The Oliver Observations

Just how bad was the 1983 Election for Labour?

with 5 comments

[Executive Summary: Pretty bad]


One of my colleagues asked me last week if I had anything planned for the Easter weekend.

‘Well’ I replied ‘BBC Parliament are showing a re-run of the 1983 General Election on Monday, so that’s one day sorted.’

She laughed. But I wasn’t joking.

The recent habit of BBC Parliament has adopted of reshowing ‘classic’ election night programmes on bank holidays is I think a master stroke, guaranteeing them small but select audience of politics and history devotees who draw the curtains and devour them with delight.

I’ll certainly be watching the 9th, June 1983 election, thirty years ago this year. My only sadness is that other engagements may keep me from watching the full 10am-9pm programme, though of course I’ll keep checking in to see if Michael Foot becomes Prime Minister.

In honour of the occasion I’ve written a post only slightly shorter than Labour’s 1983 manifesto.

Some general elections were such pivotal events that they succeed in seeping into the collective folk memory and national consciousness.
Ken Loach’s new film, Spirit of ’45, about Labour’s great victory which swept in the transformative Attlee Government and ensured the foundation of a comprehensive Welfare State would be a leading example. (Though Steven Fielding, Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham suggests in The Guardian the film could be more accurately titled Myth of ’45.)

To a lesser extent, the 1979 election which brought Margaret Thatcher to power, is still popularly (or unpopularly) remembered, perhaps as much for the atmosphere of crisis in the ‘Winter of Discontent’ preceding it, and broadcast images of rubbish piling up in the streets, than for the election campaign itself.

Other elections are primarily remembered only by those particularly involved and interested in politics – the sort of minority of people who can, without checking, reel off the years in which General Elections took place (1931, 1935, 1945, 1950, 1951, 1955, 1959, 1964, 1966, 1970, 1974 (twice), 1979, 1983, 1987, 1992, 1997, 2001, 2005, 2010…) as others remember World Cup winners. [Apparently people do this for reasons other than their alleged impact on election results, as in 1966 and 1970.]

These elections all have their own distinct ‘flavour’ and defining images, forming a shared currency amongst political obsessives and anoraks.
As the Labour politician (and of course Honorary Professor of Politics at the University of Sheffield) Roy Hattersley noted ‘Election campaigns all have distinct characteristics. For Labour, 1983 was ludicrous, and 1987 desperate. At least 1979 was only dismal.’

The 1983 General Election has a particular place in Labour Party folklore as the party’s most traumatic defeat, and rock-bottom low point, in modern times. The political memoirs and bar room tales of Labour veterans often still seem to vie with each other to describe just how terrible the result was, and how agonisingly inept Labour’s campaign.

The Guardian’s Political Editor Michael White gives a good overview of the campaign here.

More comprehensively, the great documentary ‘Labour; The Wilderness Years’, broadcast in 1995 and covering the party’s then 16 years in opposition, is well worth watching for anyone interested in Labour History.

For those like myself, used to political events being ruthlessly stage managed (with differing degrees of success), the scenes of Labour’s campaign have to be seen to be believed.
Watching this section, you don’t so much question why Labour lost but wonder at how the party managed to win any seats at all.

Labour’s 1983 manifesto has also become the stuff of political legend, being a hugely lengthy compilation of all the party’s diverse and divided policies. As recounted in the above video, no real attempt was made to summarise the document, or make it reader-friendly. Rather, all the policy pronouncements were lumped together, so as to avoid bitter disputes about what to include and what to leave out.

As Roy Hattersley relates, those on the right-wing of the party, such as John Golding (political fixer extraordinaire who called his book about the period Hammer of the Left) knew they didn’t have the votes internally to pass more moderate policies, so decided not to even bother; The manifesto should be as uncompromisingly left-wing as possible, to give left-wingers like Tony Benn ‘enough rope to hang themselves’ so they could then be blamed for the inevitable massive electoral defeat.

