The i983 defeat: 'the longest suicide note in history'?

Although it survived the threat posed by the SDP, Labour’s political reputation continued to deteriorate throughout the early 1980s. The 1983 election in particular marked a disturbing decline in its share of the vote. Giles Radice remarked that the campaign ‘has exposed our weaknesses - the incredibility of Michael Foot, the unpopularity of our defence policy, and the distrust which three years of infighting has built up for us’.24 The result confirmed the party’s problems were not merely to do with its poor campaign and unpopular leadership, but the refusal to come to terms with a changing society in the face of British Labourism’s degeneration.23 As the journalist Peter Jenkins remarked, the party was losing because it was Labour. An influential report by the LCC after the 1983 defeat concluded: ‘Labour’s old coalition and conceptions of the working-class are no longer adequate’.26

The collapse of support was most dramatic among skilled and semi-skilled working-class voters living in Southern England and the Midlands. These occupational groups were increasingly sceptical of government intervention, high taxes, trade unions and corporatism.27 Labour’s policies of withdrawing from the EEC and NATO aroused antagonism from working-class electors. Over a third of trade union members now voted Conservative. The Tory party secured more working-class support than at any time since the 1930s. In its total share of the vote, Labour was almost squeezed into third place despite the structural advantages afforded by FPTP.

The 1983 manifesto represented the most decisive shift to the Left since the establishment of the party. The programme New Hope for Britain was long and turgid, encompassing every major party conference resolution since 1970. Tony Benn claimed subsequently the 1983 election was a triumph since 8 million citizens voted for socialism. Eric Hobsbawm disagreed, insisting ‘there is not a glimmer of comfort in the results of this election’.28 Labour was losing support across all classes, age cohorts and genders, ‘while only 39 per cent of trade unionists supported the party they had founded’. South of the line from the Wash to the River Severn, Labour won just three seats outside London. Not even Hobsbawm anticipated the scale of Labour’s collapse. External factors were emphasised in explaining the defeat, including changes in the class structure disadvantageous for social democratic parties. Less scrutinised were the inept decisions of the shadow cabinet, particularly the collective failure to develop a credible economic policy following the breakdown of the Social Contract in the 1970s.2 An internal review of the 1983 campaign demonstrated that ‘many older supporters see Labour’s anti-nuclear policy as “soft”’. Moreover, ‘there [was] a general lack ofbelief that Labour can actually do the things that it is promising’.30 Labour was perceived as a party of protest rather than government.

In the wake of defeat, Foot, a bookish and rather unworldly literary intellectual, resigned from the leadership. The ‘dream ticket’ of Kinnock, a former Left- Winger and Bevanite, and Roy Hattersley, stalwart of the traditional Right and protege of Anthony Crosland, replaced the team of Foot and Healey. Kinnock convincingly won the leadership contest, securing a majority of the Electoral College with solid support in the CLPs.31 It was a remarkable victory. Yet it is important to recall that Kinnock won because Benn was disqualified from the contest after losing his seat at Bristol South-East in the 1983 rout. Events could have played out differently had Benn been eligible to run.

So what kind of politician was Neil Kinnock? His political philosophy were rooted in the socialist ethos of Nye Bevan and the South Wales valleys. On the Left originally, Kinnock hated Thatcherism’s ‘smug and selective Victorian homilies. . .. The Tory party uses the hidden boot of unemployment as well as the invisible hand of Adam Smith’.32 He not only objected to the Thatcher governments’ economic and social policies. Kinnock believed the values of compassion, caring and solidarity in which he was steeped in his community of Tredegar, the birthplace of Bevan, was anathema to Thatcherism. Elected to the House of Commons for Bedwellty in 1970 at the age of twenty-eight, Kinnock served his apprenticeship in the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA), a body providing education to working-class trade unionists. His heroes inevitably were Nye Bevan, alongside the English social historian R.H. Tawney. Kinnock’s speeches often referred to Tawney’s most important work, Equality,33 At the start of the 1987 campaign in a rousing address at Llandudno in North Wales, Kinnock asked famously: ‘Why am I the first Kinnock in a thousand generations to get to university?’ When he spoke of the community ‘translating] its desires for those individuals into provision for those individuals’, the essence of the post-war welfare state, it was an ethical impulse that derived from Tawney’s writings. Tawney was Kinnock’s lodestar.

