1983: never again


Today is the thirtieth anniversary of what was arguably Labour’s postwar nadir: the 1983 election.

If George Orwell had, by chance, chosen the title of his future-shock novel as one year earlier than that he finally settled on, the irony would have been complete: fact would have been competing with fiction for the most dystopian future for the left.

Many of today’s Labour members and supporters were not even born then, and surely those who have only primarily known Labour as the established party of government must find it difficult to comprehend the dire state of the party back then.

We all laughed till it hurt at John O’Farrell’s Things Can Only Get Better, because my Labour generation empathised exactly with both his idealism and his pain.

It was an era where the party was defined by internecine warfare within itself; the SDP split, where four key figures were so disgusted with the state of the party that they went off and formed their own one; policies which were founded on opposition to things, rather than realistic, positive, practical measures; and, of course, looming large over all of this, the – for us – mystifying success of Margaret Thatcher.

It was also the era when I first remember being politically aware: I was sixteen. I remember it distinctly, because I was a paper boy (yes, I was probably a bit old at sixteen, but there wasn’t much other work for a young lad in rural North Yorkshire).

As I delivered round the village, I would ponder all the front pages during the election campaign. Even then I was aware of which were Murdoch papers and which were not; inevitably, there were a lot of copies of the Sun. They were awful, but it was an awakening, too: for the first time I started to understand what ordinary people – my neighbours – thought, and read, about politics.

And it was pretty depressing. By that time I knew I sided with Labour, but I still remember strongly how the press was relentlessly anti-Labour. Cartoon caricatures of its politicians; the over-the-top post-Falklands jingoism; the Tory rally where Kenny Everett, a comedian and TV personality at the height of his fame, said “let’s kick Michael Foot’s stick away!” – a cruel jibe at the fact that Footy was getting on a bit and had taken to walking around with a stick. I remember thinking “that’s not fair”.

It wasn’t, but we didn’t exactly help ourselves, either. The funny thing was that, even at sixteen, I already knew that their policy on unilateral nuclear disarmament alone (we were still in the Cold War, remember) meant that they would never get elected.

Sure, I wanted them to. I hoped against hope that by some miracle the British public would see the light and elect them, rather than the evil monster, Thatcher. But my hopes, rather inevitably, were dashed.

And not just a little – Labour was not just in trouble, but in meltdown. It was amazing we ever survived that period, and took years of hard slog by Neil Kinnock to get us back to a point of being remotely considered for office by the public. That part we all know.

Thankfully, 2015 will not be 1983, and Ed Miliband is not Michael Foot (although he does sometimes show flashes of Foot’s other-worldliness, as I have written elsewhere).

But we see those days as the dark days, light-years from the vibrant, modern, Labour Party of today. It could never happen now – could it?

In 1981, the Tories were having a very rough time. Like Cameron, Margaret Thatcher had by no means established herself as a leader – even within her own party – and presided over an economy which was in a mess. The polls, two years out from that disastrous election, were not dissimilar to now.

In the NOP poll of 7 May, 1981, Labour had a lead of 8.4% (and it had risen to over 15% at the start of that same year).

In the YouGov poll of 2 May, 2013, Labour’s lead was 6% and on 9 May, 11%.

In short, pretty much the same.

While there is still all to play for, we might just keep that in mind.

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