General Election memories 1: 1979

Politics - First Female Prime Minister - Downing Street - 1979

Peterborough.   May 3rd 1979.

I’ll let you into a secret. I don’t actually remember the 1979 General Election at all. I was born in December 1976 so was not even two and a half years old n May 1979. I’m not sure I even knew an election was going on, let alone one of the four most pivotal General Elections of the 20th century. Had you asked me, I doubt I’d have had any clear views on either the merits of monetarism, the impact of the Winter of Discontent or even on who should succeed James Callaghan as leader of the Labour Party.

I was basically an idiot.

Instead, I wasted my time with such trifles as learning to talk (something I’ve still not entirely mastered), filling time between episodes of Jamie and the Magic Torch and throwing tantrums. I lived in Peterborough with my parents (who were both then about the same age that I am now), an older brother who was just entering his teens and a sister who was nearly ten.

I’m not convinced I would have enjoyed the election much anyway. I have grown up to be a Labour supporter and 1979 was to prove a bad year for Labour. Labour had been heading for victory only a few months before with Prime Minister Jim Callaghan always more popular than his opponent, the eventual victor, Margaret Thatcher. This fact suggests to me in itself that Labour’s stint in office was not the unmitigated disaster some have subsequently claimed it was. But the series of crippling strikes dubbed “the Winter of Discontent” wrecked Labour’s chances. The Tories fought a slick campaign. Thatcher held a calf in public at one point. Tory posters depicted long unemployment queues (in fact portrayed by Young Conservatives) proclaimed “Labour isn’t working”. Some might think this a bit of a cheek in retrospect. Unemployment was at 1.3 million and falling in May 1979. By 1980, under Thatcher, it had hit two million, a new post-war high. By 1982, it was at three million. By 1986, 3.4 million!

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At any rate, Labour lost. Peterborough’s Labour MP Michael Ward fell to Tory Dr Brian Mawhinney. An unknown named John Major would win his neighbouring seat of Huntington for the Tories. Mawhinney later revealed had been inspired to stand by a divine voice speaking to him on a visit to Peterborough Cathedral. At any rate, although no one knew it then, he and the Tories would hold power until 1997 (when Mawhinney cannily switched seats), then a tremendously futuristic science fiction year by which I, then a toddler, would be old enough to vote myself. Michael Ward died in 2009, but his daughter Alison Seabeck is an MP and Shadow Minister today. Her husband Nick Raynsford is also a Labour MP.

The Tories won a majority of 43. Labour got a bigger share of the vote than David Cameron’s Tories did in 2010. Callaghan lost despite being personally more popular than his opponent, Mrs. Thatcher. But please note: the least popular of the two main party leaders has never won a General Election in the years since. 1979 was unusual.

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Britain thus had its first woman Prime Minister albeit one who didn’t agree with Women’s Lib and didn’t even seem to like any other women very much. The Sun went Tory for the first time ever in 1979 and many followed its election day headline’s suggestion to “Give the girl a chance!”

I was blissfully unaware of all this, too afraid of fictional witches as portrayed in storybooks and on TV to worry about real life ones.

“Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is despair, may we bring hope,” the new Prime Minister said on arriving in Downing Street, claiming to be quoting Francis of Assisi.

In fact, St. Francis never said any such thing and we would soon learn that as an introduction to the Thatcher era, these words would prove staggeringly inappropriate.

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Book Review: Tony Benn A Biography by Jad Adams

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Few people who have ever lived can claim to have enjoyed as long and diverse a political career as Tony Benn.

Today, Benn is a socialist lion in winter, bearded, in poor health and approaching his ninetieth year. He ceased writing his celebrated diary four years ago. He has been a widower for some thirteen years now and has been out of parliament for almost that entire period. With the notable exception of Denis Healey, almost all of the other leading political figures of the Sixties and Seventies (Wilson, Callaghan, Heath, Jenkins, Whitelaw, Thatcher) are now gone.

