From the moment that Britain’s election date of June 9 was announced, Margaret Thatcher was the firm favorite of both opinion polls and bookmakers. Still, it was at least theoretically possible to imagine a sequence of events in the ensuing campaign that might produce a “hung Parliament,” in which no single party would enjoy a majority. The political journalists who made such a prediction pointed to three factors.
First, there was the volatility of the British electorate. As recently as mid-1981 the alliance of Liberals with the newly-founded Social Democratic party (SDP) had scored 52 percent in opinion polls. Less than two years later, it was down to 14 percent. The Tories, on the other hand, having hovered around 30 percent before the Falklands war, had now climbed up to 46 percent—a 16-percent lead over Labor in second place. Might not such dramatic reverses themselves be reversed in the course of a lively campaign?
Second, 1982 and 1983 saw a revival of nuclear unilateralism. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), after years of relative torpor, grew in numbers and activity; a group of “peace women,” camped outside the U.S. air base at Green-ham Common, attracted enormous media attention and apparent public support; and opinion polls showed large majorities against the installation of Cruise missiles in Britain. The nuclear protesters were largely middle-class. So it seemed at least possible that some Tory voters might be attracted to a Labor party led by Michael Foot, an old CND marcher, and by the unilateralist defense policy set forth in the Labor manifesto.
Finally, it was thought that the 13-percent rate of unemployment must inevitably dent the Tory lead as the campaign progressed. Inflation (a naturally Tory issue) had been replaced in opinion polls by unemployment (a naturally Labor issue) as the most important problem facing the country. Labor, moreover, was judged to have better policies for dealing with it. And it had been the conventional political wisdom for thirty years that a party which tolerated high unemployment could not win an election. Many seasoned observers felt in their bones that, whatever the polls said, water simply could not run uphill.
All three expectations were proved false by the course of the campaign. Volatility simply failed to occur—at least with regard to the Tories. At the start of the campaign their share of popular support was estimated by various polls at between 43 percent and 47 percent—and it remained between those approximate figures throughout. The Tory share of the actual vote, when it came, was 43.4 percent.1
This extraordinary stability was reflected in a smoothly efficient Tory campaign which encountered only minor embarrassments. The most serious was the revelation that the Conservative candidate for Stockton South, Tom Finnegan, had once been a member of the fascist National Front and had indeed fought two elections in its interest in 1974. He was hastily summoned to the Conservative Central Office where he claimed that he had left the Front in 1975 and that, when applying for a Tory candidature in another part of the country, had concealed his previous political activities because he was ashamed of them. In response, the Tory hierarchy adopted a Janus-like posture of publicly supporting the right of repentant sinners to reenter democratic politics while privately indicating displeasure and studiously not rendering Finnegan much assistance in his winnable constituency. Then the matter took a farcical turn. The Board of Deputies of British Jews published a photograph that apparently showed Finnegan leading a fascist march in 1977, fully two years after he claimed to have resigned from the Front. Not so, replied the candidate, that was my brother. But since this second fascist Finnegan did not happen to be a Tory candidate, the affair gradually petered out. And the voters of Stockton South subsequently saved Mrs. Thatcher from any further embarrassment.
A second minor brouhaha occurred when Kenny Everett, a disc-jockey and anarchic comedian, appeared with other show-biz figures at a Conservative “youth rally” and shouted “Let’s Bomb Russia” and—for Everett is no slave to taste—“Let’s kick Michael Foot’s stick away” (a reference to the Labor leader’s ubiquitous walking stick). This went down well with the assembled young Conservatives, but it outraged the forces of chapel solemnity which are never far below the surface of Liberal opinion. The Liberal leader, David Steel, sternly demanded that Mrs. Thatcher disavow the offending jokes and speculated darkly on the primitive unpleasantness of Thatcherite conservatism. For her part, the Prime Minister refused to rebuke Everett on the grounds that a comedian’s jokes did not require any official comment from her.
