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.

Notting Hill carnival ends in riots


In the summer of 1981, riots gripped every major city in Britain – but with particular ferocity in Brixton, London and Toxteth, Liverpool. However – there had been some dress rehearsals in the years immediately previous. Throughout the late 1970s, Notting Hill Carnival had ended in violence. Some of the following account contains language from that era that obviously I do not endorse. 

In the run up to the 1976 carnival, the Carnival Development Committee faced opposition to the big event from several quarters.  Chief Superintendant Ron Patterson was photographed for the local newspaper holding up a long roll of paper – a petition by local residents to stop the carnival.

“It was handed to me by a North Kensington housewife.  She said it was a token of support for the police by the ordinary people of North Kensington.”

Local councillors suggested moving the event to White City stadium and the Chief Superintendant thought Battersea Park would be an acceptable alternative.  The top cop even took a member of the carnival committee for a walk in the park to convince them that it would be a better venue than the streets of Notting Hill.

But the committee decided to stand firm on the now almost traditional carnival route over the August Bank Holiday and one might say that battle lines were drawn.  The black community wanted its festivity while councillors, residents and the police were either hostile or distinctly lukewarm.

Through the Spring, the carnival organisers and police had increasingly intemperate meetings over the route, stewarding and liquor licensing.  What became clear was that in 1976, the police presence would be upped in spite of a warning from the Black People’s Information Centre that this would be an explosive move.

The very fateful day arrived and before long, tens of thousands of people had thronged the streets.  Estimates of the eventual numbers on the streets vary from 150,000 to 200,000 so the carnival was already a major event in Britain.

One young guy remembered the steel bands playing and drifting away from his friends, found himself at the corner of Acklam and Portobello Road.

“Across the ‘bello flies a highway and under the fly-over the heavy dub groups were staging their section of the carnival, belting out the sounds of bass guitars.”

The followers of various sound systems were in attendance including one called Prince Melody.  But the young black reveller didn’t have much time to take in the sounds as he walked in to a large group that already had about thirty policemen on the run.  All around, he could see people picking up whatever was to hand and throwing it at the cops.

Somebody selling revolutionary pamphlets decided that this was one barricade he didn’t wish to stand on and packed up.  Nearby, loudspeakers were blaring ‘Chase Them Crazy Baldheads Out of Town’.  And to cap off this surreal scene of mayhem, a black woman was shouting in to a megaphone: “Yeah, lick them.”

As photographs of the time testify, the police had indeed turned out in force but once the heat was turned on, many of them had only dustbin lids and bottle crates for defence.  There were no riot helmets, padded uniforms or shields.  Instead, many had zero head protection, were in rolled up shirtsleeves and just swinging a truncheon around.

But if the crowd thought this was a rout for the police, they were about to be disabused.  They had been surprised by the ferocity of the crowd reaction but the retreat was a moment to regroup not leave.

The young guy now saw a ‘rastaman’ standing in front of five hundred youth and shaking a red, green and gold stick in the air urging them to “burn the wicked”.

“I walk through fire,” he yelled, strutting towards the cowering officers.  Behind him, more cautiously, came the youths still hurling bricks and bottles.  But suddenly things changed dramatically.

‘Get them!’

The cry came from the police lines and a phalanx of dustbin lid clutching Metropolitan officers hurtled forward, truncheons chopping the air in all directions.  The rastaman disappeared in the melee and the young guy was bundled in to a police van with four others.

Coats covered the windows and he claimed a police inspector poked his head in the head door and barked an instruction to a subordinate.

“Take down the coats, they mightn’t stone us if they see niggers inside.”

Though there would be several stages towards the development of the riot police we know today, this was an early milestone.  After the 1976 carnival, the police returned – minus their Chief Superintendant who had moved on – with much better equipment.

Instead of flooding the area haphazardly and relying on bottle crates for defence, the police returned with shields, helmets and even night goggles.  Battle re-commenced with an expectant media having pretty much earmarked an annual carnival riot in their planning calendars.

The media would not be disappointed.  All hell duly broke loose in 1977 with a distinctly unpleasant bust up between police and revellers inside the Mangrove Restaurant on All Saints Road.  The restaurant had turned away a gang of youths they felt were looking for trouble and was full of revellers watching the steel bands go by.

Eye witnesses claimed that a large force of police entered All Saints Road from Lancaster Road and sealed off that point of exit and the Westbourne Park Road end as well.  Beating on their riot shields, the police advanced down the road towards the Mangrove.