There is more to Benn than longevity although his endurance is certainly worth dwelling on for a moment. Benn was born in 1925 and as a child was introduced to the likes of Mahatma Gandhi, Ramsey MacDonald, David Lloyd George and even Sir Oswald Mosley by his father, a Secretary of State for India in the second Labour Government. Benn himself first entered parliament during the last days of Clement Attlee’s hugely successful government during the reign of George VI. Benn would never be Father of the House: his spell in parliament was interrupted twice, first by the battle to renounce his peerage between 1960 and 1963 and again for a year following the loss of his seat largely due to boundary changes in the 1983 General Election. But he would still be in parliament during the age of Tony Blair and William Hague. And from 1963 onwards (and intermittently from the Forties), he kept a diary.

The young Anthony Wedgewood Benn, as he then was, is easy to like. Dynamic, energetic and youthful, he made his mark through regular appearances on Any Questions?, a major role in condemning the 1956 Suez Crisis and a position on Hugh Gaitskell’s front bench. But it could so easily have ended in 1960 with his father’s death.

His father had slightly thoughtlessly accepted a peerage assuming Benn’s older brother who was bent on a career in the church would eventually inherit the title which would forbid the holder from serving as an MP. But his brother, Michael, died during the war, a personal tragedy that affected the future politician deeply. But there was also now a practical problem. Benn would inherit the title Viscount Stansgate and when he did so would no longer be able to serve as an MP. Fortunately, on his father’s death, despite the obstruction of the likes of Macmillan and Rab Butler as well as some in his own party, Wedgewood Benn was only able to renounce his peerage after an epic three year battle to change the law. An odd side effect was that Lord Home was thus able to renounce his peerage a few months later. Anthony Wedgewood Benn was thus inadvertently responsible for the brief premiership of Tory Sir Alec Douglas Home.

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Benn enjoyed perhaps his most productive period in government as Postmaster General during the first Wilson Government. He opened the Post Office Tower, facilitated the creation of the giro scheme, the flight of Concorde and put the postal service firmly into profit despite intense resistance from a conservative (and often Conservative) civil service. Less happily, he introduced the ban on pirate radio stations (something he later regretted) and a scheme to remove the Queen’s head from the British stamp was thwarted despite Benn getting the impression (falsely) that the Queen herself was happy to go along with it.

A change undoubtedly overcame Benn after Labour lost office in 1970. The experience of power seemed to make him more keenly socialist, not less (Harold Wilson claimed he “immatures with age”). Certainly, there was a change in attitude with Benn valuing the educational benefits of the politician’s role more highly. It was also at this point that he went officially from being Anthony Wedgewood Benn to just Tony Benn.

The Seventies and early Eighties were certainly Benn’s heyday. The levels of media interest in him were huge. A substantial amount of effort was put into unsuccessful efforts to find evidence that either Benn or his American wife Caroline were super rich and thus supposedly hypocrites (they were not). At one point, Benn’s children were verbally abused by photographers as they went to school. On another occasion, Benn witnessed his rubbish being taken away by a man in a limousine.

Benn was clearly viewed by much of the media and security services as a socialist bogeyman: “the most dangerous man in Britain”. Many on his own side fell out with him too. Leftists such as Michael Foot were more interested in establishing agreement within the party than Benn was and his unsuccessful bid for the Deputy leadership in 1981 was seen by many as hugely divisive.

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It is possible to view Benn’s career as a long and unsuccessful campaign to become PM. But this is probably misleading. Even allowing for the fact that they were being written for posterity, Benn’s diaries reveal little interest in power for power’s sake. At any rate, he never came close. He scored well in the 1976 leadership contest but didn’t come close to Foot or the victor Callaghan. He refused to stand in 1980 when he might well have won as the leadership contest ballot rules were being changed imminently. He felt any leader elected under the old system would quickly become irrelevant. He might have beaten Kinnock in 1983, had he not lost his Bristol seat in the 1983 election. He was returned as MP for Chesterfield in 1984. His bid for the leadership against Kinnock in 1988 was never likely to succeed and was more to promote his own arguments than anything else.

The last thirty years have inevitably been ones of declining influence for Benn even as the gradual publication of his diaries has boosted his reputation. He had little time for Kinnock or Blair was notable for his opposition to Iraq and became a familiar elder statesman-like figure whether appearing on Question Time, meeting up with the likes of Billy Bragg or his friend the actress Saffron Burrows or being duped by Ali G.

