I didn’t vote in the 1979 election because of some reason or other that I no longer remember. I wasn’t too fussed by the outcome of it, though I think I would have voted Labour had I managed to get to the polling booth. I was vaguely disappointed that the Conservatives had got in, while being quite pleased that we had a woman prime minister.
I hadn’t been especially interested in politics growing up. The party leaders that I was first aware of were Harold Wilson and Edward Heath. They had both seemed like intelligent and worthy men to me. Wilson seemed the better choice but I like both of them. Both of them were struggling with strikes and inflation, and these in my mind were both natural phenomena and things that were not amenable to solution so the fact that neither of the main political figures were able to do anything about them didn’t to my mind reflect particularly badly on them.
I suppose everybody comes to things in a way somewhat like this. You start to become aware of things, but nobody gives you the background. It is much like starting to watch a soap opera that has been running for years. You don’t know the back story so you just sort of make what sense of it you can. Your point of entry has a big impression on your attitude. There is also a feeling that the first politicians you become aware of are the real deal, and every later one is a bit of an imposter. It takes quite a bit of living to see the bit of the story that you personally experienced in its context of a long history of what has gone before and as part of a steadily evolution.
As a student in the early Thatcher years, like a great many others, I was rapidly radicalised by the huge changes her regime presided over. Politics was no longer a dull thing in the background that I was vaguely aware of. I examined the options. I briefly flirted with the Ecology Party as the Greens were then known, before deciding on the basis of reading Homage to Catalonia that I was a socialist. I remain one as it happens, though looking back I realise that the 20 year old me had actually done the homework necessary to adopt the philosophy before he weighed in with both feet and joined the Labour Party.
In fact, I had only the haziest notion of what the Labour Party stood for and next to no knowledge of its history. This included very recent history indeed. On signing up I was instantly sounded out about my opinions on the different strands – for which the code was which Labour politicians I particularly liked. I named a couple of names which I later realised must have made my new comrades immediately aware that I was completely clueless.
A couple of weeks after I joined, major figures in the party started to leave. The formation of a new party called the Social Democrats did sound very exciting, especially at first when the founders were known as the Gang of Four. I have a feeling that if I had waited a little before taking the plunge and joining up I might well have found the Social Democrats an appealing option. For people who weren’t there at the time, I should point out that at first the SDP did project a very progressive image and was initially perceived as being to the left of the Liberals. But I was just miffed that they had let my new team down. I didn’t really consider the policies at issue. This seems the strangest aspect of my political career altogether looking back. I hadn’t actually thought about some pretty major issues at all. I didn’t know whether or not we should leave Europe. I didn’t know whether or not we needed nuclear weapons. I was definitely in favour of a mixed economy but wasn’t exactly sure what the mix should be.
All in all I was really not in a position to participate in what was one of the biggest upheavals in the history of the Labour Party. I just didn’t know what was going on. But I did enjoy the nuts and bolts of party campaigning. I liked the feeling of accomplishment you got from leafletting – it was thirsty work and you had a great feeling of camaraderie in the pub afterwards. I also enjoyed canvassing. People who have never done this often don’t understand what the point of it is. Your goal is to identify your supporters, not win over waverers or convert the opposition. You just work out who is likely to vote for you and put them on the list. It is just as well that it didn’t involve arguing the case because I have a feeling that anybody reasonably well informed about my party’s policies would have had the distinct advantage over me.
I was however learning on the job by talking to the people I was campaigning with and following the debate on the television and in the newspapers. I also followed the polls obsessively. I was quite sure that all our campaigning was going to turn things around, but Labour was clearly struggling to meet the challenge of the SDP, which had formed an alliance with the Liberals and which was sweeping all before it in by-elections. Not having the experience to draw on, I was very impressed by the apparent success of the allies. I was dreading the thought that they might actually win the next election. It looked quite plausible.
But to be young is to be hopeful, and I thought that somehow everything would be alright. The election was called in the spring of 1983 and everything kicked off. It happened to fall in term time so I was in the marginal constituency of Leicester South where the chances of Labour holding the seat were, the old hands said, about 50:50.
They weren’t far wrong either. The seat had a recount and consequently was one of the last to declare. The polls published during the campaign were also pretty accurate in their predictions. There was a slight swing to Labour just before polling day which enabled me to sit down to watch the results with some activist friends and some beers in some hope that maybe my team would pull a last minute victory out of the hat. Sadly it was not to be. The Conservative vote was solid. The non-Conservative vote contrived to split itself in such a way as to maximise the number of seats the Conservatives won.
