Is it 1992 all over again?

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It is General Election year and the Labour leader remains unpopular. After years of attacks from the Tory press, he was lucky to survive a direct challenge to his leadership before Christmas, when many suggested an older man should replace him as leader. Despite this and some evidence of economic recovery, Labour remain narrowly ahead in the opinion polls. A Labour-led hung parliament is seen by many as the most likely outcome in the General Election.

Ed Miliband in 2015? Or Neil Kinnock in 1992? The older John Smith was the potential older alternative leader in 1991, Alan Johnson last year. The parallels are uncanny and not encouraging to Labour who, of course, ultimately suffered a shock defeat to John Major’s Tories in April 1992.

But, let’s not get carried away. There are numerous differences…

Labour actually seem less confident now than Kinnock’s party were then. This makes a repeat of complacent gestures like the overblown Sheffield Rally unlikely.

Despite this and their quite small lead, the electoral arithmetic favours Labour far more. The Tories need to win by over 10% to win a majority. Labour only need 2%.

David Cameron is not John Major: It is also true Ed Miliband is not Neil Kinnock. Kinnock was slightly more popular than Miliband but had already suffered defeat in 1987. But Major, though ultimately weak, was untested and novel in 1992. Cameron has been Tory leader for over nine years.

Ultimately, the combination of UKIP and Coalition politics, in fact, means Labour’s chances this year are better than they have been in a decade.

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General Election memories 2: 1983

Margaret Thatcher, Dennis Thatcher

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.

thatcher 1983

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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

London Tony Benn

 

Book review: Crisis ? What Crisis? Britain in the 1970s

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Crisis What Crisis?: Britain in the 1970s.

Alwyn W. Turner.

Published: Aurum.

RRP: £9.99

“Crisis, what crisis?” The words were famously spoken by Labour Prime Minister James Callaghan in 1979 as he returned tanned and complacent from a tropical summit to learn that Britain had shuddered to a wintry strike bound halt in his absence.

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Except of course, Callaghan never actually said these words. Like Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” and  George W. Bush’s “Yo Blair!” the phrase actually came from somewhere else, in this case The Sun’s headline from the following day. In fact, as Alwyn W. Turner points out in this updated version of his well-researched 2008 book, the phrase predates The Sun’s usage and indeed even Callaghan’s premiership and was first used during the similarly troubled tenure of Tory Edward Heath a few years before. Turner even reveals its usage in the 1973 film version of the thriller, The Day of the Jackal.

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How different things could have been! For The Sun, in fairness, captured the essence of Callaghan’s reaction. “I don’t believe that people around the world would share the view that there is mounting chaos.” It was not his finest hour. For this was what would become known as the “Winter Of Discontent”, the series of strikes which would haunt Labour for decades. In the short run, the piles of uncollected rubbish and occasional disgraceful scenes of bodies being lefty unburied by striking gravediggers wrecked Labour’s chances in the 1979 election and propelled Mrs Thatcher to power.

As Turner reminds us, victory might easily have been Callaghan’s. Labour had actually been ahead in the opinion polls in late 1978 but Callaghan hesitated at the last minute, reasoning (not unreasonably): “Why run the risk of a very doubtful victory in October 1978, if we could convert it into a more convincing majority in 1979?”

But like Gordon Brown in 2007, Callaghan made a colossal error in postponing the election. He was always a more popular leader than Thatcher, who would doubtless have been ditched by the Tories had she lost in 1979, perhaps being replaced by Peter Walker or William Whitelaw. It is worth remembering that there were very few ardent Thatcher enthusiasts before 1979. Even Enoch Powell proclaimed voters “wouldn’t put up with those hats and that accent.”  The hats went and the accent changed. But Callaghan blew his chance to lead Britain into the Eighties. Had he had the chance, he might perhaps, have led the nation through a much less brutal version of Thatcherism in her place.

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Perhaps he was right to be wary of the opinion polls. The Seventies were an unpredictable and unstable decade. The keys to Downing Street changed hands four times between 1970 and 1979. They have only changed hands four times again in the thirty-five years since. The 1970 election saw Labour brutally and unexpectedly ejected in an electoral upset. Labour’s Harold Wilson buoyed by good opinion polls, had called the election a year earlier than he had to. But the polls were wrong. Edward Heath won a majority of thirty for the Tories instead. But Heath too fell foul of the polls three and a half years later when his crisis “Who Governs Britain?” election unexpectedly ended with a Labour led Hung Parliament in March 1974. Labour went onto under-perform electorally again, winning only a small majority of three in October of that year. By the time James Callaghan took over in the spring of 1976, Labour’s majority had almost vanished and a pact with the Liberals (ultimately a disaster for the smaller party, as it so often is) was just around the corner.

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Turner reminds us though that the decade was defined less by the politics of Wilson, Heath and Callaghan than by those of mavericks Enoch Powell and Anthony Wedgewood Benn. He is brilliant on the intense paranoia on both sides of the political spectrum about both men (Powell, particularly, was  portrayed in fictional form in books and on TV several times).