This updated version of Jad Adams’ excellent biography from Biteback, jumbles chronology a little in the updated chapters. But it remains a worthy companion piece to Benn’s own diaries (the final volume of which A Blaze of Autumn Sunshine will be reviewed here shortly) and is a comprehensive tribute to one of the great political lives of the last century.

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Book review: Shirley Williams The Biography by Mark Peel

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Baroness Shirley Williams appeared as a guest on BBC Question Time last Thursday. To say that the Liberal Democrat peer, at eighty-three, is universally admired throughout all parties for her good nature and superior intellect is true but sounds a little patronising. Giving sharp, concise and well thought-out answers, she is still clearly  a force to be reckoned with suggesting fellow panellist TV chef Anthony Worrall Thompson “go back to the kitchen” after the TV chef had unleashed a rambling anti-Liberal Democrat tirade.

But how different history could have been…

Back in 1981, Williams was one of the founders of the ‘Gang of Four’ who broke away from Labour to form the Social Democratic Party. The SDP’s early triumphs make UKIP’s recent “success” look all the more risible. The SDP actually won by-elections and had MPs sitting in parliament. By the end of 1981, (before Thatcher’s 1982 post-Falklands War comeback) they commanded over 50% in the opinion polls, way ahead of the two traditional parties, both then at the extremes under Margaret Thatcher and Michael Foot.

Before that, Williams was a leading figure in the Wilson and Callaghan Governments, frequently talked of as a possible first woman Prime Minister.

But this never happened. Margaret Thatcher born to a much humbler background five years before her beat her to it in May 1979. On the same day, Williams lost her Hertford and Stevenage seat as an MP, an upset similar in terms of prompting widespread surprise to Michael Portillo’s defeat in 1997.

What went wrong?

Williams was undeniably from a privileged background. She was born in 1930 as Shirley Vera-Brittain-Caitlin, the daughter of an academic and frustrated politician and Vera Brittain, the author of the celebrated First World War memoir, Testament of Youth. With her parents both vocal left-wing critics of the Nazi regime before the war (they were later revealed to be on a Nazi “Death List” and thus would have been in extreme danger had Hitler invaded Britain), Shirley and her brother spent most of the war in the United States. Throughout her early life and at Oxford, she seems to have dazzled and impressed almost everyone she met with her charm and precocious intellect. An early serious relationship was with the future four-minute-mile champion Roger Bannister. Despite her many qualities, she faced a struggle to enter parliament winning only after four attempts in 1964.

Did Williams’ privileged background count against her?

Margaret Thatcher certainly made play of it in a Conference speech made when Williams was in government and the Tory was Opposition leader in 1977:  “People from my sort of background needed grammar schools to compete with children from privileged homes like Shirley Williams and Anthony Wedgwood Benn.”

But in truth, it is unlikely Williams’ background did her serious harm. She has always possessed a classless quality which has broadened he appeal to the electorate

Was she then a victim of sexism? Peel mentions here that despite a good relationship with Jim Callaghan, she was never offered any of the major offices of state. Yet this no less true of Thatcher who, like Williams, was in charge of Education, in Thatcher’s case under Heath. Neither woman was a huge success in this role. Williams regards her promotion of comprehensive education as her proudest achievement but it remains controversial. Thatcher, in contrast, was reportedly embarrassed for herself that she closed more grammar schools than anyone else in that post.

Was Shirley Williams just unlucky? Was, as some have suggested, just in the wrong party at the wrong time? Luck does of course play a part in anyone’s political destiny. Labour were in fact in power for more than half of Williams’ thirties and forties. This is again similar to Thatcher and the Tories (in fact, Thatcher spent longer as an Opposition MP before 1979 than Williams did). And Thatcher raised the Tories from a very low ebb indeed in 1975.

Shirley Williams was, however, less lucky in her marriage than Margaret Thatcher. This is not to be sexist. A good marriage can be as crucial to male political success as female. Only Edward Heath has made it to Downing Street since the war while still unmarried and only Sir Anthony Eden became Prime Minister with a divorce behind him. Shirley’s first marriage to philosopher Bernard Williams ended in 1974. She married presidential historian Richard Neustadt in 1987 (both men in fact died very close together in 2003). She thus lacked a soul mate at a critical juncture in her career.

