The 1987 defeat and the crisis of Labourism

The gravity of its third defeat encouraged Labour to undertake the fundamental reappraisal of strategy and ideology that it had hitherto avoided. The party could not merely tinker with its policies at the edges, but had to develop ‘a perspective on what is happening to society now, a vision of the future, a capacity to articulate those vividly through a few clearly enunciated themes or principles, a new conception of politics’.84 Labourism was vulnerable to structural collapse, given the decline of working-class support, alongside the weakening of class identification.85 The Scottish MP Robin Cook believed that in 1987 Labour ‘did not come across as a party with an economic programme tailored to making the economy stronger and its workers more prosperous’. Its agenda amounted ‘to a programme of redistribution . . . presenting a series of discrete social policies without any underlying economic analysis to give them coherence’.86 David Blunkett insisted that Labour must ‘respond to and represent those who wish to see their own hard work provide them with well-earned comforts’.87 The party had to offer a vision of economic revival that was ‘human and responsible’, emphasising market regulation, rebuilding the country’s infrastructure, while securing a more highly educated and skilled labour force.88 For too long, Labour had appeared determined to reverse the structural changes of the 1980s, returning Britain to the policies of the post-war settlement — an outlook that was increasingly irrelevant to younger voters.

Research presented to the shadow cabinet in November 1987 analysed why voters still rejected the party. The project ‘Labour and Britain in the 1990s’ was led by Patricia Hewitt, Philip Gould, Deborah Mattinson and polling experts Roger Jowell and John Curtice.89 The findings are summarised in Table 5.1. The most important explanation for Labour’s rejection at the ballot box was the fear the ‘loony Left’ might regain influence, that the party was dominated by the unions and that a Labour government would not defend the UK from foreign attack. It was believed the party’s mismanagement of the economy would lead to rising prices. In 1987, Labour sought to focus debate on the health service and education. Even here, the Tories gained the political advantage, promising ‘freedom of choice’ for citizens. Gould, later Blair’s polling strategist, believed that for millions of voters, ‘Labour became a shiver of fear in the night, something unsafe, buried deep in the psyche. . . . Labour’s negative identity became locked in time’.90 The party was ‘outdated, identified with an old agenda. Its policies no longer matched people’s personal and family aspirations. ... [It was] intent on telling people how they should run their lives, rather than enabling them as individuals to make their own choices’.91 When Deborah Mattinson asked a Roe- hampton focus group in 1986 what characteristics epitomised the average Labour

TABLE 5.1 ‘Labour’s Bad Points’ 198792





‘Loony Left’ would gain too much influence



‘Labour too dominated by trade unions’



‘Labour wouldn’t defend Britain properly'



‘Labour would undo good things done over last few years’



‘Neil Kinnock wouldn’t make a good PM’



‘Soft on minorities’



‘My standard of living would fall’



‘Would restrict freedom to buy council houses/shares/ education/healthcare’



‘Don’t know how to run the economy’



voter, the respondents replied: ‘Working-class, factory worker, drinks pale ale, smokes a pipe, holidays in Blackpool, takes the bus, lives in a council house’.93

The voters who continued to support Labour did so out of loyalty and habit in an era where the traditional ties of class were dissipating. A survey conducted after the 1987 defeat found that 27 per cent voted Labour because it was the ‘party of the working-class’, while 20 per cent did so because they had ‘always voted Labour’.94 Yet a report in the newspaper Labour Weekly acknowledged that it was the working class that ‘had done well under Thatcherism. . . . They have had more money in their pockets at work and enjoyed real improvements in their disposable pay. Many have bought council houses and a quarter have become shareholders’.95

Another Labour Weekly columnist concluded:

Economic arguments were by far the most important for the majority of voters. . . . The most inescapable conclusion is that no matter how well we do in Scotland, Wales and most of the north, Labour will never form another government unless the Tories can be defeated in crucial seats in the midlands and the south.96

Those voting Labour predominantly felt insecure and badly off. One supporter in the North-West commented, ‘I just don’t feel my job is safe nowadays’. Conservative voters felt more prosperous:

If you’re self-employed like me you’re a lot better off by tax concessions. You get loans to start businesses. . . . She [Thatcher] must have bought massive amounts of money into the country. I mean, the confidence the world seems to have in her. The stock market’s going through the roof.

