When it got to the point of the politicians telling us that 1983 was to be one of the most important elections ever, we knew we were in for a campaign of stupefying bathos and irrelevance.
While there was much sympathy for the apparently doomed Labour Party (the Daily Telegraph, in a leader a couple of days before the poll, said "For a party that is supposed to be terrifying us . . . Labour looks oddly loveable”) it was really the Tories who began with the more testing task. As the outgoing government, they had to convince millions of people that several unpalatable things were actually good for them and that they should volunteer for another five years of the same. As indeed they did.
Things like class society with the profit motive rampant. Things like unemployment forcing workers out of their customary poverty and into deep hardship. Things like the sexual and personal repression which are often thought of, through a misreading of history, as Victorian moral values. Things like patriotism which is used to inspire ordinary, peaceable people to attack other ordinary, peaceable people they don’t know and have no quarrel with.
In order to get some advantage from persuading people that such things are good for them, the Conservatives needed also to claim that they came about through their deliberate policies. Unemployment, for example, had to be represented as something which could easily be abolished or diminished through high state spending but which is kept in being as the price of something else which is good for us called Beating Inflation. As everyone should know by now, because politicians of all parties have been telling us for many years, inflation is one of the few things a government does not claim to be able easily to control. It is, they say, an enemy which can be kept in check only through great skill (theirs) and hardship (ours). But what everyone should, but does not, know by now is that inflation is actually in the government’s control; it is a contrived policy which they choose not to reverse and actually has no overall significant effect on our living standards.
Perhaps it was the exertion of pretending that the Tory government had planned all these things for our especial benefit and had them under control, rather than having them foisted on them, which caused Margaret Thatcher to go mad during the campaign. The famous image of the Resolute Approach is not really an initiative but a cobbled up response to events. Ignoring this piece of reality had its effect on Thatcher and television watchers throughout the country, although not qualified in psychiatry, became worried at her obvious mania.
Foot’s problem was to paper over the wide and deep cracks in his party by relating almost every question and argument to the issue of unemployment, presumably because he thought that this was a vote winner for the Labour Party. There was small chance of his succeeding and it must also have been rather exhausting for him as it required him to forget that under the last Labour government, in which he served so fanatically, unemployment doubled and was on the upward path when they lost power. In this Foot showed he has the amnesic talents required by many a mental patient and by all serious politicians. Throughout the campaign Labour’s inconsistencies — on nuclear weapons, on what they call defence, on how they relate to the wilder fringes of loony reformism called the left wing — kept catching up with Foot. Under close questioning he tried to be nimble but was exposed as evasive, cynical and politically bankrupt.
The press — even so normally sympathetic a paper as the Observer — were notably cruel to him. Yet Foot could still pull in the crowds, large affectionate gatherings of devotees of the idea that he is a man of unswerving principle who, provided he does not disappear altogether through the personality change, will one day deliver us all to the Promised Land. As polling day drew nearer he seemed to lose heart. Perhaps he was reading the Sporting Life; the bookmakers, with a properly hard-nosed assessment of reality, began to discourage bets on the election result and started offering odds on who would replace Foot when the Labour Party lost.
Perhaps the SDP/Liberal Alliance claim to be the mould-breakers of British politics who will cast out the Old Gang would have appealed to someone in a natural despair at the alternating futility of the two parties which have shared power over British capitalism. But the SDP leaders themselves sprang from the Old Gang and were responsible, when they were ministers, for many of the policies they now so heartily denounce. Of course the other part of the Alliance, the Liberals, have a trump card; they can claim not to have recently had the chance to fail which is just as well for them in view of their record when, all those years ago, they were in power. In any case their policies now are no more than a variation on the same reformist hash as offered by the Labour and Conservative parties. It was when they were faced with an unexceptional political crisis that the mould breakers showed how similar they are to the despised Old Gang.
