The 1983 general election was a watershed moment in Labour history – but not for the reason it’s usually remembered. This was inarguably post-World War II Labour’s electoral nadir, leaving the party with just 209 seats against 397 for Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives.
But the 1983 disaster also saw the election of two MPs who went on to shape and dominate the party and the UK’s political scene for nearly two decades: Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.
They can hardly have imagined that their 1983 classmate Jeremy Corbyn would succeed them at the Labour helm – or that he would do so by proposing to reverse much of the work they did to transform the party.
Tony and Gordon
It was a long road from 1983 to Labour’s historic 1997 landslide win. After Michael Foot led the party to its cataclysmic defeat, his successor Neil Kinnock began the process of modernising the party. He expelled the party’s hard-left Militant faction and instigated a major policy review.
After he lost the elections of 1987 and 1992, Kinnock was succeeded by John Smith, who had a dogged belief that “one last heave” could get Labour into government. And when Smith died suddenly in 1994 another 1983-vintage MP, Margaret Beckett, briefly stood in as leader before Tony Blair was elected.
Blair and Brown’s “modernisation” wasted no time. On the face of it, their project was a far cry from the left-wing manifesto on which Brown, Blair, Corbyn and their comrades were elected in 1983 – nationalisation of recently privatised industries, the alternative economic strategy, full withdrawal from what was then the European Economic Community and unilateral nuclear disarmament.
After 1994, socialism was dropped from the lexicon, “middle Britain” became the electoral target, and the aim of equality of income was replaced by equality of opportunity. The goal was to convince the electorate that Labour was fit to form a government and run the British economy.
Crucially, the party’s Clause IV, which committed it to the “common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange”, was redrafted. To this day it instead commits to pursue a “community in which the power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many, not the few”.
And so was born New Labour.
The Third Way
As did Bill Clinton in the US, Blair often spoke about the “third way”, a loose ideology proposing a middle route between state socialism and neoliberalism. Accordingly, New Labour shared some priorities with its 1983 manifesto: it gave the UK a national minimum wage, signed up to the European social chapter, made record state investments in health, education and infrastructure, adult education and training, and tackled social exclusion and child poverty.
But it also moved away from the tax-and-spend model by dealing with low pay through working and child tax credits, and proposed significant constitutional reforms.
While New Labour sought to ameliorate the excesses of capitalism when in office, its leaders had little intention of transforming the structure of society, and at a fundamental level they subscribed to the neoliberal agenda ushered in during the Thatcher years.
Private companies were allowed to bid for contracts in the National Health Service, “academy” schools were introduced, and “top-up fees” were imposed for undergraduates. Low inflation was prioritised above full employment, and the financial sector liberalised; the gap between rich and poor continued to grow, and the restrictions placed on trade unions by the Conservatives were kept in place.
Even the Keynesian response to the financial crash in 2008, when Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling pumped money into financial institutions to save them, was arguably less a quasi-socialist big-government intervention and more a last-ditch attempt to save the capitalist banking system.
Morons and throwbacks
In his 1997 book Fifty Years On, party veteran Roy Hattersley wrote that “the ideas which had inspired a century of democratic socialists were ruthlessly discredited” as “the prophets of New Labour” took over an “established political party and re-created it in their own image”.
His point still rings true; even after five years of Ed Miliband, Blair and Brown’s thinking still holds sway over key issues including foreign policy, taxation, the role of private enterprise, state ownership, public housing, civil liberties and nuclear disarmament.
Under Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party could start returning to a familiar model: the nationalisation of public utilities, tax-and-spend, defence retrenchment, unilateral nuclear disarmament.
The 1983 election did cement a firm orthodoxy in the party’s thinking: to go into a general election on an avowedly socialist platform, it holds, is a recipe for disaster. But whether he leads the party to disaster or success, Corbyn’s just the latest of Labour’s precious few 1983 incomers to radically transform his party.