This episode, which occurred in the last few days of the campaign, may have deprived the Tories of some votes from Mrs. Grundy. But the revelation that fun-anarchy was compatible with Toryism, even with Mrs. Thatcher’s brand of Toryism with its stress on “Victorian values,” may also have won votes. For the first occasion in a postwar election, the Conservatives gained the largest share of first-time voters—41 percent compared to the Alliance’s 30 percent and Labor’s 29 percent. And some press reports had young people, whose hair styles showed the influence of the cockatoo or the shaving brush, expressing support for Mrs. Thatcher’s toughness: “Better the Iron Lady than those cardboard men.”
Some protest was also provoked by the sophisticated and aggressive political advertising campaign carried out on behalf of the Tories by a leading company. One poster in particular aroused criticism. It was aimed at the West Indian and Asian communities and showed a prosperous black man under the heading: “labor says he’s black. Tories say he’s British.” The poster cleverly encapsulated and linked two quite complicated ideas, the first that nationality transcends race, the second that full membership in the national community is incompatible with a career as an officially designated minority seeking special status through the political process.
This created a problem for Labor and Alliance critics who had long taken the position that West Indians and Asians were simply black and brown Englishmen. They could hardly denounce the Tories for agreeing with them. On the other hand, the British Left has been stealthily moving to support group quotas and special minority representation (which in America masquerades under the name of “affirmative action”). The Left could hardly deny the contradiction between color-blind citizenship and “positive discrimination” without arguing the case for the latter more vigorously and candidly than it was prepared to do in an election campaign.
The poster consequently aroused a storm that was loud but incoherent. Its critics objected to it violently (one minority newspaper refused to publish it), but could never quite explain the grounds of their objection. They were often reduced to complaining that, because the Tories had taken the lead in restricting immigration, it was somehow illegitimate for them to seek immigrant votes. The Tories simply stood their ground.
The government should perhaps have been more seriously embarrassed by leaks of confidential documents in which various “options” for cutting government expenditures and attracting private finance into health care were discussed. Labor spokesmen argued that these constituted a “secret manifesto” (sic), more radical than the published one, and indicated that the Tories intended to sweep away the welfare state, public education, etc. Perhaps the very vehemence of Labor’s assault told against it, but at any rate the charge never stuck. There was little public disposition to pay attention to it, let alone to believe it.
The one issue which did have a considerable influence on the result was the “peace” issue. It accomplished a quick change in the wings, reappeared as the “defense” issue, and materially helped the Tories. The truth is that the notion of the irresistible rise of unilateralism had always been something of an illusion. American journalists, in particular, were inclined to see the anti-nuclear campaign as merely a local variant of a wider international movement, which included the West German Greens and the U.S. freeze campaign, and to overlook its distinctive British features. Thus they tended to interpret the high level of opposition in the polls to the stationing of Cruise missiles in Britain as an indication of CND’s overall popular support. This was an error. Opposition to the Cruise missiles reflected British nationalism, feeling its post-Falklands oats, and perhaps some anti-Americanism, at least as much as it reflected pacifist or neutralist sentiment. Throughout 1983, indeed, Tory MP’s were pressuring the government to insist on a “dual-key” arrangement for U.S. missiles based in Britain. (This was resisted by ministers with the argument that existing political arrangements for cooperation sufficiently safeguarded British national interests.)
Moreover, those whose memories stretched back to the 1960’s could recall that a similar wave of unilateralism then had spent itself to little effect. Admittedly, CND had swept all before it in 1960—including the annual Labor conference which adopted a unilateralist defense policy. But Hugh Gaitskell and the Labor Right managed to reverse that decision the following year. And by the 1964 election, Sir Alec Douglas-Home was able to win votes overall for the Tories by campaigning on a policy of retaining Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent.
It was perhaps this example which inspired the goverment to adopt an attitude of vigorous and unambiguous opposition to the peace movement. Mrs. Thatcher appointed Michael Heseltine, famous for his rousing orations to Tory conventions, to be Secretary of State for Defense. Heseltine and Mrs. Thatcher then proceeded to make a series of major speeches on defense in which they denounced unilateralism (or “one-sided disarmament” as it came to be called after it was discovered that few people understood the meaning of the word “unilateralism”) as damaging to NATO and as an incentive to Soviet expansionism; they also attacked CND as an extreme left-wing organization whose leadership was disproportionately composed of Communists, ex-Communists, and Trotskyists. (Heseltine also went in for counter-agitprop, as when he turned up uninvited at a CND “peace vigil” and lit a candle for peace.) Such unaccustomed resistance naturally drew the charge of McCarthyism. But in the United Kingdom the charge of McCarthyism does not have quite the talismanic effect that it does in the U.S. Mrs. Thatcher and Heseltine kept up their attack and, quite soon, the debate was as much about the dubious nature of CND as about Cruise and Trident missiles.