Biographer Mark Peel cites a certain scattyness and lack of political courage at crucial moments (notably her failure to stand in the Warrington by-election a decision perhaps fatal to her own career and to that of the SDP) which did for her.

Journalist Robin Oakley summarised her thus: “she really is one of the warmest, nicest people in politics, ever open to reason… She has a first rate-brain and a burning sense of justice… But the great drawback is her fatal indecisiveness…The flaw, some say, is that she likes being liked and making decisions makes enemies.”

Few of the tributes to Lady Thatcher earlier this year cited her warmness, niceness, first-rate brain or sense of justice. Clearly, the late Prime Minister totally lacked these qualities.

And maybe Shirley Williams lacked the necessary harshness and killer instinct to be Prime Minister. But she is perhaps the better person for that.

Why Labour can win

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Many in the media recently have dismissed Labour’s chances of winning the next General Election.

Most of this speculation is nonsense. Labour are still far more likely to lead the next government than anyone else.

Consider…

  1. Labour are ahead in the polls.

Much has been made of Labour’s apparently small opinion poll leads recently. Yet Labour is currently (according to the UK Polling Report), a full six percent ahead of the Tories. With the parliamentary boundary system favouring Labour this would lead to a Labour majority of 76, bigger than Tony Blair’s majority in 2005 (66) or Margaret Thatcher’s in 1979 (43). Labour would have to do substantially worse than this to be anything other than the largest political party.

  1. Things look much better than they did last time.

Labour are much more popular than they were in 2010 and Ed Miliband is far more popular than Gordon Brown was. And let us remember: in 2010, the Tories didn’t even manage to win a majority. How badly will they do this time?

  1. The Tories haven’t won a General Election in 21 years.

All the evidence suggests the electorate do not like the Tories much. They have not won a General Election since John Major led them to a surprise win in April 1992. A child born on the day of that result, had time to grow up and be old enough to vote in the last election which despite Gordon Brown’s unpopularity and a global economic slump, the Tories still failed to win yet again! They have been behind in the polls almost constantly for the last three years. The public clearly don’t like them.

  1. The Liberal Democrat factor.

Having consistently been betrayed by their party leadership since 2010, the evidence suggests many disillusioned Lib Dems will be fleeing the party in droves. Where are they going to go? It is in Labour’s interests to capitalise on their disaffection.

  1. The UKIP factor.

By splitting the right wing vote, UKIP are making a Labour victory ever more likely.

  1. Leadership.

It is true Ed Miliband is less popular than David Cameron, presumably largely a consequence of unsophisticated attacks from the Tory press. Yet, this isn’t a presidential election. Clement Attlee led Labour to a huge victory in 1945 despite facing the far more popular Winston Churchill. And Margaret Thatcher’s victory in 1979 was achieved despite the fact that voters consistently expressed a personal preference for Labour’s Prime Minister Jim Callaghan. It also should be remembered that the election is nearly two years away and voters have responded well to Miliband’s One Nation message.

  1. Economic recovery won’t benefit the Tories.

As in 1997, there is little sign the electorate will be grateful to a government that has consistently got it so wrong over the economy. Even if there are signs of economic resurgence by 2015, there is little sense the Tories deserve any credit for it or that they will receive it. The same was true in 1997, when Labour won its largest ever victory despite an economic recovery which totally failed to vanquish memories of Tory incompetence on Black Wednesday five years earlier.

  1. The Tories are desperate.

Ultimately, this is a shambolic weak government with next to no achievements to its name and more prone to division, u-turns and excuses than anything else. Compare this to Labour’s period in office which witnessed a decade of prosperity, a dramatic fall in crime, peace in Northern Ireland finally achieved and massive improvements in education and the NHS.

Complacency is dangerous, but Labour are still far more likely to be victorious in 2015 than any other party.

Labour can win without David Miliband

Rebuilding Peace and Stability in Afghanistan: David Miliband

Poor David Miliband.