Many feared Labour would mismanage the economy, drive out foreign investment, allow the country to be run by the unions and give help to the undeserving. The survey revealed that voters who bought shares or used private medicine, credible aspirations for Cls and C2s, were much less likely to vote Labour. The complaint of an Alliance supporter in the South-East of England that ‘we’re no longer a manufacturing country . . . the fiscal and monetary policies of this government are transient’ was a minority view that fell on deaf ears among voters.97

In the wake of Labour’s defeat, the modernisers’ diagnosis not surprisingly gained traction within the shell-shocked party. Bryan Gould told the postelection conference of the Labour Co-ordinating Committee (LCC):

If Labour is to win the next general election, we have to attract votes and win seats in those parts of the country - noticeably the south - where we did badly in 1987. The popular appeal of policy must be a prime consideration not an afterthought. . . . We must consciously think of ourselves as the party of the future, as the party to prepare Britain for the year 2000. We need to develop our own radical policies which . . . appeal to the self- interest of. . . those whose votes we need.98

The general secretary of the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union (AEEU), Gavin Laird, told the New Statesman:

What’s wrong with people wanting cars? What’s wrong with people wanting their own house? If in the States you speak to a guy who assembles cars, he sees no difference between himself and a doctor or a lawyer except in earning power. There’s none of this class differentiation. It seems to me that we are heading in the same direction . . . what’s wrong with that?99

The new revisionism shocked and dismayed the Left, who complained the 1987 defeat was being exploited to legitimise the jettisoning of socialist values, transforming the party’s identity. Richard Heffernan and Mike Marqu- see believed that ‘responses to Labour’s defeat bore a striking resemblance to responses to Labour’s 1959 defeat. . . academics, pollsters and psephologists cited the gradual disappearance of the industrial working-class and the shrinking of Labour’s industrial base’.100 Heffernan and Marqusee believed reformers were drawing all the wrong lessons. Labour lost because its leader ‘was seen as a man who would do anything or say anything, repudiate any conviction or embrace any prejudice for the sake of a handful of votes’.101 Yet Heffernan and Marquesee’s contribution was emblematic of the Left’s quandary: vitriolic about Kinnock’s attempt to rejuvenate the party, the authors struggled to provide a constructive account of late-twentieth-century socialism.102 It was as if electing Tony Benn to the leadership was sufficient to energise the British Left and return Labour to power. Yet the essential ideas of socialism were subject to ‘widespread discrediting’.103 In the wake of recurrent defeats, it was less obvious other currents on the

Left offered a viable and persuasive alternative to Kinnock’s neo-revisionism. Socialism, as the political theorist Alex Callinicos emphasised, always operated across two registers: an intellectual tradition and a political movement. Both of them appeared vulnerable to imminent collapse.

Eric Hobsbawm had demonstrated in 1978 that the class base that provided the political dynamic for socialist movements was weakening. The working class was shrinking as a proportion of the eligible voting population. Electoral de-alignment detached the remaining industrial workers from the party of labour. Socialist political economy was now in poor health. The planned economies of Eastern Europe and Soviet Russia, exemplars of ‘actually existing socialism’, were perceived as heroic failures at best. During the 1970s, Keynesian social democracy was discredited. Socialist political thought struggled to counter the rise of neo-liberal globalisation under Reagan and Thatcher, with its emphasis on the free economy and the strong state.11,4 As an intellectual tradition, Marxism was in crisis, confronted by the wave of ideas rooted in post-structuralism. Whereas Marxism was once pre-eminent, post-structuralism was now ‘the dominant radical voice in the Anglophone academy’.105 Rather than the politics of industrial production and egalitarianism, the dominant theme in the 1980s was the rise of personal autonomy. Culture and identity replaced class stratification as the animating concern of the Left, rendering traditional conceptions of socialist politics redundant.106

Hobsbawm was a major intellectual influence during Kinnock’s leadership. Indeed, Kinnock once remarked that Hobsbawm was ‘his favourite Marxist’. The leader told the party conference in 1987: ‘Democratic socialism has to be as attractive, as beckoning and as useful to the relatively affluent and the relatively secure as it is to the less fortunate in our society’. He reminded delegates: ‘If this movement pretends. . . that a few million people owning a few shares each will not make any difference to their perception of their economic welfare, then this movement will be fooling itself’. Kinnock insisted the party must appeal to those who ‘did not vote Labour last time or the time before’. Socialism ‘was about ordinary people getting on: ordinary people having a better life, ordinary people being able to consume more and choose more, and gain greater comfort and opportunity and security’. Socialism’s historic emphasis on collective ownership of productive assets was inevitably reappraised.

Yet Labour’s inability to respond to Thatcherism had also underlined the bankruptcy of the British social democratic tradition. In his 1982 lecture in Perth, Australia, Tony Blair, then an up-and-coming parliamentary candidate, acknowledged that Labour was in difficulty because ‘growing numbers of young often socially upward-moving people’ were no longer willing ‘to accept our basic ideology just because their forefathers did’. Meanwhile, those on the Right of the party offered only ‘tired excuses of pragmatism’. Blair believed the Left had to understand the agenda of the professional middle class and skilled workers for whom nationalisation and redistribution were ‘not a great priority’. White-collar voters were concerned increasingly with social issues: ‘nuclear disarmament, ecology, race relations, feminism’. The stirring of fundamental rethinking in the party began to emerge.

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