Make your own free website on

Things looked less than promising for the Labour Party in July 1983. A generation of experienced leadership had been wiped out in the General Election, many of whom would not return to politics. Labour MPs remained only in Wales, Scotland and the poorest areas of de-industrialised England. The MPs which remained were factionalised, with new gaps opening on the left, between the "soft-left" Tribune Group, which was closer to most trade unions, and the "far-left" Campaign for Labour Party Democracy. In addition, small splinters, such as the Labour Co-ordinating Committee, followed an erratic ideological course, often plotting against both left and right.

With the resignation of Michael Foot, there were a number of suggested alternatives, the majority of which were untested and unproven. Tony Benn was out of Parliament, whilst Healey preferred not to stand for election as leader. (Some would say that this was a mistake).

On the left, Liverpool warhorse Eric Heffer was an extremely idealistic Christian socialist and an uncompromisingly kind individual, widely respected for his integrity. In terms of wider electability he was not highly rated.

Peter Shore was another Liverpudlian, extremely capable and intelligent, who had drafted Harold Wilson's manifesto of 1964. Shore lacked support in Parliament, and his involvement in the 1976-79 Labour government's programmes denied him Left-wing support.

Neil Kinnock, meanwhile, had not been a cabinet minister in the last Labour government, and had been critical of many of the austerity measures, which seemed to place him on the left of the party. He was a lively speaker, and well-liked by the majority of those that met him.

Roy Hattersley was a junior minister in the Callaghan government, with portfolios in education and defence. A right-winger prepared to enter into dialogue with the those on the left, he preferred not to join the SDP and became a beneficiary of the increasingly cautious nature of the Parliamentary Labour Party.

Neil Kinnock won easily with 71% of the votes cast in the electoral college, with Roy Hattersley becoming deputy leader. This inexperienced "dream ticket" was confirmed in October 1983, and was almost immediately tested by a new raft of anti-union legislation and a vigorous, determined Thatcher government at the height of its powers. The rather jocular nature of Neil Kinnock's public persona did not appear to be appropriate to this particular period in politics.

A major industrial dispute was brewing in the coal industry, and the Government and National Coal Board had made meticulous preparations so that they should reverse the defeat of 1974, and in doing so, reduce Britain's dependence on British coal. A program of pit closures was drafted, which was leaked to NUM leader Arthur Scargill. In March 1984 the miners went on strike.

From the offset, the Labour and TUC leadership, with the rather sedate figure of Norman Willis, did not look comfortable with this situation, resisting calls for a widening of the strike and making conciliatory noises in the face of vicious media pressures. As the strike grew increasingly bitter and violent, with pitched battles between policemen and miners, the mainstream labour movement found themselves forced to condemn the picket-line violence at every point. From the start, many knew that this was a different situation to 1974; the public were said to be less sympathetic to unions after the Winter of Discontent, whilst the Coal Board had made preparations to ensure coal stocks would not be exhausted.

Whilst there was a difficult balancing act to be made, this was made more difficult by the commander of the NUM, the defiant Arthur Scargill, whose brilliance in oratory was not matched by televisual presentation. He had failed to carry a full strike ballot before ordering his members out. In fact the media found it easy to associate the NUM with extremism and dogma. This was despite the fact that Scargill in this case was absolutely right about the scale of closures being planned. The Coal Board, meanwhile, had the entire resources of the British state at its disposal, including widespread interference by the security services within the NUM.

Despite these problems, Kinnock's performance was rather lacking in the vigour which people expected of a man representing a South Wales constituency. The case against pit closures was not adequately put, and debates became bogged down in discussions of "flying pickets" and "union bullies." Material and political support for the miners came more from local branches of the Labour Party than the Westminster leadership.

It is too easy to see these as the "black years" of the labour movement. All over the country, members of the Party and other friends and comrades rallied to the miners cause, especially during the Christmas of 1984. In fact the grassroots of the Party were still invigorated by the New Left/Bennite period, with enormous energy directed within the movement for the miners' benefit. Sadly, few activists truly believed the miners would win.

The miners couldn't win because the government could maintain power supplies through the winter of 1984/1985. In Nottinghamshire, a new "scab" union had been formed, the Union of Democratic Mineworkers, and this had already returned to work. There were plenty of coal stocks, transport was still running, nuclear power was still operating at a subsidy... in addition, this was a mild winter, which didn't demand a great amount of electricity from the National Grid. A campaign, "Switch on at 6," which was an attempt to surge the Grid, was a desperate last throw, and in March the miners returned to work, with no guarantees.

