Socialist Worker

Why did Labour lose in 1980s?

by Martin Smith
Issue No. 1675

'WHEN KEN Livingstone was in charge of the Labour Party in London we were a byword for extremism. We were unelectable as a political party. I never want to go back to those days again.' This is Tony Blair's central argument why people should not back Ken Livingstone as Labour's candidate for mayor of London. It is a complete reversal of the truth.

Labour's failure to beat the Tories does not lie with the left. It lies on the shoulders of Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock and other leading Labour Party figures. On three occasions the Tories were nearly brought to their knees by working class struggle. It was Labour's leaders who failed to take the advantage. The Labour government of 1974-9 had paved the way for the Tories in the first place. It delivered savage cuts in public spending. Unemployment rocketed.

By the time of the 1979 election workers felt demoralised after years of attacks from what was supposed to be 'their' government. The Tories came to office determined to take on the trade union movement so the bosses could increase their profits. In January 1980 Thatcher began her onslaught by attacking the steel workers. There was an all out strike in response. The militancy of the strike shocked the Tories. Mass pickets closed down the steel plants. Over 200,000 workers took part in a solidarity general strike across Wales.

The Tory government was on the rocks. Opinion polls showed that Labour would have a majority of 130 if there were a general election. Labour could have called for more industrial action and protests to increase the heat on the Tories. But Michael Foot, the leader of the Labour Party, argued that the only solution was to wait four years for the next election. Labour sat back and allowed the bosses to beat the steel workers.

The defeat of the strike cleared the way for a huge wave of job losses. Unemployment reached four million. The defeat and mass unemployment left many workers feeling despairing and powerless. But many hated Thatcher passionately. The left grew in the early 1980s. But it often did not relate to workers' struggles. Instead it channelled its energies into winning positions inside the Labour Party.

It was far from inevitable, however, that the Tories would win the 1983 election. It was the right wing of the Labour Party that wrecked Labour's chances of winning, not the left. In 1981 four leading right wing Labour MPs left the party and formed the SDP. The SDP then formed an electoral alliance with the Liberals. This split the anti-Tory vote. In both the 1983 and 1987 general elections the combined vote of the Labour Party and the SDP was bigger than that of the Tories. In fact Thatcher never won more than 44 percent of the vote throughout the 1980s.

The Falkands War is often given as an explanation of why the Tories won the 1983 election. But this is a myth. The Tories' popularity hardly rose at all during the Falklands War. Unemployment and a well supported strike by health workers made many people cynical of Thatcher's motives for going to war. But Labour did nothing to build opposition to the war.

In fact Labour leader Michael Foot accused the Tories of not being hard enough in their defence of the Falkland Islands. The Tories fell over themselves to congratulate him for 'speaking for Britain'. Labour's stance only helped the government.

Kinnock's pale imitation

THATCHER EMBARKED on her biggest confrontation with the unions in 1984 when she took on the miners. For a whole year the miners stood up to the Tories. It was the longest mass strike in European history. The miners could have won.

Ian MacGregor was the head of the Coal Board at the time. In his memoirs he claims that when the dockers threatened to walk out in solidarity with the mine workers, Thatcher was on the verge of throwing in the towel. In February 1984, just one month before the miners' strike, a MORI poll found Labour 10 percent behind the Tories. As the strike started Labour's ratings soared in the opinion polls. In August, when the strike was at its height, Labour led by double figures. It gained from the collective struggle but did nothing to build it.

Neil Kinnock, the new Labour leader, savagely attacked the miners for picketing and demanded compliance with the anti-union laws. Kinnock's refusal to get behind the strike, combined with trade union leaders' refusal to deliver the solidarity action that the miners needed, meant that the miners were beaten. Many workers again felt demoralised and once again the Tories survived. The defeat of the miners encouraged bosses to go on the offensive. Within two years print workers, dockers and seafarers suffered the same fate.

When it came to the election of 1987, the mini-boom in the economy at the end of the 1980s helped the Tories. But the media today exaggerate the extent to which the Tories won over 'hearts and minds'. The Tories only won over a small minority of workers to their free market ideology. For example, Thatcher always claimed that she had turned Britain into a 'shareholding democracy'. But in 1988 only 14 percent of the population of Britain owned shares. When it came to the manual working class it was only 4 percent.

There was also an enormous movement against the Tories' capping of local councils' budgets. Sadly, left wing councils backed off in the face of the Tories' threats. Each election defeat pushed Labour's national leaders further and further to the right. Kinnock's strategy was to dump any socialist policies and to attack the left inside the party.

Kinnock argued that Labour had to drop unilateral nuclear disarmament. But survey after survey showed that around 40 percent of the population backed unilateralism. In 1987 Kinnock argued that Labour should embrace the market, and his campaign manager, Bryan Gould, said Labour should move so far to the right that it should 'leapfrog Thatcher' to do so. Labour ended up a pale version of the Tories. As a result many who disliked the Tories felt they could not trust Labour.

Flagship leads to explosion

THE TORIES' repeated attacks on workers built up huge pools of bitterness inside the working class. That bitterness eventually exploded around the poll tax. The poll tax was going to be the Thatcher's 'flagship'. But around 15 million refused to pay the tax. There were protests and small riots outside town halls all over the country. The campaign culminated in a march of a quarter of a million people in London which ended in the biggest riot in Britain for 100 years.

Six months later Thatcher was forced to resign. Once again, the Tories could have been finished off completely. Once again, the Labour leadership came to their aid. Labour's deputy leader Roy Hattersley urged 'exemplary sentences' for those arrested on poll tax marches. Labour councils jailed non-payers. Just before the 1992 election Labour even attacked the Tories for not changing the law to make it easier to pursue non-payers!

Labour's opposition to the fight against the poll tax threw away millions of votes. In the 1992 election 11.5 million people voted Labour. That was three million less than the number of summonses, warrants and benefit deduction orders issued for poll tax non-payment. If all those who had refused to pay the poll tax had voted Labour, Kinnock would have won a parliamentary majority of 119 seats. Instead the glitziest, 'most professional' Labour campaign in history only increased the party's vote by a miserable 5 percent.

The people behind Kinnock's election disaster were not Ken Livingstone and the left but Peter Mandelson, Gordon Brown and John Prescott. These are the very people who today sing the praises of the market, just as millions of workers hate privatisation, fat cat bosses and want the renationalisation of the railways and trade union rights. People voted Labour in 1997 because they hated the Tories' market madness, and today they are sick of Blair's pro-market madness.

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Sat 4 Dec 1999, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1675
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