The owner of the premises, Frank Critchlow, tried to persuade the police not to enter but earned a truncheon blow for his efforts.  Stewards that had been appointed by the restaurant to keep order in the area now found themselves pushing against the doors to the Mangrove to prevent the police entering but they eventually got in.

Everybody was told to leave in no uncertain terms and resistance was met with more truncheon blows. One DJ, Basil, stood by helplessly while his sound system, Black Patch, was smashed to pieces.

The anguish of people like Basil was of little concern to the Daily Mail, which went in to fulmination mode in the aftermath.

“If the West Indians wish to preserve what should be a happy celebration which gives free rein to their natural exuberance, vitality and joy, then it is up to their leaders to take steps necessary to ensure its survival.”

The Daily Express was reminded of a different group of blacks on its front page the day after.

“War Cry!  The unprecedented scenes in the darkness of London streets looked and sounded like something out of the film classic Zulu.”

On the floor of the Mangrove lay the remnants of Basil’s hi-fi and the broken vinyl pieces from forty-eight singles and five LPs.  This was the kind of memory that would be stored then unleashed in a torrent of violence three years later.

Austerity economics – how it failed 35 years ago


Since winning the 1979 General Election, the Conservatives had embarked on an economic policy described as ‘monetarism’   This entailed rigorous control of the money supply in order to curb the great British disease of inflation.  The outgoing Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer Denis Healey, no stranger to cutting government spending himself, had dubbed the new creed as ‘sado-monetarism’.

9780436164859-uk-300The high priest of monetarism was a professor at the Chicago school of economics by the name of Milton Friedman.  Without going too far in to the vast detail that any debate on economics can become mired in, Friedman essentially threw out the conventional Keynesian wisdom that in a depression, governments should spend to keep people in work.

Out of control public spending, he argued, would lead to something called ‘stagflation’ – stagnation with high inflation – which was a prevalent condition of many economies in the 1970s.  The answer was a kind of shock therapy where high interest rates, as one weapon, would make it unattractive to spend money.  This would then lead to restraint in wages and prices, which would result in inflation coming down.

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JK Galbraith

Oh that life was so simple, Keynesians retorted angrily – in many newspaper columns and on the letters pages.  Friedman’s leading Keynesian nemesis on the global stage was the elderly but highly alert J K Galbraith, who had served in President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration steering through the New Deal.  He warned over and over again that Friedman’s medicine would lead to idle industrial plants and high unemployment.

Just because it hurt, Galbraith thundered, didn’t mean monetarism was actually doing any good to Britain.

“Suffering must have a purpose: out of much suffering there must come much good.  No one is quite sure how this works in economics; one only knows that the bad times are somehow the price of the good.  Pain and punishment are considered especially salutary for other people.”

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General Pinochet – enthusiastic supporter of austerity economics

So agonising were the effects of monetarism that many on the left pointed out that in its most undiluted form, it had only successfully been applied in Chile – which still languished under a military dictatorship.  The implication being that a democracy could not hold the lid down on a population tormented by the rigours of this doctrine.

Within the trade unions, the widespread suspicion was that the Conservatives were using high levels of unemployment deliberately to beat down pay demands.   With an instinctive hatred of state regulation of the economy, Thatcher didn’t want to get involved in imposing incomes policies (as Labour had tried to do in the 1970s) but fear of the dole, it was thought, was her preferred weapon against wage inflation.

In reality, the Conservatives quietly dropped monetarism and adopted a more pragmatic and less doctrinaire approach after 1982.  But not before they would experience a bitter lesson from Britain’s hugely pissed off youth on how far you can pursue an experiment before the subject bites back.

General election night coverage in 1983


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.

Anti-Thatcher humour – “frugal fun for the unemployed”


It’s impossible to imagine now how endemic youth unemployment was between 1979 and 1983. In the Toxteth area of Liverpool, about 90% of the youth had no work. One survey in London estimated that 26% of young unemployed had contemplated suicide. Still, it spawned a rather dark sense of humour…

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The Liberals in 1979


IMG_5975In 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.

IMG_5967Within the Liberal Party, their youth wing positioned themselves as a radical libertarian movement – even influenced by anarchist philosophy. Meanwhile, the Tories youth wing was veering rightwards while the Labour Party Young Socialists was under the control of the Marxist Militant Tendency. The Young Liberals published a magazine called Liberator pictured in this blog post.

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 Lib Dems – by allying with right of centre Labour politicians who deserted their party to form the Social Democrats.

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