I shall not cease from mental fight
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
'till we have built Jerusalem
In England's green and pleasant land
“Will Labour ever win an election again?”, people were asking. Many thought that under the current electoral system, it couldn’t be done, and that the Tories might just settle into becoming Britain’s version of the Japanese LDP, with their own internal factions. Britain might be becoming a dominant party system; in effect, a democratic one-party state.
The shadow of the early eighties was, it seemed, destined to cast a long way. After Labour’s defeat in 1979, the party had been torn between an increasingly radical (and vocal) activist left, and an establishment right which viewed the attempt to steer the party towards a purist interpretation of Socialism with horror. Although policy battles between the left and the right had been commonplace ever since the days of Gaitskell and Bevan in the 50’s, if not before, the increasing vehemence by which they were conducted by both sides by the early eighties created deep, intensely visible divisions. Sometimes Labour looked not so much like a fraternal singular body, but a mass of implacably opposed factions slugging it out for total dominance. The left accused the right of betrayal over policy, and upholding a party structure which was both Byzantine, undemocratic, and inherently favourable towards the leadership, at the exclusion of Labour‘s membership; The right accused the left of being dogmatic extremists who were entirely out of step with those who they claimed to represent and champion; and so on.
After Jim Callaghan’s resignation as party leader in 1980, this struggle assumed much more personal contours. Callaghan and his predecessor as leader, Harold Wilson, had often made party unity their dominant, if not sole objective; but they were gone. And in their place were those who had less interest in maintaining Party unity than pursuing their own brands of Labour policy. Tony Benn, on the left, was widely disliked and mistrusted even by those with ideological sympathy towards his position because of the supposed fanaticism of his supporters. The right, on the other hand, thought of him as a hypocrite who had been quite willing to serve under previous Labour governments whilst repudiating their policies. Denis Healey, the standard-bearer of the right was a political loner by instinct. In his case he also did not satisfy many of his natural supporters, who found him to be blunt and arrogant. When Healey was challenged as to why someone on the right of the party should vote for him, he reportedly replied “because you have nowhere else to go”. The questioner was later apparently tempted to send a note to Healey: “Have found somewhere else to go”
The Social Democratic Party was formed out of members of Labour’s right who thought that Labour had become a lost cause, a political dead weight, and that a new, centrist party could break the mould of British politics, skirting a middle-ground path between Socialist dogma on the left and the right-wing hard-line stance of Thatcherism. For a time, that looked to be a possibility, as the opinion poll ratings for the new party soared. With Labour mired in internal argument and the Thatcher government stuck in the economic doldrums, the SDP and its partners in the Liberal Party look set to truly break the mould. It was not, however, to be. Thatcher recovered her poise as the economy rose and the Falklands War was won, squeezing out the Alliance’s support amongst swing voters. Labour, adopting a manifesto which was described by one disapproving Shadow Cabinet member as “the longest suicide note in history”, and with the deeply uninspiring figure of Michael Foot as its leader, allowed Thatcher to actually increase her overall Commons majority at the 1983 general election to over a hundred. Labour were taken down to just over two hundred MPs; thanks to the electoral system, the Alliance gained no more than twenty-six MPs, despite polling competitively with Labour in terms of share of the national vote - under a proportional system, the Alliance would in all likelihood have become the official opposition, if not the actual government. (A BBC poll of voters on election day discovered that up to another twenty-five percent of people had considered voting for the Alliance, but thought that they had no chance of winning under the ‘First Past the Post’ electoral system.) The 1983 election had the effect of discrediting the hard left and engineering Labour’s slow move towards revival. The approach taken by Foot had clearly been decisively rejected by the electorate, and although the hard left argued that this was because the party had not been Socialist enough, few found that argument convincing. Labour had hung on only through a combination of sheer dumb luck and a favourable voting system.
Labour had to move back towards the centre, or die - although many may not have been consciously aware that they were taking such a move when they elected Foot’s replacement. Neil Kinnock had made his name as a maverick left-winger, and had never held ministerial office. Kinnock was, however, aware both of what needed to be done in terms of the internal working of the party and its policy platforms, and that it had to ‘refine’ its image with the media. Working against the far-left in the party, and attacking many sacred cows in policy such as across the board nationalisation, unilateral abandonment of nuclear weapons, and opposition to membership of the EEC, Kinnock was, however, never able to captivate his party or the public. Presenting a public image which was verbose and discursive, he was ill at ease in forwarding the case for voting Labour, and his attempts to shift the party to the centre opened him to the charge of a betrayal of principles and hypocrisy. Despite reducing the Conservative’s majorities in the 1987 and 1992 general elections – coming within a whisker of election in ’92 – Kinnock was never able to deliver the knockout blow.
So, was Labour really now destined to perpetual opposition? The party had lost four elections in a row. Much of what it had stood for had been demolished by the Thatcher and Major governments. Was the man who the party now turned to the man to lead them into office? Affable and confident, he certainly presented a different public image to Kinnock. Sound on his feet in the Commons, a long-standing member of the right of the party who had been entirely consistent in his advocacy of his beliefs – it was a good basis for leadership. Smith’s OMOV reform to Labour’s structure would also prove to lessen the suggestion that the party was a trade union dominated body, and since the disastrous impacts of the Maastricht Treaty and ‘Black Wednesday’, the Tories were in disarray and Labour was ahead in the polls. Perhaps Labour really was on course to win at the next election?