the so-called Lib-Lab pact – as Labour lost its majority during its 1974-79 term in office. This pact would damage the Liberals, many of whose supporters switched to the Tories. In fact, Labour’s vote didn’t slump so much as the Liberals collapsed into Thatcher’s arms.