It was a massive blow for the trade unions, and the Conservatives sensed that there could be no serious opposition now to their plans for privatisation and structural change. Unemployment remained high enough to stifle industrial unrest. Church leaders were shocked at the divisive nature of Thatcher's plans, as Labour-supporting areas were often literally left to rot. In the inner-cities this led to more tensions, heavy-handed policing and massive social inequality causing a huge explosion in Brixton, South London.

The scent of corruption pervaded throughout, as corporate interests began to pervade the House of Commons to an unprecented extent through the influence of lobbyists. The huge numbers of Conservative MPs who were also directors of various companies began to affect the process of politics as a whole. Defence contracting was perceived as highly lucrative, and this affected government policy. When Gorbachev began making proposals for a peaceful end to the Cold War in 1985, the Thatcher government reacted angrily, as a different defence environment would affect many an undeclared income, even within the Thatcher family itself.

The inexperienced Labour leadership failed to make corruption charges stick, and even when faced with easy opportunities, such as the helicopter procurement row, which saw the resignation of Michael Heseltine, the House of Commons witnessed lacklustre and verbose performances from Neil Kinnock. Inevitably, the left became sharply critical of Kinnock. This almost verged on absolute intransigence. The result of this was an increasingly aloof relationship, with Kinnock's coterie of advisors and supporters operating outside conventional Labour structures. Meanwhile the right-wing claimed an increasing influence on the direction of the Party.

In urban centres such as Liverpool, Labour branches had become moribund during the 1976-79 government and this had weakened them to "entryist" organisations such as Militant. Before the early 1970s, Labour had a "Proscribed Organisations" list to protect branches from Communist Party takeover.

With this list no longer enforced, enough branches had been taken over in Liverpool to ensure that much of the city's administration was dominated by Militant, and this had a figurehead in the character of Derek Hatton, deputy leader of Liverpool council. Charismatic and defiant, Hatton became a challenge to Labour's leadership. Reaction to rate-capping forced issues to a head.

Rate-capping was a largely successful attempt by the Conservatives to eliminate the municipal socialism that had sprung up in the early 1980s, represented by the Greater London Council, Sheffield's city council and a number of others. Rate-capping was essentially a control on councils local incomes, and effectively forced many into budgetary dependence on central government. This policy also complimented the reduction of local government's authority over police and other public services, with the establishment of unelected "quangos."

Kinnock was to attack entryism and Hatton at the 1985 Labour conference. In a powerful and passionate speech, Kinnock accused Militant of "playing games with services and people's lives" to avoid the Government's rate-capping. Half of the conference hall were ecstatic, including many who had felt the effects of Militant's bullying tactics. Others were horrified, that at this particular time, the leadership were more interested in attacking socialists than defending public services. Overall, one could be forgiven for hoping similar invective could be employed against the Conservatives and Mrs Thatcher to the same effect.

The leadership could not defend the local councils, despite a campaign of sorts, and the left-wing GLC faced abolition. Now isolated from the left of the Party, the leadership saw the GLC's political direction as a liability, even a challenge, with its emphasis upon schemes for minorities and sexual equality. These were easy targets for the tabloid press, and those such as Norman Tebbit who were unafraid of appealing to the nastier side of the British working-class. Actually these schemes were often rather silly and could be crude tokenism.

However the GLC was popular for its work and enterprise policies, showing how worker co-operatives could be used as social enterprises. It had progressive transport policies, with low fares and discounts. There can be no greater indictment of Parliamentary Labour during this time than the timidity and futility which surrounded the abolition of the GLC, with personal hatred and animosity existing between various individuals.

We can see the period 1983 - 1988 as a low ebb in Labour's fortunes, with a weak Parliamentary group and union membership going into a freefall. The fighting during the Wapping strike of 1986 illustrated perfectly that the resources of the British state were being employed as never before on the behalf of employers and government. Therefore, when Peter Wright detailed how the Secret Service had conspired against Labour governments in the 1960s, a phone call from Neil Kinnock's office led to Mrs Thatcher denouncing Neil Kinnock in the Commons for talking to traitors. Never mind that she had obviously found out about the phone call from MI6.