Two factors greatly assisted the Tory campaign. If Labor had focused its attack on the government’s commitment to installing the Cruise missiles, it might well have gotten widespread support, gaining both nuclear nationalists and those fearful of being involved in nuclear war for American aims. But, obligingly, Labor adopted an altogether unilateralist policy which it subsequently included in its election manifesto (described by one Labor ex-minister as “the longest suicide note in history”). This repelled all but CND’s true believers. Second, the British press—in particular, the right-wing popular press—descended in force on Greeham Common. It reported that the Green-ham Common women were living in squalor, often supporting themselves on welfare, held eccentric opinions on all manner of topics, included a good number of lesbians and man-haters, were subjecting their children to the lowest standards of hygiene outside Calcutta, and were breathtakingly ignorant or naive about Soviet Russia, international relations, and nuclear weapons. Of course, Greenham Common remained a symbol of peace for some; but for others it became a metaphor for the idiocy of radical life.
Labor leaders like the unilateralist Michael Foot were therefore under a delusion in supposing that there were votes to be won on the peace issue. But at least there was party unity on the issue when the campaign began. Labor right-wingers like Denis Healey and Roy Hattersley had endorsed the unilateralist pledge in the Labor manifesto, probably on the cynical calculation that since Labor was likely to lose in any event, it might as well do so on a flagrantly left-wing program. That would leave the Left with no excuses. But the campaign itself subjected this acquiescence of the Right to intolerable strain. It makes even hardened politicians uncomfortable to be called upon daily to defend propositions that are utterly at variance with the needs of the country, the facts of the case, and their own previous policies. In addition, many ordinary Labor voters were saying that defense was their reason for crossing over to the Tories. So, in the first week, Denis Healey reinterpreted unilateralism to mean that Labor would give up the Polaris missile only “if we got adequate concessions from the Soviet Union.” Attempting to preserve party unity, Foot himself redefined policy a few steps in this direction, so that Labor’s aim became to “move toward a non-nuclear strategy.” This concession was not sufficient for former Labor Prime Minister James Callaghan, who weighed in with the clearest possible repudiation of party policy: “We should not give them [i.e., Polaris weapons] up unilaterally.”
As these disagreements emerged openly, Foot’s attempts to pretend that the party was at one in support of unilateralism became increasingly incoherent and confused. “Are there any circumstances in which a Labor government would retain the Polaris?” he was asked by a TV interviewer. “No,” he replied. Then the interviewer went on: “Are you going to get rid of the Polaris regardless of what the Russians do?” “No,” replied Foot. In short, Labor’s peace campaign disintegrated.
There is, indeed, strong evidence that the defense issue actually won a substantial number of votes for the Conservatives. In a survey conducted by Ivor Crewe, defense was mentioned by 38 percent of those questioned as “one of the two most important issues influencing their vote.”2 This compares with only 2 percent who gave the same reply in 1979. Moreover, the Tories were preferred by the astonishing margin of 54 percent among those who attached importance to defense. There was even a turnabout of opinion on Cruise missiles-by election day, with 56 percent of respondents saying that allowing the missiles to be stationed in Britain was “a good idea.”
A final reminder of the illusory character of the appeal of the peace movement: in Henley, Rebecca Johnson stood against Michael Heseltine as the candidate of the Women for Life on Earth party which had been formed by the Greenham Common women. She received 517 votes, or 1.1 percent of the total.