In what circumstances, then, did Kinnock become the crusader for reform inside the Labour Party? During the 1970s, Kinnock had been a firebrand figure on the parliamentary Left, physically confronting Michael Heseltine after brandishing the mace at the opposition benches following a dispute over ‘pairing’ of votes. In his maiden speech, Kinnock defied convention by attacking the opposition as Bevan had done, condemning the Conservatives as ‘a party whose very existence is an illustration of rapacity and selfishness’. Kinnock was echoing self-consciously Bevan’s infamous speech at Belle Vue in 1948:

No attempt at ethical or social seduction can eradicate from my heart a deep burning hatred for the Tory party. ... So far as I am concerned, they are lower than vermin. They condemned millions of first-class people to semi-starvation.34

Yet as an ardent Left-Winger, Kinnock loathed Harold Wilson as much as the Conservative Party. He held the governments of the 1960s and 1970s in particularly low regard. In Kinnock’s view, Labour ministers had traded political principle for the glamour of high office and access to the political establishment. He was an inveterate opponent of devolution to Wales, believing devolution threatened the unity of the British working class. Kinnock was an advocate of Benn’s leadership throughout the 1970s. Yet having voted for Foot in the leadership ballot in 1980, Kinnock dramatically switched sides, despairing at the internecine battles threatening to destroy Labour in the aftermath of the 1979 defeat. In the deputy leadership contest in 1981, he shocked Tribune Group allies by abstaining rather than supporting Benn. Thereafter, Kinnock advocated the party’s doctrinal and organisational rejuvenation.

The hard Left saw Kinnock’s actions as cynical treachery, setting out to destroy Benn while securing the leadership for himself.35 The MP Margaret Beckett (who ousted Dick Taverne in Lincoln) condemned Kinnock as Judas. Yet, in hindsight, destroying Benn’s career was an improbable explanation of his motives. It is more plausible that Kinnock concluded modernisation was the only viable route to a Labour government in the face of recurrent electoral defeats. The rock-solid seat he represented in South Wales was manifestly suffering as a consequence of the policies of the Thatcher governments. It would never see a Labour administration again unless the party won outside its industrial heartlands. Moreover, the antics of the Left repulsed him. Kinnock grew to despise:

The group of people in the Labour Party who are not motivated by any desire for amicable resolution of disputes. They do not care whether we win the next General Election - in fact they would rather like us to lose it so they can have what they call the Great Clear Out. Then the organisation would become entirely a repository for the assorted sectarians.36

As a consequence, Kinnock subsequently aligned himself with the party’s factions on the Centre and Right. In the autumn of 1983, he was elected leader by an overwhelming margin on the ‘dream ticket’ with Hattersley. Even so, an underlying ambiguity remained in Kinnock’s politics. He became a committed reformer, laying the foundations for Blair’s transformation of the party in the 1990s. Kinnock sought to build his reputation as an engaging television personality, projecting himself as a modern family man at ease with middle-class Britain. Yet Kinnock never shed his ties to the South Wales valleys, to the socialism of Bevan, to the culture of solidarity that prevailed in the pit village communities of Tredegar. After Ed Miliband defeated his brother, David, in the 2010 leadership contest, Kinnock boasted to friends: ‘We’ve got our party back!’ He was almost literally ‘the life and soul of the party’, throughout his political career maintaining an intuitive empathy with the Labour movement. Kinnock grasped the party’s ethos, fomented throughout a century of industrial and political struggle, better than almost any Labour politician. He cherished the symbols, ethics and practices that made it the party of labour, that made its membership ‘Labour people’. Kinnock told the party conference in 1985: ‘There is no need to compromise values, there is no need in this task to surrender our socialism, there is no need to abandon or even try to hide any of our principle’. Nevertheless, the reformulation of the party’s identity and strategy was to prove a tortuous process in which fundamental principles were allegedly betrayed. Kinnock never entirely escaped the accusation that he was the modern-dayjudas of the British Left.

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