The British General Election of 1983 
by David Butler and Dennis Kavanagh.
Macmillan, 388 pp., £25, May 1984, 0 333 34578 9
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by Michael Crick.
Faber, 242 pp., £3.95, June 1984, 0 571 13256 1
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When future historians come to write about the 1983 General Election, these two books will be essential reading. One is a thorough compilation of the evidence, and the other a brilliant line drawing of a maverick who streaked dramatically across the scene causing all heads to turn and significantly affecting the outcome. I recommend to the researcher of the year 2000 that he or she start with Militant, to get properly into the mood. It is a compellingly good read, and what is more, as far as one can tell, a model of fair and unbiased reporting. The weightier volume, with its tables and statistics and psephological analyses, will be for the long days in the library that follow.

It is sobering to realise that that magic year which I have picked, 2000 AD, is not much further away in front of us than the 1970 Election is behind. We will be very recent history. All the same, since history is the propaganda of the victors, we cannot yet see what 1983 will look like by then. I can imagine five different versions. Let me try to spell them out.

The first. ‘The 1983 Election established firmly the long period of Conservative rule which has lasted ever since: it enabled the firm hand of Mrs Thatcher to steer the country purposefully towards the simplified form of central government which is more appropriate to the modern economy. The disruptive potential of both Unions and local government, which had wrought such havoc with public spending plans throughout the Seventies, was successfully curbed, and the threat to strong government from an ephemeral vogue for the “democratic pluralism” of proportional representation was triumphantly resisted.’

The second. ‘The 1983 Election provided a modern example of Classical hubris. The huge Parliamentary majority for Mrs Thatcher, unbased on any increase in popular support, went to her head in a way that fatally destroyed her judgment. Within two years of unprecedented authoritarianism, in which frontal assaults on local democracy and the trade unions dominated Parliamentary proceedings, a majority of Conservative members of the House of Commons were in revolt, and early in 1986 she was forced to resign in favour of Mr Peter Walker. Traditional “one nation” Toryism reasserted itself.’

The third. ‘The second Thatcher Government set about establishing a police state and mounted savage attacks on socialist local authorities and militant unions like the mine-workers. The extra-Parliamentary activity of working people’s organisations, and the noncompliance of socialists in local government, precipitated the General Strike of 1985 which toppled the Government and forced a general election in which, for the first time in Britain, a truly socialist government was returned.’

The fourth. ‘The defeat of 1983 was the nadir of the Labour Party. Subsequently it chose a new and popular leader, purged its ranks of militant Trotskyists, and set about discarding the ideological baggage which had brought it to its knees. This restored those elements of the electorate which had deserted in droves to the Alliance and the Tories, and enabled it to win the Election of 1987.’

And finally the fifth. ‘The Election of 1983 was the beginning of the end of the two-party system. The Alliance, although outrageously under-represented in the House of Commons, gained over 25 per cent of the popular vote, and this provided it with the springboard of credibility from which to leap to its much larger vote in 1987. The bargaining power thus achieved was used to win the electoral reform that has transformed the political scene.’

Readers will, I hope, have no difficulty in recognising the aspirations of five sets of people: respectively, the Thatcherite Tories, the Tory wets, the Hard Left of the Labour Party, the mainstream Kinnock camp and the Alliance. The fact – immediately apparent – that within both Conservative and Labour Parties there are two mutually exclusive covert strategies, whereas between the two parties of the Alliance there is only one, has an important message of its own.

Neither of these books sets out to predict which scenario is the most likely, yet the analysis they provide casts doubts on all of them. Michael Crick’s Militant is chiefly concerned with the two alternative Labour Party projections and in my judgment effectively knocks on the head the ‘mainstream’ hope. The final sentence – ‘There is little that the Labour Party can do about it now: Militant is here to stay’ – sums up the book. It is a more powerful conclusion in that the evidence leading up to it is fairly presented and the author refrains from taking up any polemical stand himself.

The Militant Michael Crick describes differs from the stereotype in several important respects. To begin with, far from being subsidised by a sinister foreign power, it derives its financial strength (a turnover of something like £lm a year) from an enviable financial acumen and obligatory subventions from its membership. In addition, its strategy is not devised in fanatical isolation from public opinion: the recruiting power of its slogans and demands is carefully assessed and amendments are made as necessary. One of the more fascinating parts of the story is the description of how during the prolonged battle between Militant and the NEC, Militant out-manoevred their opponents in the propaganda war by a brilliant campaign of softening up the press. Richard Evans of the Times was quoted as saying of their Press Officer, Pat Edlin: ‘He was the best Press Officer I’ve ever come across. He made press men in Whitehall or the big companies look like beginners. He ought to give lessons in it.’

Shrewder and better-organised than most left-wing fringe groups, Militant emerges as the more threatening for that. Its secret policy is revolutionary and anti-democratic, its public programme no more than a ‘transitional’ method of ‘raising workers’ consciousness’. Its total discipline and the secretive methods of ‘democratic centralism’ ensure that its control spreads far beyond its membership. The expulsion of the five members of the paper’s editorial board is already seen as a piece of futile tokenism, since, while its right to exist inside the Labour Party is defended by the other left-wing groups, and in particular by those left-wing council leaders who are now riding the crest of the wave of anti-Thatcherite feeling, Militant cannot be excised. The Labour Party will become more and more a front for Trotskyism.