As for Labor’s crusade on unemployment, it is at first glance a mystery that it failed to arouse strong public support at a time when polls showed voters to be particularly concerned about the issue. The explanation seems to be that the voters did not take nearly so simple a view of the problem as did politicians and pundits. The latter assumed, for instance, that since unemployment had replaced inflation in surveys as the most important problem facing Britain, the voters would punish Mrs. Thatcher for presiding over higher unemployment rather than reward her for bringing down inflation. But this did not follow. When the voters said that inflation was not Britain’s principal economic difficulty, they were quite right. At 4 percent, it clearly was not. But this did not mean that they were unconcerned about a resurgence of inflation, or that they would support anti-unemployment policies that risked bringing on such a resurgence. By concentrating almost entirely upon reducing unemployment, with airy talk of devaluing the pound and massively reflating, Labor seemed to adopt a cavalier attitude to inflation, which must have alarmed many voters. In any event, in the Crewe survey, the Tories led Labor by 40 percent as the party best equipped to deal with prices; this reversed a Labor lead of 13 percent on the question in 1979. And inflation, though no longer seen as the single most important problem, was still third on most people’s agenda.
A second complication is that, even when voters considered unemployment a far greater evil than inflation, they did not necessarily blame it on the government. A poll of the unemployed carried out last year by the Economist showed that 57 percent did not blame the government for their plight. They blamed various factors such as the world slump, labor unions, and “nobody.” And according to a Harris exit poll on election day, 24 percent of the unemployed themselves voted Conservative. This is not to say that the Tories were completely unscathed by the issue. Seventy-three percent of the few Conservative defectors gave unemployment as their reason for not voting Tory. But much less damage was suffered than anyone would have predicted beforehand.
Finally, Labor would stand to benefit from the issue of unemployment only if the voters thought that a Labor government could reduce it without serious side-effects. We have already seen that many voters feared that Labor policies would spark renewed inflation. What is more surprising is that only a comparatively small majority of voters thought that Labor could reduce unemployment at all. In 1979, Labor had enjoyed a 20-percent lead over the Tories as the party best able to deal with unemployment. By 1983, this lead had shrunk to 16 percent. In short, as Crewe sums it up: “Unemployment damaged the Conservative vote without repairing Labor’s; at best it prevented Labor’s disaster from turning into catastrophe.”
The political disarming of unemployment did not, however, occur naturally or accidentally. Like the turnaround in the defense debate, it was the result of sustained political argument by the government, in particular by Sir Geoffrey Howe, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Mrs. Thatcher. I would myself single out the influence of the two fifteen-minute periods each week of Prime Minister’s Question Time, which are broadcast live on radio and sometimes repeated in excerpt on the television news programs. Since 1980 Labor MP’s have used these occasions to put the blame for unemployment squarely on Mrs. Thatcher’s shoulders. In reply, the Prime Minister would repeat an almost unvarying set of economic propositions: the government can do nothing to prevent workers from pricing themselves out of jobs with uneconomic wage demands; the government cannot create “real” long-term jobs; such “real” jobs only come about when firms produce goods that people want at a competitive price; and for all these reasons, a quick cure for unemployment is a quack cure. Labor MP’s would jeer and the world-weary sophisticates in the press gallery would roll their eyes derisively at these slogans. But repetition forced them into the public mind so that, by the time the election was declared, unemployment had attained the status of the weather—something to deplore, but also something over which the government had no real control.
Thus it was clear at least ten days before the election that the scenario under which peace, unemployment, and electoral volatility would wreck the Tories and produce a hung Parliament was an illusion. No sensible observer expected anything other than a substantial Tory victory. At that point, however, a fresh uncertainty arose: which party would end up in second place? This speculation began with the leaders of the SDP-Liberal Alliance advertising some convenient if dubiously arrived at opinion-poll figures which showed the Alliance gaining support and Labor slipping.
The prospect quickly took on a life of its own, for several reasons. First, the Labor campaign was visibly getting nowhere. Second, both Labor’s embarrassment over the defense issue and a tough Tory poster campaign, which emphasized the similarities between the Labor and Communist manifestoes, had revived earlier fears of the party’s extremism. It had been, after all, only eighteen months since Tony Benn, the unofficial leader of Labor’s “hard Left,” had come within a hair of defeating Denis Healey for the party’s deputy leadership. And, finally, Michael Foot was proving to be an electoral liability of the first order. The “old bibliophile,” as he came to be called, with his mane of white hair, his stick, his dog Dizzy, and his old-fashioned ranting style of oratory, was the most unpopular leader of the opposition since opinion polls began. Only 13 percent of those questioned in one poll thought he would make a good Prime Minister, compared with 46 percent for Mrs. Thatcher and 35 percent for the Liberal David Steel.
