It’s a safe bet, long after her death, Vesta Victoria never imagined her music hall favourite ‘Waiting at The Church’ would become embroiled in one of the more infamous acts of hubris in UK political history. James Callaghan, Labour Party Prime Minister, decided he would use the song to taunt the media and the Conservative Party whilst giving a speech at the TUC Conference in September 1978. Despite having no overall majority in the House of Commons, Labour were ahead in the opinion polls and almost all political commentators expected Callaghan to call a General Election and win his first outright mandate since taking over at No 10 in 1976.
Callaghan decided to delay. Six months later, after the winter of discontent and a vote of no confidence against the government his hand was forced. Defeat at the 1979 General Election represented a cruel irony for Callaghan. Ten years prior he had led a successful Cabinet opposition to Barbara Castle and Harold Wilson’s proposed ‘In Place of Strife’ Government White Paper. This had been designed to reduce the powers of the trade unions by ensuring members were balloted before strike action was taken, and an Industrial Board created to ensure swifter settlements of disputes.
The proposals, which never passed into law, would have rendered a number of strike actions during the 1970’s and in particular the winter of discontent illegal. It would be eighteen years before a Labour Prime Minister entered Number 10.
In the aftermath of her death on Monday, Margaret Thatcher, again dominates political commentary. Her legacy has created a fierce debate from both sides. Whilst the Right espouses her leadership qualities and reputation on the global stage the Left highlight the undoubted devastation created by the lack of any coherent social policy to cushion the tough economic medicine she administered.
It is said that real power cannot be given, it has to be taken. However, in the case of the Thatcher years, the former would be much nearer to the truth. Any new political ideology suffers most vulnerability at the outset. Between 1979 through to 1981 Thatcherism’s harsh economic stance ripped the guts out of Britain’s crumbling manufacturing base creating levels of unemployment and social unrest never before witnessed in our country. For Her Majesty’s Opposition, this should have provided easy pickings. So, where was it?
Following the 1979 defeat, rather than re-group and fight such harmful radicalism, the Labour Party plunged itself into years of civil war very nearly imploding into political oblivion. The organization which would emerge from the rubble in the early 90’s would be a much different model from the one many grass root supporters recognised.
The battle lines were very neatly drawn between left-wing activists with Tony Benn as their figure head and the right-wing spearheaded by the gang of three – Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers and David Owen. Three soon become four with Roy Jenkins entering the fray following his stint as President of the European Commission in 1981.
In Benn’s view the Parliamentary Labour Party had broken away from the ‘movement’ it was supposed to represent. The rank and file members wanted, he felt, a more democratic party whilst the leaders were opposed to this. For Tony Benn, the party had to be put back in the hands of the workers and campaigned rigorously for the mandatory reselection of all Labour MP’s and a change to how it chose a leader.
The right-wing element felt the left wanted to turn the party into a Stalinist regime where the MP was merely a delegate who would be told what to do in Parliament by thirty or so hard line left-wing members at the head of the constituency party.
Initially, the ‘Bennites’ appeared to be winning the argument. However, following Callaghan’s resignation, his successor, Michael Foot, enraged the left-wing of the party by appointing Denis Healey as deputy leader. Following the implementation of the electoral college system in which leaders and their deputy’s would now be selected, Benn announced he would challenge Healey in a deputy leadership contest.
Things came to a head at the 1981 party conference. Whilst Britain was in the grip of a deep recession, unemployment rampant and a summer of severe social unrest during the inner-city riots, the Labour Party was far too occupied with its internal divisions to hold the Government to account. Tony Benn had campaigned through various fringe forums winning over individual members, whilst Healey wooed the Union barons to secure the bloc vote.
It was a nasty and spiteful campaign with the trench warfare on show only succeeding in giving the impression to the electorate that the Labour Party was a group of severely divided extremists. In the end Healey won but in reality the margin was too close to be decisive.
By the time of the 1983 General Election a still heavily divided Labour Party limped hopelessly into the campaign. By this time the gang of four had made up their minds and become opposition in their own right by forming the SDP. Armed with its Manifesto, (which Gerald Kaufman dubbed ‘the longest suicide note in history) Labour stumbled to its worst defeat since 1935 at the hands of a rejuvenated Conservative Party, fresh from the successful Falklands campaign and a recovering economy.
In truth the 1983 General Election was less a fight, more a procession with the Tory chairman, Cecil Parkinson, cancelling all planned advertising in the final four days of the campaign. No point wasting good money on a contest already won. To rub salt into the wounds of the left of the party, Tony Benn would be one of the casualties of the election losing in Bristol East to the Conservatives.
Following this defeat Neil Kinnock became the new leader of the party spending the next nine years attempting to make Labour more appealing to the electorate by engaging in a struggle to move it to the right. He would face an immediate test of his credentials with the onset of the Miner’s strike of 1984-85. In the defining political struggle of the 1980’s Labour’s handling of the strike was disastrous. Arthur Scargill’s decision to call the strike despite not holding a full ballot of all NUM members rendered the brave plight of the miners and their communities fruitless. Kinnock seemed very much a figure on the periphery whilst Scargill and the miners slugged it out with Margaret Thatcher. Even the Archbishop of Canterbury made it to the picket lines before Kinnock. The dispute only served as a reminder of a quote from one of Kinnock’s idols, Aneurin Bevan, “If you walk down the middle of the road you only end up getting hit from both sides”.
The Miners, for all their Herculean effort, desperately needed help from the Labour Party whom they had always seen as ‘one of them’. They didn’t get it.
Despite the electorate never trusting him with the highest office, following defeats in 1987 and 1992, Kinnock managed to re-assemble his party, dismissing, and in the case of the Militants expelling, the more sinister elements which in his view damaged its popularity. By this stage, the war had long since been won. The parliamentary Conservative party did the job Labour never looked capable of doing and replaced Margaret Thatcher with John Major.
Margaret Thatcher and her ideology now belong to the ages and are historical fact. The lessons of the 1980’s draw parallels with the Conservative plight from 1997 to 2005 and serve only to prove a divided opposition provides no opposition in the eyes of the electorate. There is no doubt that the Thatcher doctrine, whilst proving a triumph for some was indeed a living nightmare for others. For this the Labour Party must accept its role in providing, for the most part, merely an opposition to itself. As Roy Hattersley, whom himself was at the forefront during this period, would later comment “Our performance was their tragedy”.