Adrian Lee is a Solicitor-Advocate in London, specialising in criminal defence, and was twice a Conservative Parliamentary Candidate.
Forty years ago, on 8th May 1983, Conservatives gathered at Chequers to discuss the possibility of calling a General Election. It did not have to be called for another 12 months, but to wait risked squandering a golden opportunity. A poll of constituency agents revealed that a majority favoured a contest in June.
However, some Cabinet ministers wished to wait until the Autumn. Margaret Thatcher studied all the data and then made her decision: she would go to see the Queen the next day, on 9th May, and would seek a dissolution of Parliament. The date of the election was pencilled in for 9th June 1983.
To say that the previous four years in British politics were eventful is an understatement. Margaret Thatcher entered No. 10 Downing Street on the morning of Friday 4th May with a majority of 44. Inflation was 13.4 per cent and industrial disputes were rife. Drastic and immediate surgery was required, but it would prove costly to the Conservatives. On 1st November the Government announced £3.5 billion of expenditure cuts. By the end of that month, Labour had already gained a 5 per cent lead in the polls.
2nd January 1980 saw the beginning of a nationwide strike of 90,000 British Steel workers. The government countered by announcing that strikers’ state benefits would be halved. The strike eventually ended in April but at a cost. When the Consett Steelworks closed in County Durham with the loss of 4,500 jobs, the town officially became the UK’s highest unemployment centre. Nationally, inflation rose to 21.8 per cent in May and unemployment reached two million at the end of August.
Within the Conservative Party, Margaret Thatcher’s economic strategy was publicly denounced by her predecessors Edward Heath and Harold Macmillan, leading to her landmark response in October that “The lady’s not for turning.” Nevertheless, by the end of the year the economy had contracted by 4 per cent.
In June, the announcement by the Defence Secretary that US nuclear Cruise missiles would be stationed at RAF Greenham Common led to the revival of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (C.N.D.). In September, they staged the first of many mass demonstrations. Elsewhere, the I.R.A., demanding political status in gaol, started a hunger strike at HMP Maze and the Miners demanded a 37 per cent pay increase. Unsurprisingly, Labour held a 24 per cent lead over the Conservatives by Christmas.
Most of the issues of the previous year got worse in 1981. Unemployment rose to 2.5 million, C.N.D. claimed 250,000 attending their protest marches, riots exploded in most English cities and Ulster descended into chaos as the IRA hunger strike continued. Despite this, certain things began to improve. Inflation fell to 11.9 per cent and the economy grew by 0.8 per cent. The other beneficial development was the division in the Labour Party.
Michael Foot had become Labour Leader in 1980, signalling a leftward shift. Aged and highly eccentric, Foot did not fulfill anybody’s vision of a future Prime Minster. During the Seventies, Labour’s membership had become younger and more radical. By the start of the 1980s, the Parliamentary Party realised too late that Leftist factions, such as the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy, Militant Tendency, and supporters of the newspaper London Labour Briefing had taken over the C.L.P.’s. These groups saw Foot as a first step toward a Tony Benn premiership.
In response, on 25th January 1981, four former Cabinet Ministers, Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams, David Owen, and Bill Rogers, resigned from Labour and issued the Limehouse Declaration. Two months later, they formally inaugurated the Social Democratic Party (S.D.P.). Twenty-four Labour M.P.s and nine Peers followed them. By June, they had formed an alliance with the Liberals and by November they had won their first by-election. The Alliance ended its first year with 50 per cent support in the polls.
The Falklands War changed everything. The ten-week confrontation in the South Atlantic re-cast Margaret Thatcher’s reputation. The Social Democrats faded, and Labour was characterised by indecision over support for the British Taskforce. Worse still, Labour’s Left-wing led anti-war protests and were perceived as anti-British. Unsurprisingly, following the victory, some ministers lobbied for a General Election in 1982, but their leader kept her cool and carried on until 1983.
Labour’s reaction to the eventual General Election announcement was to decry Margaret Thatcher for “cutting and running” a year before her term expired. This implied some degree of desperation, an argument that was hard to sustain given that the Conservatives entered the campaign with a 17.5 per cent lead over Labour. According to Mori, on 9th May the Conservatives were on 49 per ceny to Labour’s 31.5 per cent and the Alliance’s 17.5 per cent.
Labour launched its manifesto on Monday 16th May. Entitled The New Hope for Britain – Think Positive, Think Labour, it was destined to become infamous as “the longest suicide note in history”. Polices included unilateral nuclear disarmament, further nationalisation, and repeal of trades union reforms.
Years later, Roy Hattersley revealed how this document came to be published. Labour’s National Executive Committee (N.E.C.), then dominated by the Far Left, had approved several sub-committees to investigate different policy areas. When they all eventually reported back, it was clear that they each proposed unrealistic Leftist policies.
John Goulding M.P., one of the last moderates on the N.E.C. and a traditional bete noire of the Bennites, immediately proposed that all of the documents be bound together and published as the official Labour manifesto. Hattersley asked him what he thought he was doing. Goulding replied that if Labour was going to lose, let it be on Benn’s policies.
The Times commented that if Labour were to win: “The atmosphere would be xenophobic, illiberal, syndicalist, and confiscatory. This party promises the moon; but it would have to borrow the moon. Somebody else, as always, would have to pay. There is no “New Hope for Britain” in this document. There is no hope.”
The two largest parties differed greatly in terms of campaign style. The Conservatives benefited from the grassroots organisational skills of Anthony Garner and the legendary Geoffrey Harper, who had established a network of constituency agents and arranged “mutual aid” to marginal seats. The Conservatives staged several regional rallies featuring celebrities, such as Kenny Everett.
In addition, Tim Bell managed an eye-catching media campaign from Saatchi & Saatchi. Billboard posters of note included a soldier surrendering with his hands up, entitled “Labour’s Policy on Arms” and the Labour manifesto laying next to that of the Communist with the caption “Like your manifesto, comrade!”
In contrast, Labour’s campaign was chaotic. They had fewer constituency agents, and openly boasted that they would never stoop to employ outside commercial PR agencies. Such cheap marketing techniques were redolent of “capitalism”. Consequently, with the increasingly dotty Michael Foot at the helm, Labour blustered from one publicity blunder to the next.
As the weeks rolled by, a rare phenomenon was witnessed: the main opposition party fell further back in the polls. According to Mori, by 1st June Labour had fallen to 28 per cent, but seven days later they were down to 25 per cent. Jack Straw recalled that they were praying for polling day to dawn and cease the haemorrhaging of votes.
When the vote came on 9th June, the result was conclusive: Conservatives 42.4 per cent (397 seats), Labour 27.6 per cent (209 seats), Alliance 25.4 per cent (23 seats). Margaret Thatcher gained 47 constituencies, producing a Conservative majority of 144. Arguably, her next term was destined to be her most radical and transforming, with privatisation as a cornerstone policy. 1983 was truly an election to remember.