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.