This might have mattered less if Foot’s unpopularity had been strictly personal—although there was, it is true, a personal element in it. But the real source of Foot’s unpopularity was that he represented the modern Labor party to perfection. He believed in extensive state control, in increased public spending as the cure for inflation, in the moral equivalence of the superpowers, in nationalization, nuclear pacifism, etc., etc. If ever the voters looked as if they were forgetting what the Labor party had become in recent years, Foot would obligingly pop up on their TV screens to remind them. His eccentricities and those of the Labor party reinforced each other. Accordingly, Labor began to slip (from an already low position in the polls) and the Alliance to catch up. Volatility might not have been affecting the Tories, but it could still hurt Labor.
To stanch this hemorrhage of votes, Labor moderates like Denis Healey and Roy Hattersley began to play a more prominent role in the campaign. It was they, for instance, who alleged that the Tories intended to demolish the national health service and public education—presumably it was thought their reputation for moderation would make these lurid charges more convincing. So it is ironic that the catastrophe that overtook Labor in the final week was at least initially the fault of Denis Healey. This was his accusation, in connection with the Falklands war, that Mrs. Thatcher was “glorying in slaughter.” (He amended this, when the storm broke about his ears, to “glorying in conflict.”) To mention the Falklands war at all was a mistake from Labor’s point of view because it reminded the voters of Mrs. Thatcher’s finest hour. Although few votes were directly influenced by the war (only 1.4 percent of Crewe’s respondents claimed that it had affected their vote), the Prime Minister’s conduct of hostilities had dramatically confirmed a general impression that she was a political leader of unusual firmness and determination. The Tories could not themselves invoke the Falklands war to help make their case; it would expose them to the charge of exploiting the deaths of British servicemen for partisan advantage. But here was Labor’s deputy leader doing the job for them. Exactly why a normally shrewd operator like Healey should blunder so crassly remains something of a mystery. The explanation is perhaps not entirely rational: he may just have lashed out wildly in the dispiriting heat of a campaign that was being lost.
Less mystery attaches to the second episode concerning the Falklands which took place a few days later while the echoes of the first were still reverberating. In response to a television heckler who had shouted (of Mrs. Thatcher) “At least she’s got guts,” Neil Kinnock, Labor education spokesman and now widely expected to be Labor’s next leader, replied: “It is a pity that others had to spill theirs on the ground in order to prove it.” When this storm broke, Kinnock explained away his remark as merely expressing regret at the loss of life. But this was not his first brush with the Falklands issue. A week before he had offered cautious and little noticed support to a campaign by the New Statesman and the Left generally for an inquiry into the sinking of the Argentinian battleship, the General Belgrano. Stripped of technicalities, the Left’s argument was that Mrs. Thatcher had ordered the sinking of the Belgrano not for military reasons (such as the defense of the British naval force), but in order to prevent a Peruvian peace initiative from succeeding in bringing about a negotiated end to a war from which she was benefiting politically. Were this true, Mrs. Thatcher would be a mass murderer and war criminal. Kinnock did not, of course, go quite so far. But he asked rhetorically why the Belgrano had been shadowed for thirty hours by a British submarine and sunk only when it was on course for its home port. He then answered his own question:
The most feasible answer appears to be that that the British government sought war when peace was still at least possible, a peace which would have involved complete Argentine withdrawal followed by a negotiated political settlement. The case for an immediate inquiry is paramount.
There is no evidence to support either Kinnock’s suspicions or the Left’s Machiavellian interpretation. What is interesting in this context is the motive underlying the Left’s campaign. For the Belgrano obsession was shared by left-wing journalists who interrogated Mrs. Thatcher on it at several Tory press conferences. This willingness, apparently sincere, to regard sober, cautious, conventional bourgeois politicians like Mrs. Thatcher and John Nott as ruthless, amoral power maniacs—particularly in the absence of any evidence for this inverted flattery—testifies to the power of ideology to distort the mind, the imagination, and even the eyesight. An ideologue, after all, would have sunk the Belgrano, and for exactly the motives suggested. Ideologues are forever congratulating themselves on their hard-headed willingness to sacrifice people in the struggle for power. Perhaps, out of office, they attribute to others the sort of motives which inspire them—or, more precisely, attribute to others the sort of ruthlessness they display in their daydreams of power. As a leader of the “soft Left,” Kinnock had to show a decent respect for its fantasies.
