Aspects of British Political History, 1914-1995

By Stephen J. Lee | Go to book overview

16

THE SECOND CRISIS OF LABOUR 1979-92

After losing the 1979 general election the Labour party entered its worst crisis since the split of 1931. The electoral record was particularly depressing: Labour lost four successive general elections-in 1979, 1983, 1987 and 1992. In the 1983 election the party won a lower proportion of the popular vote than at any time since 1918. It also experienced a struggle for identity, threatened alternately by internal conflict and by external encroachment from the parties of the centre. Even the long-term sociological signs seemed unfavourable, with a declining working class and population movements that favoured the Conservatives.

Labours first crisis, dealt with in Chapter 14, concerned a party struggling to achieve maturity. The second crisis was seen by many as an attempt to stave off death. Is this a fair assessment, or, to adapt Mark Twain's famous phrase, was the diagnosis of death an exaggeration?


THE SHORT-CUT TO DECLINE

Labour's underlying problem was that it covered a very broad ideological spectrum, which ranged from centrists and former Liberals on one wing to radicals and Marxists on the other. This was an uneasy coalition, the various parts of which were out of balance with each other. Part of the reason for this is historic. In most continental countries the First World War brought a split between moderate socialists and revolutionary socialists, most of the latter becoming Communists. The process was accelerated between the wars by the widespread use of proportional representation. This had meant that there was no incentive for socialists of different shades to stick together: they could survive effectively as smaller parties without becoming part of a broader coalition. The British Labour movement, on the other

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