Despair grew as the night wore on and the beer ran out. As the first rays of sun appeared the final humiliation came with the result for the constituency we had actually been in. The Conservatives took it with a few hundred votes.
Socialism had been defeated, and forever. The new day marked the end of the life I had known. The Alliance had picked up relatively few seats but had only just fallen short of the Labour Party’s share of the popular vote by a few thousand votes. They would obviously now carry on to overtake Labour and become the real opposition. I had joined a doomed cause destined for the margins. I actually imagined we might end up going underground and becoming sellers of newspapers on street corners. In those days the Socialist Workers Party and Militant used to do that kind of thing quite a lot, so it seemed like the logical next step for a socialist party no longer capable of winning elections.
Such are my memories anyway. I didn’t write much down in those days and in any case apart from notes from my degree I haven’t kept them anyway. I haven’t troubled to look up the dates, places and statistics I have quoted above so I may have some of them wrong. The brain plays tricks.
But it turns out I don’t have to rely solely on my memory. I was delighted to discover that somebody has managed to capture and put on YouTube the television coverage of the night of the election. For someone who was there it makes fascinating viewing. This includes finally seeing bits I missed at the time because we were having heated debates amongst ourselves. There is also the pleasure of watching when you know what comes next. So for example, David Owen’s opponent in Plymouth was a women called Ann Widdecombe. Nobody at the time realised she would go on to be a government minister and that he would go on to be a failure. Nigel Lawson gets hardly a mention either.
But what struck me most was just how different the political culture was back then. This is true of the coverage itself. Only political activists stay up all night watching election results, so the the politicians were quite happy to say what they were actually thinking. Shirley Williams openly talked about David Owen being the next leader of the SDP even though the actual leader at the time was Roy Jenkins and he gave no indication he was quitting. I don’t remember noticing that at the time and nobody else picked up on it. Imagine how that would play now! But almost nobody was careful about what they were saying.
Another thing that surprised me even though I was there was just how many people were involved. People were impressed that the 2014 Scottish Referendum attracted a high turnout. But turnouts of 80% were far from uncommon in 1983. Turnouts below 70% were commented on as being unusually low. Hundreds of people are seen attending the announcements of the results and cheering and booing to indicate their opinions. Roy Jenkins could not make himself heard over the crowd in Glasgow even with the aid of a microphone. Huge crowds turned out in Downing Street to celebrate the Tory victory.
I don’t want to sound like an old codger nostalgic for his youth, but I think we have lost something over the last 30 years. By the 1987 election we already saw extensive image management introduced. A Labour Party broadcast on its leader was mocked as Kinnock the Movie, especially when it was noticed that it managed to not mention the Labour Party once. Since then we have had spin doctors, focus groups and the relentless disciplining by the parties to keep their representatives ‘on message’. The party activists no longer tramp the streets in the numbers that they used to. The parties seem to still indulge those that want to do this, but they are hardly encouraged. The only election meeting of any kind I have seen advertised near me for decades was one held by the Conservative candidate for police commissioner a couple of years ago. I couldn’t get to the meeting, but I made a point of going out and voting for her to reward the effort. My twenty two year old self would have been shocked.
But most of all, the thing that is missing is the argument. In 1983 Labour put forward a radical programme that if implemented would have made a huge difference to British history. Looking back, I am not at all sure it would have been a good difference. I know I actively worked for it at the time, but I know a lot more now than I did then. The Thatcher government was offering something very different, and their reforms did change the course of British history. With hindsight I am now sure that they definitely did make the place worse. Ironically the people who had the policies I now think were best were the alliance. But politics is about more than policy, and we now know that they were not really up to the job of government. Indeed they couldn’t even manage to keep their parties on the road. But whatever you think of them, they were different to the other two.
The advance of technology can’t be halted and the greater access to news and information was always going to change politics. The idea of allowing people as outspoken as Cyril Smith free reign to say what they like while being broadcast was one that was bound to be questioned. A professional politician has to move with the times.
But 1983 has left a long lasting scar on British politics, particularly on the Labour Party. It came close to being displaced as one of the major parties. The memory has made it ultra-cautious. The career of Tony Blair is easy to understand as a reaction to that defeat. Even now, the Labour Party seems wary of making any kind of promise. During the small hours of the election night of 1983 Ken Livingstone – at the time the leader of the Greater London Council – announced that the struggle against the Conservative government would now move outside of Parliament. Nobody would dare say anything that provocative today. But he was right. It did move out. We just never worked out where it went.
“Margaret Thatcher visiting Salford” by University of Salford Press Office – Margaret Thatcher visit 1982. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Margaret_Thatcher_visiting_Salford.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Margaret_Thatcher_visiting_Salford.jpg