A plethora of leftist groups, ranging from the International Marxist Group to the Militant Tendency, had gained some power in unions and constituencies by this time. Whilst these were often active, aggressive campaigners, providing a solid backbone resistance to Thatcherism, in many cases they were not democratic socialists and used tactics worse than the old Labour right to keep control.
This included intimidation and even hostility to potential new members who could not be placed easily in a faction; ironically contradicting the main agenda associated with Tony Benn from the late 1970s (see relevant section). Likewise, the right in some areas adopted a variety of procedural checks to throttle internal democracy. The situation was quickly escalating; and, for a time, the Left was winning.
This panicked some of the centre-right MPs at Westminster, who saw in their local constituencies the threat of a takeover and even de-selection. It was becoming hard to argue for the policies of the last Labour government in the party and the country at large, as the Conservatives began to shift the ground from under any old consensus that might have existed.
As a left slate stormed the seven NEC places, some became increasingly desperate of their career and ideological chances in the Party. An Atlanticist/pro-Common Market group of right-wing Labour MPs began to meet regularly to plan their next move. This included Bill Rodgers, Shirley Williams, Roy Jenkins and David Owen.
When the Conference in September backed a call for unilateral nuclear disarmament and a number of left-wing resolutions, this confirmed their fears. The GMWU backed a resolution calling for, among other things, a 35-hour week, import controls and reflation of public sector spending. The dissidents began to prepare to set up a new political party. Little that Michael Foot could do would keep them in the Labour Party. The leadership made every effort to prevent a split, but this group continued making detailed preparations, building up to the Limehouse declaration of 'social democratic' values.
The discord between wings of the Parliamentary Party, and the power struggles within Labour branches around the country, were to illustrate the shaky and feverish position the labour movement found itself in following the Winter of Discontent. Jim Callaghan had no intention of riding out the approaching storm and signalled his intention to step down. A challenge to his leadership would probably have emerged anyway from the resurgent left-wing of the Party. There were now few ex-government ministers ready to comprehensively defend the record of the previous Labour government.
Only persuaded to run by his friends, who saw him as the only man to hold the Party together, Michael Foot was to become the new leader soon after the conference. He beat Denis Healey, who settled for the deputy leadership as part of a centre-right Labour attempt to prevent a complete Left takeover of the Party. This was justified on the grounds of keeping a distinct identity for the Labour Party.
It was against this backdrop that Benn's deputy leadership campaign took place, stirring up much interest around the country and undoubtably acting as an invigorating force upon the grassroots. His decision to challenge Healey under the new constitution in 1981 has been seen as the high watermark of the Left. Healey's eventual narrow victory belies the energetic Benn campaign which did so much to frighten the media and the political Establishment. But whilst this 'cathartic' implosion of the Labour Party was happening, all sections of the labour movement were coming under attack.
In retrospect, Benn's timing for this election was abysmal; exacerbating hostility between the unravelling groups that had always comprised the Labour Party and merely illustrating socialism's failure to pose a workable and popular alternative to Thatcher. Tony Benn drew much of his support from the post-Wilson generation of educated public service employees who owed much to the cultivated policies of previous Labour governments.
These were not necessarily representative of the skilled workers that comprised much of Labour's electoral coalition. As popular electronics consolidated the microchip's presence in home, office and factory, on a national level Labour seemed pre-occupied with navel-gazing. In its workplace applications, technology, as well as Thatcher, was moving against labour-intensive industry. Self-employment was becoming increasingly popular and lucrative.
Much of the New Left energy was diverted towards local government. With radical Labour councils emerging in London and Sheffield, the idea that Thatcherism could be combated by using local rates gathered pace. By forming innovative new services and regenerating local economies, it was felt that the worst effects of Thatcherism could be mitigated. In addition to this, new schemes and policies at a local level could provide a new basis for a future radical Labour government and a rigorous testing of plausibility for localised Keynesian economics.