Gerald Kaufmann, then Labour’s Shadow Environment Minister (and incidentally the one member of Michael Foot’s Shadow Cabinet still in the House of Commons today), famously called his party’s manifesto ‘the longest suicide-note in history’, a description which unhelpfully become common currency even during the campaign. (As Roy Hattersley remarked to be fair ‘it only seemed interminable’.)

Interviewed in The Wilderness Years Kaufmann was even more forthright;

‘The problem with the document was it was a stupid document. It contained a number of extremist things. It contained also utter nonsenses! During the course of the compilation we only narrowly staved off a proposal that we should have a socialist policy for puppy farms.’

The published version did include sections, on issues which were undoubtedly important but far from voters’ most pressing concerns, such as ‘The Laws of the Sea’.

As Tony Blair, first elected as a Labour MP in 1983, commented ‘I had no doubt at all it would lose us the election. I won my seat in spite of our programme, not because of it.’
Labour’s campaign itself was often as Roy Hattersley, then Shadow Home Secretary, put it ‘ludicrous’.

As Hattersley recalls in his memoirs Who Goes Home?;

“New ground was broken on almost every day of the campaign…The campaign committee raised doubts about Michael’s capacity to lead the Party by passing a resolution confirming its confidence in his leadership qualities – thus giving a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘shooting yourself in the Foot’.
Leader and Deputy Leader [Michael Foot and Denis Healey] confirmed allegations that they disagreed about defence policy by issuing a joint statement which set out their two conflicting positions.

…I was prepared for public disputes about doctrine. But the small inefficiencies were too much to bear. One day, when I spoke at a Transport House press conference about crime, the visual aids were left in the Labour Party’s Walworth Road headquarters. On the following morning, I chaired a press conference on education. The visual aids arrived, but all the lettering slid off the pictures just as the television cameras focused on the graphs of Tory failure.
I telephoned Michael and told him that there was no reason why our sign writing should be as incompetent as our policy formation.”

As The Wilderness Years shows, Michael Foot, then in his 70th year and looking frail and unwell [though he would in fact happily go on to live another 27 years], selflessly embarked on ‘An arduous and poorly organised speaking tour of the country’.

Labour Deputy Leader and Shadow Foreign Secretary, Denis Healey’s memoirs The Time of My Life make clear that the 1983 election certainly wasn’t:

‘Our election campaign was worse organised than any I have ever known…
Michael Foot and I were given ridiculously heavy programmes, and were foolish event to accept them without protest. For almost four weeks we would start the morning at seven, with a meeting of our Campaign Committee in London, followed by a press conference which relieved lazy journalists of the need to follow us around. Then we would leave London for a series of meetings and walkabouts all over the country from ten in the morning until ten at night, returning to London after midnight for a few hours’ sleep before the next day began.

Many of our meetings were a complete waste of time; on one housing estate in the Midlands I was made to visit three old people’s homes in succession, on the grounds that if I visited only one, jealously from the others would cost us votes…
Michael was almost literally thrown to the wolves; the television cameras showed him being torn limb from limb by a pack of hounds at a demonstration in favour of blood sports.

…We lost eight points, or a quarter of our support, during the campaign itself. A modern election is fought essentially on television. Only one voter out of a hundred ever attends an election meeting, and he or she is nearly always already committed to one party or the other. Michael Foot and I never had the slightest idea what was happening in the campaign which mattered, on television; we were speaking every night at public meetings of people whose minds were already made up. We did not monitor our opponents’ activists; they never missed the smallest details of ours. And they were able to orchestrate the bulk of the press to make on concerted attack on one particular theme each day.”

As Tim Bell, who worked on the Conservative’s advertising campaign recalls his abiding memory was being told to cancel all advertising for the last four days of the campaign, given the Tories were so far ahead there was no point wasting money.