Whatever the motives, however, the effect on the Labor party of raising the Falklands issue was extremely damaging. Not only did it remind voters of a Tory triumph, but it also stirred up an undercurrent of feeling that Labor was somehow instinctively anti-national, always anxious to denigrate patriotic instincts or to point out some national failing. Most of the Alliance leaders, being themselves uncomfortable with anything like flag waving, were incapable of exploiting this opportunity. But David Owen, the former Labor Foreign Secretary and currently Social Democratic spokesman on foreign policy, did so very effectively. He lambasted both Healey and Kinnock and, appearing on a BBC television program about the Belgrano, criticized its producer for treating the former Argentine Foreign Minister, Costa Mendes, as a reliable and truthful witness on the issue. Such remarks were well-designed to appeal to the patriotic working-class vote which Labor was steadily alienating. As the election drew near, several polls reported that Labor and the Alliance were neck-and-neck in popular support. Volatility was at last delivering the goods.
No sooner had Mrs. Thatcher won a landslide victory than all the pundits declared she hadn’t. It was pointed out, first, that the Tories had actually lost ground since 1979, achieving 1.5 percent less of the popular vote. This was a truth made false by being ripped untimely from context. The 1979 election was, in essence, a two-horse race. Voters attracted to third parties were deterred from voting for them by the calculation that they would be “wasting” their votes. But in the 1983 election, the SDP-Liberal Alliance was a serious contender, if not for power, then at least for second place. Crewe points out that 84 percent of Liberal “identifiers” voted for the Alliance in 1983, compared with only 57 percent who chose the Liberals in 1979. It is fairly obvious that if the number of parties seriously competing for votes increases, then the potential share of total votes going to any one party is likely to fall. Labor’s vote fell about 10 percent between 1979 and 1983. In these circumstances, it was a remarkable achievement for the Tories to retain almost all their 1979 vote.
A second criticism is that 58 percent of those voting actually voted against Mrs. Thatcher and the Tories. How, therefore, can she be said to have won a great victory? But this is false. The ballot did not contain a question asking voters whether they approved or disapproved of Mrs. Thatcher. It invited people to vote for one of several parties. We cannot assume that all votes cast for other parties were rejections of one particular party. No doubt some were negative votes, but others were not. Indeed, it seems very likely that some of the voters who went to the Alliance did so because they were confident of a Tory victory and wanted to assist the Alliance against Labor. (This would account for the fact that the Tory vote was almost 3 percent lower than the forecast in otherwise accurate polls.)
Furthermore, the logic of this negative-voting theory would produce some curious results. It would mean that all the parties (and their policies) had been rejected by the electorate—with 72 percent rejecting the Labor party’s socialism and 76 percent contemptuously dismissing the “moderate” policies of the Alliance.
Finally, we know from Crewe’s survey that, at least in terms of policy, the Tories enjoy a surprisingly strong mandate. Large majorities support strict laws to regulate labor unions (72 percent); an approach to reducing unemployment that allows private companies to retain more profits as opposed to relying on the government (61 percent); the privatization of substantial parts of the British Steel Corporation and British Leyland (57 percent); and the stationing of Cruise missiles in Britain (56 percent). It is only a policy of cutting taxes even if this should require cuts in welfare services that the public opposes strongly—with only 20 percent supporting it. But this was not Conservative policy.
How does the British political landscape appear now that the smoke has cleared? The broad picture is one of substantial Conservative dominance based upon the decline of Labor and an almost even split in the Left vote. Whatever measures are used, the scale of Tory preeminence is remarkable. Geographically and occupationally, in terms of class, age, and sex, the Tories are now a genuinely inclusive national party. Thus, for the first time since 1965, there are more Tory than Labor “identifiers” in the electorate (44 to 38 percent). Forty-six percent of men and 43 percent of women voted Tory; as did 41 percent of first-time voters and 48 percent of those over sixty-five. If we look at the election geographically, the Tories have a virtual monopoly of seats in Southern England. But they are well-represented everywhere. Even in Scotland, which had been regarded as an increasingly safe Labor territory, the Tories won just short of 30 percent of the total vote—only 5 percent behind Labor.