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But this is not purely a political account, far from it. As in his later books Rejoice! Rejoice! Britain in the 1980s and A Classless Society: Britain in the 1990s, Turner is brilliantly thorough on all aspects of high and low culture as he is on affairs of state. Sometimes these are linked (as he does cleverly with the TV series I, Claudius and the machinations of the 1976 Labour leadership contest), sometimes they are not (football, music and sitcom are all covered thorough. The chapter on “Violence,” for example, covers The Troubles as well as A Clockwork Orange).

But this is another excellent history from Turner. As strong on Tom and Barbara as it is on Maggie and Jim. As thorough on Doctor Who as it is on Dr David Owen. Or as insightful on Mr. Benn as it is on the career of Mr. Tony Benn. It is well worth a read.

Prime Minister James Callaghan with Harold Wilson

Book review: Bang! A History of Britain in the 1980s by Graham Stewart

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Make no mistake: 1979 was a very long time ago. Let’s not have any of this “it seems like yesterday” bollocks. If it really does seem like yesterday, there is something seriously wrong with you.

Despite its name, this book actually begins in 1979. It is now 2013. The same amount of time has passed since 1979 as had passed between it and the end of the Second World War in 1945. When the same amount of time has passed again, it will be 2047. So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised to find things have changed a fair bit. In 1979, you wouldn’t be reading a blog on your phone, a laptop or anywhere else,

Consider:  in 1979, the Labour Prime Minister (a man born before the First World War) was still at ease sitting round the Downing Street table with leading trade union figures. This was a time when some such union leaders spoke openly of Marxist revolution in Britain and believed this was apparently a realistic prospect. Leading Labour figures like Tony Benn spoke of nationalising almost all of British industry to enthusiastic mostly male smoke filled Labour conferences.

Flash forward to 1990 when this book ends and things start to see a lot more familiar. Not the same but a lot more like now. Seventies fashions had lost their grip.  Nobody had IPods yet but they had Walkmans at least and CDs were already replacing vinyl.  Mobile phones were still rare and huge but they did at least exist. Channel 4 was now on air and a small minority could now watch BSkyB (although a common joke of the time was that the average person was more likely to get BSE – the human form of mad cow disease- than BSkyB).  EastEnders was on.

Meanwhile, strikes were a rarity. The SDP had been and gone. The Labour Party, although still firmly out of power were also a lot more recognisable. Behind the scenes, Peter Mandelson was hard at work. The smoke filled conference halls were gone. Neil Kinnock, although never a popular figure with the public, was smartly dressed and in command, a far cry from the decent but scruffy Michael Foot. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, then in their late thirties were advancing fast up the Labour ranks. New Labour was on its way.

In my view, the 1980s transformed Britain more than any other peacetime decade in the last 150 years, except perhaps for the Sixties.

Much of this is doubtless due in no small measure to the personality and politics of Margaret Thatcher, who Stewart seems rather a fan of. I am rather less keen. The Lady was undeniably a fine war leader and by the Eighties, union power clearly needed curtailing.

But this was a bad decade for the British economy. Before the Winter of Discontent wrecked Labour for more than a decade, the Callaghan Government had been doing a fine job of pulling the UK back from the oil shock, the Barber Boom and the errors of Wilson’s final two years. But Callaghan’s gains and those made by the discovery of North Sea oil were squandered by Thatcher’s Monetarist experiment. Soon more than a fifth of the nation’s industrial base had been wiped out forever and high unemployment hung over the rest of the decade like a curse.

This was also the decade where the unrestrained power of the markets took hold and Rupert Murdoch was permitted unprecedented media power by the Thatcher Government. Both of these problems should have been addressed later by Major, Blair or Brown. But the Lady (as the late Alan Clark would lovingly refer to her) is the original source of responsibility here. Crime soared, the health service suffered and homeless levels rose unforgivably under Thatcher. A simple comparison of how the UK fared under her watch and that during Tony Blair’s decade (1997-2007) is damning.

By 1990, she had grown tremendously in confidence to the point of mental instability. Having seen off the Argies, the miners and Labour (three times: under Callaghan, Foot and Kinnock), she seemed convinced of her own infallibility. She even began speaking about herself using the royal “we” (famously: “we are a grandmother”).

But when she linked her destiny to that of the hated and ultimately unfair Community Charge (or “Poll Tax”) even the Tories recognised she had to go. John Major secured one more win for the Tories in 1992. But twenty three years on, the Tories have not recovered from her fall. No Tory leader since Major has won a General Election.

This is a slightly badly structured book with hard going chapters about monetarism rubbing shoulders with those about pop music and the singles of Madness. But it’s a story worth retelling especially if you want to terrify your left leaning children before they go to sleep.

Just remember: don’t have nightmares.