One of the most enduring and longstanding myths of British politics is that Labour lost the 1983 general election because it was too left wing, fighting the election on a manifesto that ensured it was unelectable. In words that have become engraved in the nation’s history, Labour’s Gerald Kaufman described the ’83 Labour manifesto as ‘the longest suicide note in history’, which is how it is still regarded over three decades on.
It is a myth that has been doing the rounds in the context of Labour Shadow Chancellor’s John McDonnell pledge not only to renationalise the railways, Royal Mail, and energy and water companies as part of an electoral platform of anti austerity, wealth redistribution, and a state role in the country’s economic life. Taken together, it is a platform that has succeeded in exciting and energising millions up and down the country who had become accustomed to a Labour Party that had surrendered to right wing nostrums on the economy, welfare, and foreign policy.
In 1983 Labour put forward a manifesto that drew inspiration and direct lineage from the transformational programme of the 1945 Labour government, the most ambitious of any Labour government ever. Back then, despite the parlous state of an economy exhausted after the Second World War, Labour came to power committed to governing in the interests of a working class that had been accustomed to unemployment and poverty with little if any succour from the state prior to the war. The subsequent rolling out of the welfare state, NHS, and a commitment to full employment laid the foundations of the most sustained period of economic stability and prosperity in the nation’s history. With the harnessing of state investment, planning, and intervention in the economy, it was a radical departure from the laissez faire policies that had led to the Depression of the 1930s, condemning millions of working families to penury and destitution.
By the time of the 1983 general election working class families and communities had suffered the consequences of four years of Thatcherism. The country was mired in recession with unemployment at a record 3.2 million, as Thatcher set about decimating the nation’s industrial base in favour of turning a deregulated banking and financial sector into the motor of the economy, in the process ensuring the transferance of wealth from the poor to the rich on a grand scale.The result was a spike in inequality, crime, and public spending on welfare as tax cuts added further downward pressure on public funds.
In this context, Labour pledged to embark on a programme of investment in industry, eduation, council housing, jobs, and the NHS. Along with an increase in child benefit and pensions and the renationalisation of those state assets that had already been sold off and privatised under the Tories, it offered a progressive alternative.
It would be mostly funded by an increase in government borrowing rather than tax increases, on the argument that borrowing to invest in the economy is more productive than borrowing to pay for an over-inflated welfare budget, given the record rate of unemployment that obtained under Thatcher’s government. The scourge of poverty wages would also be tackled through the strengthening of the Equal Pay Act in consultation and cooperation with the unions. Currency controls would be re-introduced in order to counter currency speculation, thereby guaranteeing the stability of sterling and interest rates.
Rather than focus on reducing the budget deficit, a priority would be placed on tackling the nation’s trade deficit, which under Thatcher had regressed to the point where Britain, once the workshop of the world, had become a net importer for the first time in its history, a direct result of the destruction of the country’s industrial base. Labour’s plan of placing controls on imports and bolstering exports via investment in industry and manufacturing was designed to reverse this trend, creating jobs in the process. The expansion of democracy was also planned, especially at the local level, which had suffered under the government’s policy of reducing the role and power of local government in its determination to railroad through its structural adjustment of the economy with minimal opposition.
On defence unilateral nuclear disarmament was a bold initiative designed to tackle the scourge of weapons of mass destruction on the understanding their use could never be countenanced and were a crushing waste of public funds that could be better spent and invested.
The objective of the government’s foreign policy would be based on
the urgent need to restore détente and dialogue between the states and the peoples of the world. We will actively pursue dialogue with the Soviet Union and China, and will urge the American government to do so. We will work consistently for peace and disarmament, and devote all our efforts to pulling the world back from the nuclear abyss. Labour will dedicate some of the resources currently wasted on armaments to projects designed to promote both security and human development.
An essential difference between the Labour and the Tory approach is that we have a foreign policy that will help liberate the peoples of the world from oppression, want and fear. We seek to find ways in which social and political progress can be achieved and to identify the role that Britain can play in this process.
So why, given the aforementioned, did Labour lose the 1983 election?
There are two key reasons: i) the bounce in personal popularity enjoyed by Margaret Thatcher in the aftermath of the Falklands War the previous year, and ii) the split in Labour’s vote by the breakaway SDP faction.
Mention must also be made of the campaign of demonisation that was carried out in the pages of the right wing popular press against Labour leader Michael Foot, who was treated disgracefully and venomously by a tabloid press that had fallen behind Thatcher and extended itself in fanning the flames of the reaction and jingoism that had swept the land on the back of the Falklands War. Here it is worth noting that Labour intended to place controls on press ownership, understanding the danger posed to democracy by the concentration of newspaper ownership in the hands of a few rich media barons, thus inviting their enmity.
In an era when social media and the Internet was a distant dream, this aspect of British society was key in shaping public attitudes and opinion
Taken in the round, the 1983 Labour Party manifesto offered a truly progressive, redistributive, intelligent, and eminently realisable alternative to the cruel and desolate reality of Tory Britain. Defeat in 1983 not only meant another four years of Thatcher, it set in train the process of turning Labour into the Tory-lite party it became.