It is in terms of social class, however, that the Tory advance is most remarkable. Recent years have seen a gradual “decomposition” of class voting in Britain. The trend continued in 1983, with fewer than half the voters (47 percent) plumping for “their” class party. In Crewe’s survey, the Tory share of particular class segments ranged from 62 percent of the professional/managerial vote to 29 percent of the semi-skilled and unskilled manual-labor vote, compared to Labor’s range of 12 percent to 44 percent of the same groups. (The Alliance drew almost equally from all social groups, ranging from 24 to 28 percent.) But it was among what is called the new working class that the Tories achieved really striking results. To quote Crewe again:
Among private-sector workers (66 percent of all manual workers), Labor ran neck and neck with the Conservatives (36 percent Conservative, 37 percent Labor, 27 percent Alliance). Among manual workers owning their houses (43 percent of all manual workers), the vote was: Conservative 47 percent, Labor 25 percent, Alliance 28 percent. Among manual workers living in the South (36 percent of all manual workers), the Conservatives had a similarly commanding lead (42 percent), and Labor (26 percent) came in third, behind the Alliance (32 percent).
By the same token, Labor’s decline is dramatic. Its share of the total vote was the lowest it had achieved since 1918—lower, indeed, than any result it achieved during the previous period of three-party elections between the wars. And if we calculate the average share of the constituency vote going to Labor candidates, it was Labor’s worst result since the party was founded in 1900. Geographically, Labor is virtually unrepresented south of the Trent. In Southern England, 119 Labor candidates lost their “deposits”—i.e., achieved less than 12½ percent of the total constituency vote. Thus the party has been driven back to its redoubts in Scotland, Wales, the North, and the inner-city areas.
It has been a similar retreat in class terms. Crewe points out that 38 percent of Labor’s non-manual 1979 voters switched in 1983; 36 percent of its white-collar union vote switched; and so did 33 percent of its non-union vote. Even in the broad working-class electorate, the party enjoyed a lead of only 5 percent over the Tories. In short, Labor has ceased to be a truly national party and has become a party of the regions, the minorities, a shrinking “traditional” working class, and the Celtic fringe.
The SDP-Liberal Alliance was the principal beneficiary of Labor’s decline. Of every five voters who deserted Labor, three went to the Alliance, one to the Tories, and one stayed home. As we have seen, the Alliance vote was remarkably even in class terms, ranging between 24 and 28 percent of all classes. Regionally it was slightly less even. Alliance candidates came second in over 300 seats, but most of these were in Southern England where the Labor vote collapsed. In Labor seats, it was the Tories who tended to come in second. Still, Alliance candidates performed creditably in almost all areas. That is, indeed, the problem. Unlike Labor, which has a concentrated vote in certain areas that guarantees its survival in terms of parliamentary seats even when its national vote is low, the Alliance’s support is spread too evenly throughout the country. Thus it makes a respectable second showing in most seats, but actually wins very few.
Dramatic though it is, this electoral landscape actually understates the ideological changes in British politics that are likely to result from the 1983 election. Within the Tory party itself, Mrs. Thatcher occupies a position of dominance greater than any Prime Minister since Harold Macmillan in the aftermath of his 1959 victory. The “wets” or “moderates” who were the principal opponents of Thatcherism have lost both their internal party power and—more importantly—their intellectual moorings. It was, after all, their principal argument that conservative economic policies, whatever their intellectual or long-term economic advantages, would lead inevitably to electoral disaster. Deprived of that argument, and being fundamentally not very interested in economics, they have nothing to say in opposition to Mrs. Thatcher’s policies.
