Peterborough, June 9th 1983
I was six by the time of Margaret Thatcher’s second election victory in 1983. I certainly remember the year, if not the election itself.
I remember going to the Isle of Wight on holiday and falling over outside the saloon area of the Wild West Zone of Blackgang Chine (all now, apparently, under the sea). I remember my older brother (then 17) dragging me to see Return of the Jedi. I remember Bananaman, Danger Mouse and my teachers at Queens Drive Infants’ School. I actually remember being conscious that it was the year 1983, the first year I think where this ever happened, even though my memory banks seem to start in 1980. But other than noting that Labour leader Michael Foot’s surname was “Foot” and that this was, of course, funny, I don’t remember anything political at all.
This is perhaps a good thing.
Conditions were ripe for a landslide Labour victory. The Thatcherite monetarist experiment had failed dramatically. 1981 had been a good year for my family: my father got a new job, we moved from the then modern and acceptable area of Longthorpe to a big house in a more central and very nice part of Peterborough (no, this last bit isn’t an oxymoron). My younger brother was born and I started school, both developments that doubtless delighted me at the time. Helped by the Trotskyite adventurer known as “Roger Redhat”, I soon learned to read.
But aside from the distraction of Charles and Diana’s wedding, 1981, seems to have marked a major low point in the fortunes of the country as a whole. Margaret Thatcher became one of the most unpopular leaders on record, as a major recession kicked in. Unemployment surged to a post-war high, inflation also went nearly as high as it had in 1974. Callaghan’s predictions of rioting on the streets if Thatcher won, were soon proven right in both Brixton and Toxteth. Alan Moore predicted a Labour victory (as well as a second Kennedy presidency) in V For Vendetta. Chris Mullin predicted a Tory-SDP Coalition in A Very British Coup.
Two years later, Margaret Thatcher led the Tories to their largest ever post-war election win. Labour were smashed. The Tory majority of 144 was smaller than Attlee’s in 1945 and Blair’s in 1997 and 2001, but was basically huge. What on Earth happened?
Basically, the Falklands War happened. As Andrew Rawnsley has pointed out, Thatcher would definitely have had to resign had she not re-invaded the South Atlantic islands. But her strong war leadership gave a boost which effectively kept her in power for the rest of the decade.
But it wasn’t just that. The economy was starting to recover. And crucially 1981 was also the year Her Majesty’s Opposition pretty much collapsed completely.
Put simply: Roger Redhat proved too “red” for some, so Jonathan and Jennifer Yellow Hat broke away and formed their own group. But this weakened both, enabling Billy Bluehat to win.
Or put a bit more plainly: Labour coped very badly after their 1979 defeat. Labour has a tendency to go into a state of civil war after leaving government (and to Ed Miliband’s credit this didn’t happen at all in 2010. 2017 update: Ahem…) and in the Eighties this happened worse than ever. With the increasingly troublesome left-winger Tony Benn opting out, the 1980 party leadership election was between two men Michael Foot and Denis Healey. Both were sixty-something intellectuals first elected in the Attlee years. Both would live into their late nineties (Healey is still alive. 2017 update: he died in 2015 age 98). But the left-winger Foot won unexpectedly, beating the more populist Healey. Many on the Right (some of whom may have sneakily voted for Foot to strengthen their own argument that Labour had slid towards the “loony Left”) jumped ship forming a new centrist party, the Social Democratic Party (SDP). By the end of 1981, they were more popular than the “evil” Thatcherites on one side and the “Loony lefties” of Labour on the other. The SDP’s allure quickly faded, however, after they unwisely allied with the Liberals.
The practical upshot of this was that three parties went into the 1983 election.
Mrs Thatcher’s Tories were actually less popular than in 1979 (their share of the vote fell). But boosted by the jingoistic fervour of the post-Falklands War mood, a slick campaign and the keen support of the Murdoch press, they won handsomely. The only awkward moment of the campaign for the Tories was the public grilling the Prime Minister received during a TV phone-in over the sinking of the General Belgrano. But this was not from Labour but from a member of the public, the late Diana Gould.
Labour’s campaign, in contrast, was a gaffe-prone shambles. Michael Foot was a thoroughly decent man, intellectual and ultimately less of a “loony” than Thatcher would prove to be. But he looked terrible and scruffy on TV. Labour were furthermore undisciplined and all over the place. It is obligatory to repeat Gerald Kaufman’s remark that the manifesto represented “the longest suicide note in history” at this point and I will happily do so as it is very clever. The manifesto was indeed unusually long and supported unilateral disarmament. The world has only occasionally been closer to nuclear war than it was in 1983, but only a fifth of the UK saw full nuclear disarmament as a solution. Labour came close to coming third behind the SDP vote-wise but the unfair electoral system ensured the SDP barely won any seats.
Would Thatcher have been re-elected without the Falklands War? I actually suspect she would have been, though the margin would have been narrower. Did the SDP deny Labour victory? Again, I suspect the answer is “no”. Labour were heading for defeat anyway. Had Healey been elected leader, Labour wouldn’t have split and the defeat would have been smaller. Labour may have recovered earlier, perhaps returning to power in 1992.
As it was, the election was a disaster. New Labour MP Anthony Blair surely observed that Labour had a long way to go policy and presentation-wise but to his credit never seems to have considered joining the SDP. Tony Benn lost his seat.
And for me this is the most recent General Election I have no memory of.
And frankly, I think I was lucky to miss it.