1983: the biggest myth in Labour Party history

Labour's 1983 election campaign has long been used to say it is impossible for a leader like Jeremy Corbyn to win any election from the left. Alex Nunns digs out the truth

September 6, 2015
7 min read


Alex NunnsAlex Nunns is Red Pepper's political correspondent @alexnunns

foot83Labour’s then-leader Michael Foot addresses a rally in 1983.

Jeremy Corbyn is unelectable. We know this because the ideas he espouses were emphatically rejected in the 1983 general election. His youthful supporters are ignorant of history. Labour will be obliterated if it moves left, just like 1983. It will be an act of political suicide, just like 1983. It will be an apocalypse, there will be fire and brimstone, humans will be wiped out and the world itself will explode – just like 1983.

That’s a précis of every anti-Corbyn op-ed and every has-been politician’s warning, repeated over and over again from the moment opinion polls signalled that something was going on in the Labour leadership contest.

MYTH: Labour lost the 1983 election because it was too left wing

But Labour didn’t lose in 1983 because it was too left wing; rather, Thatcher won because of the Falklands War. The ‘Falklands factor’ could not be clearer from opinion polls. Prior to the war of April-June 1982, the Conservative Party was slumped at a consistent 27 per cent throughout late 1981, with a slight recovery in early 1982. But the Tories’ popularity shot up spectacularly with the war, hitting 51 per cent in May and remaining above 40 per cent right through to the general election. Labour under Michael Foot supported the government’s Falklands action; the Tory boost was not because Labour was anti-war.

These days, Tony Blair insists that ‘Those of us who lived through the turmoil of the ‘80s know every line of [Corbyn’s] script. These are policies from the past that were rejected not because they were too principled, but because a majority of the British people thought they didn’t work.’ But at the time, according to the journalist Michael Cockerell, Blair drew a different lesson, as he reportedly told Robin Cook: ‘The thing I learned… is that wars make prime ministers popular.’

It’s easy to see how he came to that tragic conclusion. Before the Falklands, Thatcher was the most unpopular prime minister since records began. But immediately after it, in June 1982, she scored the highest satisfaction rating she would ever achieve with 59 per cent approval. Thatcher wrote in her memoirs: ‘It is no exaggeration to say that the outcome of the Falklands War transformed the British political scene… The so-called “Falklands factor”… was real enough. I could feel the impact of the victory wherever I went.’

A fawning media began to build a ‘Maggie’ personality cult. She dominated the 1983 election campaign – ‘The issue is Thatcher,’ declared the Economist; ‘Now is the hour. Maggie is the man,’ said the Express.

The Falklands War took place against the background of an economy that had begun to recover from a sharp, self-inflicted recession. Although the effects of Thatcher’s disastrous early economic policy were still being felt, the Conservatives were clever in linking the statistical upturn and the war as part of a grand narrative claiming that Thatcher had reversed Britain’s national and imperial decline. ‘The years of retreat are over,’ said Nigel Lawson, commenting on the Falklands. ‘And exactly the same is true in the economic and industrial sphere.’

MYTH: The split in the Labour Party was the left’s fault

Although the ‘Falklands factor’ was probably enough to win the election for the Conservatives, their victory was assured by the split anti-Tory vote. In 1981 Labour right-wingers broke off to form the Social Democratic Party (SDP). Under first-past-the-post the SDP won a negligible six seats in 1983, despite a strong showing in the popular vote. But the effect of the new party was to hand marginal constituencies to the Tories, who won 65 more seats despite receiving 700,000 fewer votes than they had secured in the previous election.

Conventional political unwisdom blames this on the left. The Labour right broke away ‘because the left wing of the party, people like Tony Benn, had taken over the party, dragged it to the left and made it completely unelectable,’ said the Huffington Post’s political reporter Owen Bennett in a recent debate with Owen Jones on Sky News. ‘You’ve only got to look at history, I don’t understand why you’re blaming the right of the party,’ he exclaimed.

Aside from the obvious point that the Labour left has endured many years of right dominance without splitting, Bennett’s interpretation would be considered superficial even by Roy Jenkins, the driving force behind the SDP, who wrote in his memoirs that the new party was a reaction to the Wilson-Callaghan government, and a move he had been considering since 1974. ‘While the subsequent and already foreseeable excesses of Bennery both justified and made easier our breakaway action,’ he wrote, ‘they were not the basic cause of the social democratic revolt, which came earlier and went deeper.’

If we really ‘look at history’ we see that the post-war consensus had broken down as the economic terrain on which it was built had shifted. The SDP, Labour’s move to the left and the Tories’ move to the right were the political consequences.

MYTH: The left made Labour unpopular

Labour faces the wrath of the media and the establishment whenever it moves an inch leftwards. Inevitably that scares some voters away. So here’s a surprising result: the high water mark for the Labour left – the point by which it had apparently rendered the party ‘completely unelectable’ – was the October 1980 party conference. At that time, amid a press onslaught against Benn, Labour’s poll lead was a massive 50 per cent to the Tories’ 36.

Labour still enjoyed an advantage of 42 per cent to 28 a year later when Benn narrowly lost a deputy leadership contest to Denis Healey. But from then on the left was in decline – along with Labour’s poll ratings. In September 1982 Benn said in his diaries: ‘Compared to last year, when the left was riding high with successes everywhere, this year the left is very much tail-between-legs.’ By February 1983 he was ‘very, very depressed’.

Of course a correlation between the wane of the left and the party’s fall in the polls doesn’t mean the two were linked. The public was not avidly following the twists and turns of Labour’s internal democracy. But if left supremacy alone is supposed to make Labour less popular, this chronology provides no evidence for it.

It might be objected that Labour’s 1983 manifesto contained many left policies, and that Labour lost support between its publication and the ballot. But it’s unlikely that the manifesto – which, as always, few people actually read – had more impact in those final weeks than hostile press coverage, a shambolically run election campaign, and the fact that Michael Foot had a popularity rating of just 24 per cent, apparently due to his choice of jacket.

MYTH: Labour could have won if it had moved to the right

For those who assert that Labour’s left programme cost it the 1983 election, it must follow that the party could have won had it moved right. We have test cases for this. Labour moved significantly rightwards for the 1987 election – and lost. It fought the 1992 election from a position still further to the right – and lost again. It took until 1997 for the ‘modernisers’ to be ‘proved’ correct, and only once the Tories had been stripped of all credibility by the ERM debacle, endless scandals, infighting and John Major.

The insistence that Labour lost the 1983 election because it was too left wing ignores the facts and the context. The lazy parallels between 1983 and today vanish on inspection.


Alex NunnsAlex Nunns is Red Pepper's political correspondent @alexnunns


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Civic strike paralyses Colombia’s principle pacific port
An alliance of community organisations are fighting ’to live with dignity’ in the face of military repression. Patrick Kane and Seb Ordoñez report.

Greece’s heavy load
While the UK left is divided over how to respond to Brexit, the people of Greece continue to groan under the burden of EU-backed austerity. Jane Shallice reports

On the narcissism of small differences
In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.

Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns

The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections

In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines

Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.

West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective

How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences

The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally

Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change

Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces

Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'

Confronting Brexit
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond

On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network

Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter

#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement

Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.

Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees

Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides

The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari

Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next

Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace


13,717