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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

5 to 7 minute read

Labour's then-leader Michael Foot addresses a rally in 1983.

Jeremy Corbyn is unelectable. We know this because his ideas 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 repeatedly 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 Nunns is a writer, editor and activist. He worked as Jeremy Corbyn’s speechwriter from 2018-20, and his book The Candidate won the 2017 Bread and Roses Award

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