In some quarters, he was seriously considered as a possible successor to Tony Blair in 2007. But he was barely forty then. The general consensus then was that he was too young and inexperienced for the top job.

However, now only six years later and having come within a whisker of the Labour leadership in 2010, he seems to be leaving British politics forever. He is standing down as MP for South Shields and leaving for a job with a leading charity in New York. As Michael Foot once said of another notable David (Owen): “He’s passed from rising hope to elder statesman without any intervening period whatsoever.” The problem is not, of course, the former Foreign Secretary’s age – he is a year younger than the Tories’ “rising hope” Boris Johnson – but the fact that he lost, however  narrowly in 2010, and worse, lost to his brother.

The sibling rivalry element to the story complicates everything and probably explains why David Miliband’s chosen to leave the political scene now. There is no reason at all why a defeated candidate cannot seek the leadership again – Harold Wilson, James Callaghan and Michael Foot all became leader on their second attempt – but this now seems unlikely to happen.

There is an element of mythmaking about the Miliband Saga, however. The Tory press will tell you, Labour made a historic mistake in September 2010 akin to their error in electing Michael Foot over Denis Healey in October 1980.

This is absurd. We are not now in a spring 1983 scenario. Labour has not split or plunged into the civil war which traditionally plagues it after being ejected from government. Ed Miliband is not obviously leading Labour to a crushing defeat as Foot was by this point in his ill fated leadership.

The truth is David Miliband is no Denis Healey nor is Ed Miliband, Michael Foot.

Ed Miliband vanquished fears that he might be in thrall to the trade unions in his 2010 acceptance speech. The “Red Ed” nickname did not last. He responded to the News International Scandal well. His “One Nation” speech last autumn won widespread plaudits from the public and media. And perhaps most importantly, thanks in no small measure to UKIP, Labour are likely to be in power (perhaps as the lead party in another Coalition) in a little over two years time.

Would they be doing better under David Miliband? Probably. The older brother comes across better on TV, a fact not insignificant in the media age. But let’s not get carried away. Like his friend Hillary Clinton in 2008, he fatally supported the Iraq War and acted as if the leadership was his almost by divine right in 2010. He also has mild image problems too and dithered fatally over whether to support Gordon Brown at the height of his leadership troubles in office.

Make no mistake: the same Tory press which heaps praise on David Miliband now would be lambasting him were he actually Opposition leader.

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Hugh Gaitskell and Harold Wilson: fifty years on

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Sudden deaths in front-line British politics are mercifully quite rare. In 1970, Iain Macleod died suddenly a month after becoming Chancellor of the Exchequer, a desperate blow to Edward Heath’s new Tory Government. In 1994, Opposition leader John Smith died suddenly of a heart attack. Had Smith lived, it seems virtually certain he would have led Labour back into power in 1997, instead of Tony Blair.

Although he had been leading Labour for seven years at the time of his death fifty years ago, (he led the Opposition for longer than any other post-war leader except Neil Kinnock) it is less certain Hugh Gaitskell would ever have enjoyed the trappings of Downing Street even had he survived what turned out to be his final illness. True, Labour did win power again in October 1964. But this was only after Gaitskell’s successor Harold Wilson had immeasurably boosted the party. And even then it was a narrow win. Gaitskell had lost the 1959 election heavily and might well have led the party to defeat again. We will never know.

The youthful, combative Harold Wilson was undoubtedly the right choice for the party at the time, even though his subsequent leadership after the Labour landslide of 1966 would ultimately prove disappointing. George Brown, who came second in the race, was to prove a notoriously erratic figure and later that year appeared drunk on TV (having just provoked a fight with US actor Eli Wallach) on a  programme on which he was being interviewed about President Kennedy’s assassination which had occurred earlier that day. James Callaghan, who came third in the 1963 leadership, would eventually lead Labour and the UK himself between 1976 and 1979.

Alas, Hugh Gaitskell famous for his two conference speeches in which he tearfully pledged to “fight and fight again to save the party we love” and another in which he declared that European integration threatened to end “a thousand years of British history” would never get this opportunity to lead his country.  After years spent fighting the Left and working to keep the party alive, he died just as things were finally falling into place.

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