This intellectual revolution is reflected in the Cabinet changes. The major economic ministries are now in the hands of Thatcherite meritocrats like Nigel Lawson, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Cecil Parkinson, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, who may yet prove in economic matters to be more royalist than the queen. The “wets” have either been sacked if recalcitrant, like former Foreign Secretary Francis Pym, or promoted out of harm’s way if loyal, like William Whitelaw, or given jobs that will divert their energies away from the central issues of domestic politics if still dangerous, like James Prior (at Ulster) and Peter Walker (at Energy). Certainly Mrs. Thatcher is unlikely to encounter the strong and generally successful opposition to proposed cuts in public spending that she had to accept from her first Cabinet. The significance of Francis Pym’s ouster—and his replacement by Sir Geoffrey Howe—is that the Foreign Office can no longer expect to carry on a foreign policy independently of the government. Mrs. Thatcher intends Thatcherism to have an international aspect.
But the broader context influencing political decisions has also changed. In the past, Tory governments were deterred from pursuing more sharply conservative policies by both the general establishment consensus in favor of social democracy (meaning, very roughly, high public spending, state economic intervention, and a gradual movement in the direction of equality), and by the prospect that Labor would win the next election. The latter meant that implementing certain policies might be entirely futile. For instance, a Tory government might reduce rent control in order to persuade investors to invest in private rented accommodation. But if the Labor party threatened to restore the full rigor of control on returning to office, no investment would be forthcoming. That is why very little privatization of nationalized industry was carried out by postwar Tory governments. Since Labor always threatened to renationalize, such measures would have destabilized the industries for no good reason.
Neither obstacle now blocks Mrs. Thatcher. The establishment consensus, unlike the U.S. Supreme Court, seems to be following the election results. And where opinions have not necessarily changed, personnel has. The skeptical Keynesians who occupied the higher reaches of the Treasury in 1979 have been replaced with senior officials more in line with the Prime Minister’s own outlook.
More importantly, very few people can be found to predict that a Labor government will be returned any time soon. To judge from the electoral arithmetic quoted above, the most likely result of the next election is a Tory victory, and the next most likely result no clear majority for anyone—with the Tories still being the largest party. There is a presumption, indeed, that Labor will continue its decline, to be replaced eventually by a non-socialist party of the Left based upon the present SDP-Liberal Alliance.
Such a development might be forestalled if Labor were to move to the Right and reestablish contact with its former skilled-worker and white-collar supporters. But the general expectation that Neil Kinnock will win the leadership contest makes that unlikely. No doubt Kinnock, who is a shrewd politician, would himself move to the Right and adopt more moderate attitudes, as all the downy old birds predict. But his left-wing image is already well-established in the public mind and, furthermore, he is the possessor of what might be described as a left-wing personality, being voluble, aggressive, and, above all, Welsh. Kinnock as leader would therefore tend to negate any advertised moderation of Labor policy.
Instead of being faced then with a strong Labor party united in resisting any denationalization or great/?/ reliance on the market, Mrs. Thatcher faces a weak and divided opposition, half of which is itself tempted to adopt market solutions. Both Liberal Jo Grimond and Social Democrat David Owen have argued that the Alliance should outflank the Tories by being more radical—more willing, that is, to restrain labor unions, break up monopolies, and, by such devices as vouchers, decentralize decisions to consumers, parents, and patients. As a result, the whole political spectrum has shifted to the Right, and Mrs. Thatcher is much more free to pursue right-wing policies. Indeed, this had begun to be true even before the election. The very existence of the SDP-Liberal Alliance enabled the Tory government to embark upon its ambitious program of privatizing the nationalized industries in 1981. In short, the definition of what is “politically possible” has changed in all parties. Curiously enough, the Left agrees with this analysis. In his introduction to The Politics of Thatcherism, a collection of essays previously published in Marxism Today, Stuart Hall writes half-admiringly that Mrs. Thatcher has introduced a new and “reactionary” form of common sense into the body politic.
Mrs. Thatcher has thus created an enormous opportunity for herself. Will she take advantage of it?
1 This figure is only for Great Britain; if the results from Northern Ireland, where the major British parties do not contest elections, are included, then the Tory share falls slightly, to 42.4 percent.
2 Ivor Crewe designed a major survey of 4,141 voters which was commissioned by the BBC and carried out by Social Surveys (Gallup Poll) on June 8 and 9. The overall results tally almost exactly with the results of the general election. Crewe reports some of the major findings in the June-July issue of Public Opinion. Except where otherwise stated, the opinion-poll and election statistics in this essay are drawn from Crewe’s indispensable article.