The devastation beginning to be felt in Labour's industrial heartlands was becoming apparent by 1982. Unemployment soared above two million. The morale of trade unions began to be affected as a bitter recession created conditions unknown since the 1930s in manufacturing and heavy industry. The spread of the black economy in struggling cities was a reaction to this situation, leading some tabloids, orchestrated by Conservative Central Office, to highlight dole 'scroungers.' As retail co-operative societies crumbled and communities shattered, one thing was obvious. Thatcher understood Labour's weaknesses.
The economic or structural basis for this upheaval can often be over-emphasised. Britain did not move smoothly into an economy of high technology and clean "creativity." This is despite some multi-national corporations moving in to manufacture superior designs, often having a more progressive and technically aware management than their indigenous counterparts.
The service industries which grew in this time were often resource-intensive and often involved inferior working conditions to unionised workplaces. It is estimated that 200 million tonnes of limestone, sand and gravel have been excavated in order to feed this property-based service economy. Even now, materials worth £3 - 7 billion are excavated every year. The economic need for the products of heavy industry and primary extraction did not greatly diminish, but Britain came to rely increasingly upon imported manufactures.
Attacking the Labour Party at the roots, with unionised factories shutting, forcing labour relocation and flexibility, made clear her deliberate intent to destroy the power of organised labour once and for all. With the rhetoric of competition, often favouring those with the deepest pockets, the tone of the divisive yet catalytic 1980s had been set. It must be said that many of those on the Labour right, who had not defected, publicly and freely highlighted her real intentions in 'economic' policy.
The Peoples' March for Jobs arose out of a TUC initiative and the first demonstration in 1982 was attended by many thousands of unemployed people. Consciously bearing echoes of the Jarrow marches, the demos reflected a national disquiet that the post-war consensus was being torn apart. This disquiet was, however, tempered by the highly targeted effects of the recession and spending cuts on particular areas and particular groups of people.
But the Social Democratic Party bizarrely campaigned against confrontational politics. By appearing very 'nice' the SDP soon roared ahead of all other parties in the polls, as people initially liked what they saw from positive media coverage. United opposition to Thatcher was, in fact, undermined by the existence of the SDP, who from the start accepted much of the economic 'liberalism' of the Conservatives.
What separated the SDP, more than anything, from the old Labour right and the Tories, was a commitment to the constitutional reform that had failed to materialise in the Labour governments of the 1960s and 1970s.
In a period where the government was prepared to use the apparatus of the state in order to further its own political means without many scruples, this became an increasingly pertinent area of consideration for many within the Labour Party. Just as riots in deprived inner-city areas and spiralling prison populations signalled the growing cost of law and 'order,' the early 1980s were marked by an increase in the number of telephones being tapped. CND, trade union and left-wing activists faced increased surveillance and infiltration.
The Conservative obsession with unplanned slashing of certain areas of public expenditure, pursued remorselessly by Chancellor Geoffrey Howe, led to cuts in naval deployments in the South Atlantic. Argentina saw this as being an indication that the Malvinas were now open for the establishment of Argentinian control. The ruling military junta made informal enquiries, in an attempt to gauge the likely British reaction to an invasion.
When no strong reaction was heard, Argentina immediately sent in an invasion army - easily overrunning the small Anglophile population. Thatcher's reaction was quick and decisive. A taskforce was hurriedly prepared and sent to reclaim the Falklands by force. The USA, now under the Presidency of Ronald Reagan, gave its slightly indolent support to this attempt to protect a British colony. The real diplomatic price of this support was to be slavish support of US foreign policy throughout the decade.
Mrs Thatcher felt that the wave of patriotism engendered by the successful and brave battle for the Falklands would be enough to carry her to a General Election victory. However, the second part of Thatcher's drive to destroy socialism needed a little more time to bear fruit.