If this happens, what hope for scenario three? It is the theme of Chris Mullins’s novel A Very British Coup, a rattling good left-wing fantasy in which a ‘true socialist’ government is smeared and manipulated out of power by the media and the military. This is part of the essential left-wing justification for defiance of the will of Parliament – not so much ‘they started it’ as ‘we know they would start it if we were in power, so we’re justified in getting in first.’ Certainly Mrs Thatcher is doing her best to stoke the fires of revolutionary fervour, though whether the great appeal of Ken Livingstone in his current role as defender of democracy will survive his transformation into guerrilla leader on the barricades (that production to open in London next spring) is very doubtful.

The Butler and Kavanagh book has no cheerier message for the Labour Party. It traces how opinion in the British electorate – in particular on nationalisation and the trade unions – has been shifting over a number of decades, and it is these longer-term movements in public sympathy rather than the ephemera of ‘presentation’ that create the difficulty. By the Conservative victory, on the other hand, the book seems to me to be over-impressed. Although it quotes Orwell’s remark that the commonest of intellectual defects is the assumption that whatever is going on now will continue, it nonetheless seems sometimes to steer close to that assumption. Written a year later, with the hindsight of the last twelve months, might not the authors have found more to say about the brittleness of Mrs Thatcher’s hold over the British people? Scenario one seemed a lot more likely last summer than it does today. Sitting where I do, in the eye of the storm – strange though that is as a description of the July sunshine on the County Hall terrace under the cheeky ‘Thank you peers for saving London’s democracy’ poster – I would say it is inevitable that something is going to snap.

Quite what it will be – and it may not have escaped notice that the two scenarios I have not dismissed are two and five – I cannot judge. And it is perhaps unfair to look to Messrs Butler and Kavanagh for clairvoyance. Their book claims to be nothing other than the picture of a political moment in history. It is more than a snapshot – rather a whole album of snaps, of varying quality and interest, of everything to do with the election. It tabulates everything from variations in constituency swings to headlines in the popular press. For the social or psephological historian, rather than the purely political one, it is the three chapters on the Polls, Broadcasting and the Press – the last two written by outside contributors – that will be the most interesting. In all three areas, 1983 seems a moment snatched out of the whirlwind of change – such is the rapid development of the communications industry. The chapter on polls argues, with a convincing wealth of data, that polling, both public and private, is now the major influence on campaign strategy; that however much it has increased in this country, it is very much more heavily used in America and on the continent of Europe; and that if a serious challenger to Mrs Thatcher had appeared during the campaign polling would have become an even more significant factor. Polls will continue to be big business and their importance will increase.

It is important for politicians’ – and particularly candidates’ – self-respect to know that polls can sometimes be wrong: how we in the SDP hug ourselves with glee at the memory of the NOP poll two days before our famous victory in Portsmouth South. But for as long as we continue to try to squeeze three parties into a two-party system poll findings will be crucial. How important they are to the Alliance is illustrated by the fact (to me stupefying, encouraging and exasperating all at the same time) that – according to the Conservatives’ private polls four days before the election – 23 per cent of Conservative voters and 38 per cent of Labour voters might have switched to the Alliance if they thought it had a chance. On my reckoning that could have given us 42 per cent.

The section on broadcasting has hard things to say about the trivialisation of political campaigns, and the downward spiral to the lowest common denominator as the camera crews chased human-interest stories, and the parties scrambled to satisfy them with photogenic gimmicks. With the forthcoming extension of choice of coverage through satellite and cable, both parties and broadcasters, it is suggested, had better think fast about ways of raising the standards. But the sternest indictment is of the press. Parts of this chapter by Martin Harrop are very funny – I particularly relished the tabulation of headlines which shows, for instance, the Telegraph’s ‘Labour’s £11bn manifesto’ against the Mirror’s ‘Paras’ Gang-Bang’, or the Times’s ‘Tory and Labour worry about Alliance’ against the Sun’s ‘Healey stinks, says Falklands widow.’ But the final verdict on press bias is grim and incontrovertible. Three out of four now read a daily paper which openly supports Mrs Thatcher and Knighthoods and peerages have been showered like confetti among the Fleet Street editors and proprietors responsible for this situation. And, contrary to received opinion on the left, the Alliance suffers even more from it than does the Labour Party. ‘If,’ the chapter concludes judiciously, ‘the press affects votes at all in an age of television, it is likely to influence the party balance quite significantly.’

All in all, in those murky waters where opinion, belief, gut reaction and traditional loyalty meet and mingle, and something known as ‘political climate’ emerges from the waves, these chapters leave the impression that manipulative forces we barely understand hold the key to victory. And they seem to forecast, with some weariness, that the political parties through their pollster and public relations gurus will be scrambling for that key as the Great Powers in the early Forties scrambled for the secrets of the atom. Perhaps it was ever thus. But perhaps, on the other hand, this preoccupation with ‘image’ will appear to be a passing phase in the development of politics in the mass communications age – a sort of adolescence of democracy. Let us hope so.

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