Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Michael Foot and the 1983 Manifesto - by Jon Williams

It's interesting to look back to when Labour was at its most unpopular. I think unjustly so - given the harsh treatment by the press at the time - especially of Michael Foot. From his last interview there is one line that highlights his foresight many years ago - amazingly true. He said " Yes, well, they got it all slightly wrong, I thought, when they attacked that manifesto back then. 'The longest suicide note in history', that was what Gerald Kaufman called it. Gerald was actually elected on the same manifesto, so I do still hold that against him, you know. We proposed taking over the banks, not being at the mercy of capitalist forces and all the rest of it. Although it was Jill who suffered the worse from all of that media attention."

The Labour Party Manifesto of 1983 is quite relevant in today's economic troubles. Below is an opening summary of four years of Tory Government from 1979. It all seems very similar to the current Tory (Lib) Government's policies!!

"When the Tories took office in May 1979, unemployment was falling and the economy growing. Living standards had gone up by a sixth in two years, and North Sea oil held out the prospect of economic growth, high levels of employment and better social services.

All this was thrown away by the Tories. Nearly three and a quarter million men and women are now out of work, even on the official count. Plant after plant forced to close. Manufacturing production down by a fifth. Investment cut by a third. Our domestic markets captured by imports of manufactured goods.

After four years of Mrs. Thatcher, Britain is a poorer country. We have fared far worse than any other major industrial country. The unprecedented advantage of North Sea oil and gas - worth, in tax revenues alone, 8p in the pound on income tax - has been squandered, with nothing whatsoever to show for it.

What have all these sacrifices achieved? Our economy today is weaker, not stronger, than in 1979. There is no prospect of real economic growth. Indeed, the Tories no longer dare to predict when unemployment will begin to fall. True enough, inflation, after being forced to record levels by the Tories, has been brought down. But look at the cost in jobs, in poorer housing, in living standards, and in lost opportunities for our youth. And now inflation is set to increase again, with interest rates and mortgage rates likely to rise too.

The legacy of four Tory years goes beyond unemployment and industrial decline; beyond the damage done to our social services; beyond even the dangerous commitment to new nuclear weapons. It is expressed in the deep sense of bitterness, distrust and despair now felt among so many sections of the community. Our task will be to heal these wounds and rekindle among the British people a new sense of unity and common purpose."

Unbelievable how the above words still apply today, in particular after the recent riots - "heal these wounds and rekindle among the British people a new sense of unity and common purpose."

At first glance there are several good ideas in this manifesto - that could be used even today. I believe all were agreed at Annual Conference, when it was still permitted.

On Michael Foot also see here and here.


  1. Gerald Kaufman's claim that Labour's 1983 General Election Manifesto was "the longest suicide note in history" has helped to fuel the impression that Labour's subsequent disastrous election result rested primarily on the shoulders of its policy proposals. To this, is normally added the argument that Michael Foot looked like Worzel Gummidge, which in a television era helped to destroy Labour's popular image.

    The above crude analysis conveniently ignores two major alternative explanations for Labour's drubbing.

    (1) In 1981, the Labour Party suffered a massive split with the defection of the "Gang of Four" and the formation of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) under the leadership of Roy Jenkins. As it takes two to tango, the blame for Labour's split can not be laid exclusively (or even mainly) on the shoulders of its leftward move. Jenkins and company made the break, refusing to accept the legitimacy of Labour Party Conference decisions. In the 1983 General Election the combined Labour and SPD vote was almost exactly the same as that which an undivided Labour Party had achieved in October 1974 when it won an election under Harold Wilson's leadership. A united Labour Party in 1983 could have achieved something similar.

    (2) Prior to the split and then the 1982 Argentine invasion of the Falklands, plus Margaret Thatcher's popularist response, Michael Foot had been ahead of her in the public opinion polls. So much so at one time, that Thatcher was seen as being the most unpopular Prime Minister in British history. But the Falkland Factor (added to the split) was played out to her considerable political advantage.

    It is also a paradox that Michael Foot was seen to have had a bad television image, for back in the 1950s he had been a popular and regular television performer in discussion programmes. But by the 1980s, television had become an avenue for those with a simplistic style, rather than those with great oratorical skills, passion, intellect and feeling.

    In his article, Jon is correct to turn our attention back to the 1983 manifesto to access its contemporary relevance. It is likely to turn out to be far more important for the modern Labour Party than anything that is likely to emerge from its current policy reviews.

  2. Thank you for the comments Harry.

    The more I read of the 1983 manifesto the more it astounds me how similar our circumstances are now and how we can use these ideas now. Basically a programme of public works... I agree we could replace Refounding Labour with the 1983 Manifesto - with one or two minor adjustments?

    For example see section "Emergency programme of action",

    “Launch a massive programme for expansion. We will:
    • Provide a major increase in public investment, including transport, housing and energy conservation.
    • Begin a huge programme of construction, so that we can start to build our way out of the slump.
    • Halt the destruction of our social services and begin to rebuild them, by providing a substantial increase in resources.
    • Increase investment in industry, especially in new technology - with public enterprise taking the lead. And we will steer new industry and jobs to the regions and the inner cities.
    • Ensure that the pound is competitive; and hold back prices through action on VAT, rents, rates and fares.
    • Introduce a crash programme of employment and training, with new job subsidies and allowances”

    Let’s hope the final Refounding Labour document published in September will recall Labour’s successful history of supporting the underprivileged members of our country by investing in the public and private sectors to kick start an economic recovery.

    Regards Jon Williams