John O’Farrell’s book Things Can Only Get Better has become a bit of holy text within the Labour Party, treasured for its hilarious accounts of the often sheer grimness of political activism. His description of disasters of the 1983 election is no exception;

“In 1983 the United States of America went to war against the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada. This, however, was a far more equal battle than the British general election of the same year.
It was said that the Labour campaign started badly and then fell away, but this is being generous. It was the worst campaign in electoral history and it hurt to watch it.

There are various things that can lose a party votes in elections. You might have a leader that doesn’t look like prime ministerial material, you might have a manifesto that alienates many of the electorate, you might have a hostile media, you might appear hopelessly divided as a political party, or your campaign might be poorly organised and unfocused. Or like Labour in 1983 you might manage all of the above.”

The Labour Party did at least have one ‘secret weapon’ – the battle bus;

“This was an open topped double-decker bus, which toured marginal constituencies helping make them into Conservative strongholds. Its route was carefully planned to take it as many tree-lined avenues as possible so that overhanging branches could whiplash across the top of the bus knocking members of the Shadow Cabinet to the deck. The evening news would feature Margaret Thatcher being presented with flowers by rosy-cheeked school children, all waving Union jacks and cheering. Then it would cut to Labour’s campaign and we’d see Jill Foot getting back to her feet and picking a bird’s nest out of her hair with the tannoy booming ‘Vote Labour – for an end to NHS queues’, as the injured headed down to the nearest casualty department to make them even longer.”

The pictures of the battle bus in The Wilderness Years show John O’Farrell was barely exaggerating.

But surely these accounts must be slightly over the top. Was the election really that bad for Labour?

Well, yes.

As the results show Labour actually gained 4 seats, the only problem was that they lost 55 more.
Combined with some seats disappearing in a boundary review, Labour actually ended up with 60 seats less than the 269 won at the previous election in 1979 – itself at the time seen as a low point.

Labour wasn’t helped by the fact in several of these seats, the sitting Labour MPs had left the party to join the break-away Social Democratic Party, founded primarily because the Labour Party was felt to have become too irredeemably left-wing. [Again, a completely different world for those of us who grew up in the Blair years.]
These MPs proceeded to defend their seats for the SDP, in almost all cases, succeeding only in splitting the opposition vote and leading to more conservative gains.

Labour actually came third, or worse, in 292 out of 650 constituencies – a pretty abysmal result for a party hoping to form a Government.

Indeed, one measure of how far from power Labour were, is that of the Michael Foot’s 1983 Shadow Cabinet only one member ever reached the actual Cabinet – Shadow Attorney General John Morris, who would, a mere fourteen years later, get to be the real Attorney General under Tony Blair.

Indeed, another seven members of the twenty-seven Shadow Cabinet were sadly dead by the time Labour finally returned to power.*

The one thing the Labour leadership could console themselves with in 1983 was that the result wasn’t even worse; the party at least managed to retain the status of Official Opposition and the hope of someday returning to power.

As Jack Straw, then a young Labour MP and junior Treasury spokesman, stated confidently ‘Had that election gone on another week we would have come third. There is no doubt about it. Our votes were dissolving like snow in the sunshine.’

Jack Straw’s own Blackburn seat was also one of the few bright, or at least slightly less gloomy, spots of the night – having been one Labour had expected to lose. Straw clung on, with a swing to Labour ‘thanks to the work of scores of people in the Blackburn Labour Party, and no thanks to those who’d drafted our manifesto, nor to those who’d defected to the SDP in the hope of destroying us.’
Straw cheerfully notes that during the campaign ‘We came to the conclusion that the most we could hope for was Labour’s survival’.

As well as Blackburn and other seats that Labour managed to hold by much more slender margins, the Party saw several new, young MPs elected for the first time.

