Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Decision 1979: More thoughts on the election that changed everything



I hope that all those journalists who penned articles trying to portray 1970s Britain as hell on earth watched the re-run of BBC's 1979 General Election results programme 'Decision 1979' on BBC4 on Monday (you can see the opening of the programme above).

The programme was a sad watch, but fascinating all the same.

Despite the opposition of around 90% of the print media, and despite the industrial disputes which occured in the preceding winter, Labour didn't fare too badly at all. There was actually a swing towards Labour in Scotland, and if the south-east swing to the Conservatives had been the same as the swing in the north, then the Conservatives may even have been denied an overall majority.

Perhaps any neoliberals reading this could explain why, if life really were so bad under Labour in the mid-late 1970s, the Conservatives did not win a landslide in May 1979?

The fact is that the Conservatives were fortunate to return to power at all. As Perry Worsthone argued on 'Decision 1979', Labour would probably have won had Jim Callaghan called an election the preceding autumn. They were leading in the polls, and after three and a half years as Tory leader, Margaret Thatcher had yet to strike a chord with the electorate. What brought the Tories to power were the industrial disputes which dominated the news headlines in January 1979, and which the Conservative-supporting media portrayed as a sign that Britain was out of control.

If Callaghan had gone to the country in October 1978, things would have been very different, as I argued in this Guardian article. And things would also probably have been different had Callaghan done the required deals with the minority parties that would have enabled him to win the vote of no-confidence in March 1979.

It's very likely that Labour would have won a General Election in October 1978. It's also likely that with the economy improving by the month, and with the memories of January 1979 receding, Labour would have won an election in October 1979.

But in May 1979 they faced an uphill task.

There was nothing inevitable about Thatcherism. What 'Decision 79' showed us, if we didn't know already, was that Thatcher's elevation to power was all to do with a section of the electorate blaming the Labour government and the unions for the strikes in nearly 1979, and was not a sign of public support for the Conservative Party's neoliberal programme.

4 comments:

neil craig said...

Perhaps any neoliberals reading this could explain...

Well because your last line was right that neither the Conservatives then nor any other party in recent years has got in by being popular but by being less unpopular than the other lot. And Labour were deservedly an unpopular lot.

There was no such overwhelming media support for monetarism as you suggest. Remember the letter from 364 economists saying not printing money would not stop inflation? That was much more a reflection of establishment opinion than anything Thatcher said. Indeed the BBC, much more influential than the Sun, was then & is now, if not committed to Labour, certainly committed to more big government, regulatiion & more tax & spend.

Of course if Labour had seriously wanted rid of Thatcher they could have done so by working withn the LibDems to introduce proportional representation. They preferred not to because a democratic electoral system would have been less confortable for them. otal power for Thatcher, followed by the same for them at some time in the future was their preferred choice election after election & they cannot honestly claim anythin else.

David Lindsay said...

And there was never any such support: the combined vote for Labour and the SDP was higher than the Tory vote both in 1983 and in 1987.

DBC Reed said...

It is a good idea to look up the 1979 Conservative Party Election Manifesto.It reads like the production of a right-wing eccentric (to be charitable).
I think that debates about political differences
fail to recognise the emergence of the determining force in British politics:political parties narrowly dedicated to the interests of homeowners.The Conservatives re-branded themselves as the Homeowners Party when they abolished Income tax on homeownership (Schedule A) in 1963.Before that house prices had been flat;as soon Heath/Barber boosted the money supply,the economy went out of control and has stayed out of control ever since.( House prices went up 70% in two years in early 70's).
The salient feature of the 1979Thatcher manifesto is the section on Property-owning Democracy and the sale of council houses.The latter might have made a big difference to the election result being the only concrete proposal in a virtual hymn of hate.
It is the property-owning democracy movement that has shaped the modern world politically,with no opposition (New Labour seeks to identify itself as the New Homeowners party )and the unvarying support of the media.
Even though the polical support of house prices has degraded democracy by becoming a system of mass bribery and has created a bubble which has virtually destroyed capitalism,people are so much in the Matrix that they think the present is normal.There is a very old economic philosophy that warns loud and clear that inflated property prices can overwhelm the economy.

Roland Hulme said...

"Perhaps any neoliberals reading this could explain why, if life really were so bad under Labour in the mid-late 1970s, the Conservatives did not win a landslide in May 1979?"

And if Bush was so f*cking awful, why didn't Obama win by a bigger margin?

I can only assume that '08 American conservatives and 70s British lefties both lived in their own fantasy world in which reality can knock on the window all it wants, they ain't letting it in.