How Labour lost the 1992 election: an alternative to the ‘official wisdom’

Michael Calderbank revisits Defeat from the Jaws of Victory, by Mike Marqusee and Richard Heffernan, first published 1992

August 25, 2015 · 5 min read

defeat-jawsLabour is now engaged in the kind of prolonged electoral post-mortem not witnessed in Britain since Neil Kinnock dramatically failed to defeat John Major in 1992 despite encouraging poll ratings during the campaign. Much of what was said then could apply now.

As in 1992, Ed Miliband’s defeat was ‘the result of errors and failures of leadership, of political mistakes and organisational blunders that could have been avoided’. Miliband’s combination of tepid promises with warnings of cuts to come recalls the rallying call of Labour’s election chief Jack Cunningham 23 years ago: ‘Our credibility is going to be the key issue in the election. We shouldn’t promise more than we can deliver, we shouldn’t raise hopes, we shouldn’t build up people’s expectations only to dash them.’ Labour, now as then, couldn’t be accused of wildly raising hopes. But nor did it raise much enthusiasm, or support.

Back in 1992, the Labour left was feeling somewhere between crushed – after a fourth consecutive defeat at the polls – and vindicated. The relentless rightward drift under Neil Kinnock’s leadership had eroded the party’s core working-class support without any corresponding upturn in electoral fortunes. For Marqusee and Heffernan, it was time to settle scores, invoking Oscar Wilde’s dictum that ‘on occasions of this kind, it becomes more than a moral duty to speak one’s mind. It becomes a pleasure.’

The book offers a devastating critique of Kinnock’s search for a phantom ‘respectability’, which meant courting the Tory press by lashing into the forces on the left instead of focusing on carrying the fight to Thatcher. Kinnock brought in Peter Mandelson and the pollster and former advertising executive Philip Gould, giving them unprecedented control over political messaging and strategy.

They were crucial in beginning to re-brand the party and pioneering the culture of focus groups, targeting voting demographics beyond Labour’s traditional base and tailoring both the language and the policies to better match the ‘aspirations’ of the upwardly-mobile middle class. The Labour and Britain in the 1990s study they commissioned – ‘the most comprehensive review of public opinion ever undertaken by Labour’, as Gould later described it – found that ‘individualism, consumerism, choice, security, all counted for more now than the old class-based values of collective action and provision’. Sound familiar?

The defeat of the miners in 1985 had been a critical point in shifting the balance of power inside the party and wider labour movement. It gave rise to a ‘new realism’ in the trade union leaderships, more in tune with Kinnock’s efforts to subdue industrial militancy in favour of a ‘pragmatic’ political shift to the right. Kinnock had feared the impact of miners’ leader Arthur Scargill’s more confrontational approach and held back from giving active support to a life-and-death struggle for the mining communities. Meanwhile, Labour launched a ‘prawn cocktail offensive’ to calm nerves in the City of London. As the balance of forces began to change, a whole phalanx of personally ambitious figures who had risen to prominence with the backing of rank-and-file left activists started to stampede to the right, often using crude sociological data and contrived theoretical justifications to cover their tracks.

A marriage of convenience between the old-guard right wingers and the new ‘pragmatist’ soft left opposed socialists in Liverpool and Lambeth who led the campaign against Margaret Thatcher’s onslaught on local government; joined the attacks on radical councillors, particularly in London, who promoted black and ethnic minority, women’s and LGBT rights; and condemned the campaign of non-payment in resistance to the poll tax, encouraging Labour councils to chase down unpaid bills. The party also ditched its commitment to unilateral nuclear disarmament and backed the first Gulf War in 1991.

This isn’t how ‘official wisdom’ has it. In that version of Labour history, Neil Kinnock is credited with ‘saving’ the party and beginning the long haul back to electability – a John the Baptist figure anticipating the messianic intervention of Tony Blair. By contrast, the authors of Defeat from the Jaws of Victory rejected the siren calls for further ‘modernisation’ and defended the commitment to common ownership in Clause Four of the Labour Party constitution. Without it, they wrote, ‘Labour is rudderless, an organisation bereft of principle or purpose.’ They argued that it would suffer more crushing electoral defeats ‘until the party rediscovers its radicalism and its popular roots’.

Yet by 1997, Clause Four had been abolished, the rightward drift begun under Kinnock had been significantly accelerated, and the party won a landslide victory. So were the authors just plain wrong?

I don’t think so. The collapse of the exchange rate mechanism and chaos of ‘Black Wednesday’ on 16 September 1992 torpedoed the Tories’ claim to economic competence, while John Major’s government, beset by internal dissent and subject to a series of sleaze scandals, had manifestly run out of road. Blair’s popularity might well have added a premium to the majority in 1997. But at what cost? Perhaps Labour is only now beginning to realise. If the outcome of the present soul-searching is yet another shift to the right, the party may not survive at all.

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