By appealing to the idea that everyone could own private property, the Conservatives were attempting to show to the 'nation of shopkeepers' that self-reliance and profit were things to be expected of all Britons. To this end, a first wave of council houses were cheaply sold to the residents.
Not only did this encourage a property-owners mentality, perhaps more importantly it introduced many to the covert ideology of property finance. By entrapping many in the processes of mortgage and debt, the process reduced the adventurousness and increased the risk associated with working-class action.
Thatcher was effectively connecting with the more conservative aspects to the English skilled manual workers. What is more, it left Labour in a quandary. Now more than a few of their core supporters were living in better housing, not having to rely upon unreliable council repairmen. This was being achieved through non-socialist means, leaving a gaping hole where cheap social housing had formerly been. Appeals to working class altruism from an often privileged Labour leadership were looking threadbare.
The leadership around Michael Foot were not sure how to deal with many of these challenges whilst retaining electoral popularity. The pressure from Benn and allies was to condemn totally the council house sell-offs and the Falklands War. With mass support for both activities, this would have endangered Labour still further in its more marginal areas. It was around this point that some 'pragmatic' members of the Left began to have doubts as to the strategy of 'total' opposition to Thatcherism. Benn was not looking like a potential Prime Minister. A mysterious illness had adversely affected his health.
Michael Foot's leadership attempted to steer a course between the warring factions, but this often resulted in pleasing neither. Increasingly besieged, by the end of 1982 Foot's leadership looked wavering and unsteady, particularly compared with Thatcher, who had quickly bundled 'wets' out of her Cabinet within two years. In addition to this, the media was to mount a successful campaign of derision upon the elderly scholar leading the Party. Shamefully, they were assisted by some on the Left and Right of the Party who were often equally scathing.
There was muttering about Foot resigning to make way for Denis Healey. Not motivated by personal ambition, Foot thought that this would widen Party divisions still further. The price he paid in the months before the 1983 election was that of unremitting, unwarranted and scurrilous personal abuse. Arguably, the price the Labour Party paid was almost that of annihilation.
As the various committees gathered to prepare the election manifesto, with representation from all sections of the Party, much discussion in the media focussed upon the by-election candidature of a certain Mr Tatchell in the then Labour stronghold of Bermondsey. With attention drawn to the sexual preferences and character of this candidate, the first flickers of what was dubbed the 'Loony Left' press campaign were ignited.
This tended to wear at local government Labour more than the national Labour Party, but the intention was to further alienate working-class people from a Party which had taken up the cause of 'minority rights.'
The leadership was slow to see the danger of this and devise a strategy to combat misrepresentation. To be fair, some of the far-left, particularly in London, were particularly strange. Linda Bellos and Peter Tatchell were dangerous people to have as ambassadors for Labour. For centre-right Labourites, who specialised in robustly defending Labour from smears, there seemed no reason to attempt to defend people like Bellos from attacks, as these individuals' commitment to Labour was questionable.
Schisms had become so marked, the various groups would be reluctant to protect each other from the Conservative assault. Labour candidates and representatives were therefore often left exposed to the Central Office-fuelled onslaught. Some were more resilient than others. The GLC's Ken Livingstone maintained a large amount of popularity despite smear campaigns, on account of his political intelligence and calculatedly 'amiable' image.
Back in committee, the manifesto process was the most open and transparent ever conducted. Unfortunately, this resulted in a huge, unwieldy mish-mash of various policy documents and hastily added compromises. The job of promoting this, and conducting the organisation of the campaign, was left to a politically balanced campaign committee of forty people.
Policies to withdraw from NATO and the Common Market, decommission nuclear weapons and raise taxes were certainly not automatic vote winners. But the sludgy presentation of these policies, with collapsing rally banners, badly printed leaflets, miserable TV broadcasts, ungrammatical slogans and suspect photo-opportunities would become increasingly evident in the run-up to the election.
