Labour in the 1980s: not the disaster we once thought

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Labour in the 1980s: not the disaster we once thought

With the unexpected surge in support for Jeremy Corbyn in 2017, the time has come to rethink Labour’s performance in the 1980s, a decade long seen as a period of unmitigated failure for Labour. The record was so bad that the party eventually had to rebrand itself as New Labour. For Tony Blair, the 1980s were a nightmare of defeat and moribund thinking during which the party refused to accept the future.

Not only did the Conservatives win landslide majorities against Labour in the elections of 1983 and 1987 (not to mention the Tory victories of 1979 and 1992) but the organised labour movement was defeated time and again, its rights heavily reduced and its bargaining power diminished by mass unemployment.

Labour’s manifesto in 1983 was dubbed by MP Gerald Kaufman “the longest suicide note in history”. The party won just 28% of the popular vote in the election that year, barely ahead of the centrist alliance of the Liberals and the new Social Democratic Party (SDP). At a global level, the socialist world was collapsing: the decade ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Tony Benn argued that the challenge for the left was to win the argument for socialism. By any reckoning, the 1980s was the decade when the argument for socialism was lost.

But there was much about Labour’s record that had an impact at the time and has shaped lives since. Some of the ideas floated in 1980s Labour circles are now being drawn upon again as the party plans for a government that, just a few months ago, seemed unattainable.

Many years ago, the great Marxist historian E.P. Thompson argued that it was not sufficient to just write about history in terms of the winners; instead, we need to consider the past as it actually happened. We need to make sure the “the blind alleys, the lost causes, and the losers” are not forgotten.

Ahead of its time

Few would deny that Margaret Thatcher dominated the decade but Neil Kinnock, Tony Benn, Michael Foot and Ken Livingstone were also key figures who defined the age. Labour, while diminished by defections to the SDP, ended the decade as the main opposition party, a position that had seemed in doubt after the 1983 election. This, in itself, was a considerable achievement. Much of this was down to the street-fighting leadership of Kinnock.

The 1980s were, in fact, a creative period for the left. Consider this: Labour managed to get the first black MPs elected to parliament (one of them was Diane Abbott). Chris Smith, Labour MP for Islington, became the first openly gay MP in 1984. Despite frequently equivocating on the issue, fearful of the way it would be viewed by some working-class supporters, Labour became committed to gay rights at a time when that was a deeply unpopular stance.

Ideas ridiculed at the time as “loony left” are now common sense. Miners’ support groups created networks of solidarity (as dramatised recently by the 2014 film Pride). The Greater London Council (GLC) became a popular cause when faced with abolition and promoted new kinds of politics which shaped the wider social agenda. Feminists and anti-racism campaigners fashioned a new common sense about personal identities. There was an assault on the idea that it was acceptable to pay women less than men while issues around sexual harassment became more prominent later in the decade.

Rethinking the past

It’s true that the right won the economic argument in the 1980s. But what’s also true is that the left won the social and cultural argument. Its emphasis on the rights of minorities and the celebration of difference created a politics of inclusiveness which refashioned the social agenda. Economic liberalism in its Thatcherite form shaped modern politics but it has since become difficult to succeed in UK politics without being some kind of social liberal. In retrospect, the final triumph of the 1980s left was the decision by Conservative prime minister David Cameron to introduce gay marriage in 2014.

Labour MPs Diane Abbott, Bernie Grant and Jeremy Corbyn in 1987. PA

It is not true, as supporters of New Labour tend to argue, that Labour’s economic thought was moribund during the 1980s. Labour sought to develop dynamic responses to secure growth in an age of increasing globalisation. Kinnock embraced new views on the role of state intervention in the economy. There was much talk of the “development state” in the 1980s – which would aid economic growth by investing in research and new technology to put Britain ahead.

Linked to this process was the idea of a national investment bank – which has now become central to Labour’s economic plans. This idea flourished in Labour circles in the 1980s as an answer to under-capitalisation: the failure of British banks to provide long run capital to small businesses. What made it controversial was the experience of British industry in the 1960s and 1970s. Formerly seen as part of a corporatist attempt to enable government to back winners, it came to be seen as propping up losers. The idea was dropped by New Labour which accepted a market approach while upholding the case for selective state intervention.

Contrary to popular opinion, history is never just written by the winners. Historians are always aware of the alternatives that existed at any one time. This is the time to write new histories of Labour in the 1980s. The left may have lost elections but in many ways it shaped the way the UK lives now.