Somehow, the theory behind Labour was also unravelling. Harold Wilson's major contribution was that Labour was on history's side, that of a party of new technology and new ideas. The few successes of 1976-79, such as financial encouragement of the birth of a British computer industry, and state support for new media, were following this theory in practise. Now striking printers were perceived as protesting against the use of computers. The health service, Bevan's great contribution, looked decrepit compared with private health insurance. As unemployment benefit was cut, even Attlee's legacy looked insecure. Nationalised companies were scorned as being inefficient and unreliable - and after so many years of neglect, they were...

The Conservatives were not infallible, but with the "right-to-buy" now having taken effect, they turned to privatisation of telecoms and gas companies. The service sector economy was becoming very strong in the South of England, and there were plenty of people with money to invest. Often these utilities were sold cheaply in order to turn a quick profit for the shareholders. Importantly, this encouraged small investors, and the growth of "shareholder capitalism."

Labour's reaction to this varied. Bryan Gould theorised how this could be transformed into a positive economic model of Employee Share Ownership, a participatory capitalism that could act ethically under stakeholder pressure. The left and the trades unions tended to oppose all privatisations on ideological grounds, whilst the leadership tended to criticise the dubious methods of sale rather than the principle itself.

Going into the 1987 election, there were problems for Labour on a number of fronts. The economy was putting money into lots of people's pockets, despite a massive trade deficit. The Alliance had capitalised in the Greenwich by-election, by having a candidate who was not associated with far-left policies. Most people did not think about the Westland incident, or particularly miss Leon Brittan or Michael Heseltine.

There were two issues where Labour was trusted - health and education. Under the direction of Peter Mandelson and Bryan Gould, the presentation was greatly improved, especially compared with 1983. Adopting the European symbol of a red rose, Labour's manifesto in 1987 contained far less solid commitments than four years previously. There was no pledge to leave NATO and Europe, whilst the programme was redistributive and welfarist, emphasising the caring nature of the Labour Party as opposed to the harsh Mrs Thatcher. Mrs Thatcher duly obliged by making a number of gaffes, hinting that education could be by payment, private healthcare was her absolute right and that she would go "on and on."

At the start of the campaign, Labour only had 29% in the polls and by the end this had risen to 31.5%. The Conservatives won again, with a majority of over 100 seats. This was largely achieved by the "miracle" Chancellor, Nigel Lawson. However, the highly effective Conservative scaremongering - "Britain Is Great Again - Don't Let Labour Wreck It" almost definitely had a real impact upon younger voters. The Alliance showed signs of crumbling, failing to achieve a breakthrough and losing 1 seat. The SDP were defining themselves in opposition to Labour, whilst this was obviously against the instincts of most Liberals, who were observing an extremely illiberal Conservative government.

There were positive signs. Once again, the overwhelming majority was anti-Conservative, even in England. The Tories were almost driven out of Scotland and Wales. The first black MPs were returned, which was a great, if overdue achievement. For many, this was a time of unsustainable greed, on the basis of privatisation revenue, and North Sea Oil, and Labour had fought a good campaign. The Tories could not seriously claim that taxing the top 5% of society would destroy Britain. Nor was the commitment to nuclear disarmament dangerous, with a new global situation emerging. It is hard to see why most people would vote against the re-instatement of SERPS, or the explicit encouragement of co-operatives.

But the most positive signs were in the Conservative manifesto. Hidden in this were a number of crazy schemes and plans, attempts to extend the reach of Thatcherism into every sphere. Inevitably, these time-bombs would explode. A complicit media and Conservative Party had simply not read the Tory manifesto.

Looking at Labour's 1987 manifesto, it is hard to find problems. Neil Kinnock was not a good Leader of the Opposition, but neither had been Margaret Thatcher. It was not a good job. There were able, if inexperienced, people in the Labour Party, and a fairly young and effective strategic team. The manifesto finishes with the 1970 slogan, "Britain will win with Labour." But on the streets, ground was being lost and the political map was being redrawn under their feet. In a sort of panic after 1987, Neil Kinnock ordered complete reviews of all policy. We can see these changes as signalling fundamental changes in the structure, credibility and composure of the Labour Party, with the Right-wing now in total ascendency. For the index or close window to return to index