A day in the 1983 campaign would start with a farcical morning press conference, with uncoordinated Shadow Cabinet members often talking about whatever took their fancy in front of an often brutally concerted media. Whilst this was happening, his or her colleagues were tearing randomly around the country to address small groups at hundreds of venues.
Mrs Thatcher posed on a Challenger tank and gave a quick soundbite. Mr Foot was often to be seen scuffling along an obscure backstreet and delivering a long, intricate and unteleviseable speech. Meanwhile, Walworth Road, led by campaign organiser Joyce Gould, was quite useless. It relied on old, clanky technology and an often faulty computer which did not even contain a central membership list. Support for marginal constituencies was non-existent whilst the Tories employed hundreds of full-time agents.
This was compounded by the incompetency of right-winger Nick Grant, responsible for press and publicity. Thanks to his consultations with Wright and Partners, the slogan in the last week of the campaign was the risible "Are you going to vote for no tomorrow?"
Some of the interest that Tony Benn had aroused in his deputy leadership campaign still existed. Many of the public meetings were rousing, fiery occasions for the passionately committed membership. After all, this was a Party that was promising a peaceful transition towards Third Way socialism. The fact that this involved withdrawal from international organisations such as the EC was often highlighted. What was often not described in detail were the alternatives that would be created. A plausible picture was painted in the media of an impoverished, highly taxed, strike-ridden state without allies to its West and without trading and influence to the East.
The aggressive advertising agents, Saatchi and Saatchi, would flesh out the doubts to great effect in posters and broadcasts. A slick Conservative presentation machine almost flawlessly cruised towards victory on the back of private wealth, nationalism and fear. This happened despite mass unemployment and a wrecked manufacturing sector. The fact that North Sea oil was now flowing into revenues and surpluses would have meant that, whatever party won, Britain as a whole was not going to be poor.
The battle to finish ahead of the SDP in the polls assumed the maximum importance in an election where the Conservatives had pulled well ahead in the opinion polls. If the SDP attracted a higher share of the vote, Labour could have been finished as the main opposition. It is at this point that many Left-wingers in the Party found themselves grateful for the continued presence of some on the Labour right. With Labour competing with the SDP for what were formerly solid Labour votes, it is unsurprising that the leadership's commitment to left-wing policies became increasingly equivical.
In a painful TV interview with Robin Day, Michael Foot prevaricated on whether nuclear weapons would be gone after one Labour Parliament and gave a very vague account of Labour's programme, riddled with inconsistencies and revealing hasty compromises. The result of two tireless years of attempting to hold the Party together, this cemented Labour's electoral fate. Despite actual policy uncertainties, Mrs Thatcher's Conservatives had a far clearer sense of direction.
The campaign, and the results on June 9th, left scars on the Party that remain to this day. Labour gained only 28.3% of the vote. 112 deposits were lost, with the Party finishing third or worse in 292 constituencies. Among the symbolic losses for the Parliamentary Labour group was Tony Benn, losing his seat in Bristol; but, in addition, a generation of potential Party leaders had been wiped out. Outside of the industrial heartlands, much of the Labour vote had collapsed. The SDP had won a handful of seats, split the Labour vote, and succeeded in ensuring Mrs Thatcher a huge majority; perhaps what a few of them had secretly desired.
This was the post-war nadir of labour influence, the next few years reflecting its diminution in a string of industrial defeats. With the Labour Party numb in shock, leaders of the larger trade unions stepped in quickly to reassert order; as had happened before following severe electoral setbacks. Control of what was left of the central organisation was, almost by default, largely handed back to Transport House - to recover and reform in the care of mainstream trade unionism. Labour switched to opposition autopilot.
Shorn of self-confidence and most popular support, the conditional finance of the unions was now crucial for survival; for a Labour Party which had attracted less than 40% of the trade union vote in the 1983 election. As some warned, Thatcher's attack on the labour movement would now intensify. For the index or close window to return to index