Not as Daft as You Thought. (Labour's 1983 Manifesto)

By Laymon, Richard | New Statesman (1996), June 2, 2003 | Go to article overview

Not as Daft as You Thought. (Labour's 1983 Manifesto)


Laymon, Richard, New Statesman (1996)


We are approaching the 20th anniversary of Labour's most disastrous general election defeat. On 9 June 1983, Margaret Thatcher's government won a majority of 144, with Labour getting just 27.6 per cent of the vote, its lowest since 1918.

Its manifesto for that election, "New Hope for Britain", has been described by Gerald Kaufman, a shadow minister privy to its construction, as "the longest suicide note in history". It was long, all right -- almost as long as the Tory and Liberal-SDP Alliance manifestos combined -- but was it really as senselessly extreme as its detractors have since suggested?

It was certainly not short on left-wing hubris: trade union legislation passed since 1979 would be repealed, council house sales ended, privatised industries and utilities returned to the public sector and other sections of the economy nationalised "as required by the national interest". Britain would negotiate its withdrawal from what was then the EEC. There would be a five-year national plan, a national economic assessment, a plan for coal, a tripartite national planning council, a department of economic and industrial planning and a new price commission -- all betraying a devout, old Labour faith in bureaucratic wisdom.

But look at certain non-economic aspects of the 1983 manifesto and it suddenly seems much less wacky. While young Tony Blair was still getting into parliament, Michael Foot's party was already offering Scottish devolution, House of Lords reform, a freedom of information act and more state aid for political parties -- all of which were enacted during Blair's first term in office. In its section on the environment, Labour 1983 commends "wider rights of access to the land" and a ban on fox-hunting: hardly the antithesis of new Labour.

On social policy, Labour 1983 seems positively prescient. It argued that the state must "accept the wide variety in the type and size of families" and recognise that the marriage tax allowance did not guarantee support for all families with children--an idea effected 15 years later by Gordon Brown, when he abolished the allowance in favour of "inclusive" benefits such as the Working Families Tax Credit. …

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