Worried at first by their poor showing at the opinion polls, they moved quickly to make Jenkins their scapegoat. A nasty, but revealing, clash was narrowly avoided when in the nick of time the Alliance poll ratings went up which allowed all SDP/ Liberals to go back to saying how much they admired and supported Jenkins.
This disreputable incident illustrated the ability of the opinion polls to inspire panic or complacency, according to their findings. It was poll ratings which caused the initial assumption that the Labour Party would lose the election, hardening into the certainty that Thatcher would have a majority comparable to Attlee's in 1945. Labour’s depression at their years of schism and confusion, their weak showing at by-elections, their failure to profit from the Thatcher government’s problems and to win some of the nauseous flag-waving glory from the Falklands war, seemed to blind them to the fact that the polls have a history of fallibility. In 1970 the Wilson government, at first confident of victory, lost the election although at one point the polls had them leading by over 12 per cent. In February 1974 the Tories, fighting among the black-outs of the Three Day Week on the theme of Who Governs the Country, were at one time ahead in the polls by 6.5 per cent but in the end they narrowly lost. In October 1974 and again in May 1979 the polls gave the winners a much larger percentage of support than they eventually notched up.
Perhaps more important for them, the Labour Party’s reliance on unemployment as a vote winner was also not supported by history. The only comparable period, in terms of numbers out of work and general elections on a popular franchise, was the twenties and thirties. Labour were in office, as a minority government, in 1929 partly on a pledge to cure unemployment and when their brief, wretched span was ended in 1931 they suffered the most crushing defeat in their history. The monthly average of unemployment during 1931 was 2,717,000 or 21.3 per cent of total employees. At the election the National government won a majority of 497 — a result caused, not by concern at unemployment but through patriotism and fear at the crass failure of the MacDonald government to control capitalism. When the next election came in 1935 unemployment had fallen to 2,027,000 but at 15.5 per cent it was still a serious problem: ". . after four years (of National government) unemployment, depression, misery still overshadowed the land” (Britain Between The Wars, Charles Loch Mowat). But the voters were still mainly satisfied with Conservative government; the best the Labour Party could do was to increase their MPs from the freak number of 51 to 158, leaving Baldwin with a majority of 247 over all other parties.
Whatever success might have attended Foot’s desperate efforts to conceal his party’s miserable disarray on other issues was effectively nuked by Jim Callaghan's headline-catching declaration in favour of British capitalism keeping its own nuclear armoury. Foot might well have been deeply hurt by this act of ingratitude for when Foot was one of Callaghan's ministers his standing as Labour's left-wing conscience was useful in reconciling the party's doubters to the policies of strikebreaking. holding down wages, cutting public spending, racist immigration laws and so on for which that government will always be remembered. After Callaghan’s intervention Labour spokespeople grew increasingly despondent while Thatcher, seeing an unexpectedly emphatic victory looming over the horizon, became ever more manic. At times she went too far even for seasoned media hacks, addressing the galactically great Robin Day without his title and upsetting the faithful Daily Telegraph, which may have been responsible for an element of objectivity creeping into their reporting, the crux of which was their giving some space to a reasonably accurate piece on the Socialist candidate in Islington South.
So yes, it was an election of familiar bathos. Labour supporters were excitedly convinced that at all costs the Tories must be thrown out without knowing why since Labour is fundamentally no different. The Conservatives treated it as a crusade against the threat of revolution although they could not explain why something they called a revolution was designed to keep the same capitalist social system in being.
For the unwary it might have been very confusing because in one sense all sides could take heart from the result. The election spelled out again that, whatever stress and degradation capitalism subjects them to. the working class have a large and enduring appetite for the system. The people in the advertising agencies could be excused for believing in a diabolical power to convince the workers that facts and experience go for nothing and that what counts is an ability to present those facts and that experience in a distorted and deceptive way. So yet there is hope for the Labour Party and the Alliance.
Amid all despair, only the Socialist candidate in Islington stood apart. There was no bathos in that campaign, only a rational, conclusive case for the new society. It was a small effort compared to that of the big parties, and solitary, but as significant as the oyster's grain of sand.