Many of them were on the left of the Party, including a handful of Militant tendency supporters who would cause an added headache for the leadership over the coming years. As Tony Benn noted in his Diary amidst the devastation, including his own defeat in Bristol, “But there are a lot of good new Members now in – Tony Banks, Richard Caborn [These first two going on to eventually serve as Ministers in the Blair Government] Bob Clay, Frank Cook, Jeremy Corbyn, Terry Fields, Bill Michie, Dave Nellist, Bob Wareing.”

There were also other rising stars – including most prominently two future Prime Ministers; Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

Future Liberal Democrat leaders Paddy Ashdown and Charles Kennedy, then standing as a Liberal and a Social Democrat respectively, were also first elected in 1983. [Ashdown later boasting that his seizing the formerly safe Tory seat of Yeovil was the one moment of the night when Margaret Thatcher later confessed she worried things might not go to plan.]

With new Conservative MP Michael Howard later going on to serve as Tory leader 20 years later, the 1983 intake of MPs produced perhaps the highest number of future leaders at any election.**

Speaking of future leaders, in Labour party folklore, as The Wilderness Years shows, the 1983 election was also the making of another future leader, Neil Kinnock.

Effectively giving up on the national campaign, Kinnock ‘got myself behind a wheel of the car and went rampaging round the country’, including delivering his famously psalm-like eve of poll warning about life under Thatcher, which many believed turned his succeeding Michael Foot as leader from a likelihood into a certainty.

When I saw him speak recently, Neil Kinnock reminisced that ‘I was very lucky in that I had a constituency party made up of people with good sense. When I arrived there to campaign they said ‘We’ve got a 20,000 majority. What the hell are you doing here? Get out round the country and go and go and kill some Tories (..metaphorically speaking of course)’.

Martin Westlake, in his doorstopper of a biography of Neil Kinnock, has a section simply titled ‘Disaster’ on the 1983 election, but concludes that ‘amidst the wreckage Kinnock had a good war’.

Westlake describes how 1983 for Kinnock ‘quickly came to represent a baseline against which all future campaigns would be judged.’
On making his first speech as leader, Neil Kinnock, told the Labour Conference ‘Remember how each and every one of you felt on that dreadful morning of 10th June and think to yourselves ‘9th June 1983 – never, ever again will we experience that!”

Labour’s long, painful march back to power had begun. It would only two more such dreadful mornings, in 1987 and 1992, before the youngest Labour MP elected in 1983, Tony Blair, would enter Downing Street.

The four years until the anniversary when BBC Parliament will surely reshow the 1997 General Election programme seems a short time to wait in comparison.


*[Afraid, I did actually look this up – they were Brynmor John, John Silkin, John Smith, Norman Buchan, Guy Barnett, Eric Heffer, and Lord Ponsonby. A further two Shadow Cabinet Members, Alec Jones and Frank McElhone, had actually died before the 1983 General election.
In addition to John Morris, Gerald Kaufmann and the late Gwyneth Dunwoody were the only members of the 1983 Shadow Cabinet still in the Commons by the time of Labour’s 1997 victory.]

** [I haven’t looked this up, but thinking about it the 1945 Election must come close, with every Labour leader between 1955-83, Hugh Gaitskell, Harold Wilson, Jim Callaghan and Michael Foot first being elected then.]


5 Responses

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  1. […] Love Margaret Thatcher or hate her, you can’t deny she was fortunate in her choice of enemies.  After the Falklands War, there’s probably no way the hopelessly divided Labour Party could have beaten Maggie in the 1983 general election, but running on a platform dubbed “the longest suicide note in history” certainly didn’…: […]

  2. Good blog/essay


    April 12, 2013 at 2:43 pm

  3. Useful and entertaining

    Harry Wallace

    September 9, 2015 at 11:26 am

  4. […] put on a brash, showbiz-heavy rally (Jimmy Tarbuck! Steve Davis! Michael Winner!), the other staged shambolic meetings with no thought for how they might look to those watching at home. For Labour, it was all a long way from the heady days of the 1960s and Harold Wilson’s slick […]

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