Not as daft as you thought

Observations on Labour's 1983 manifesto

We are approaching the 20th anni-versary of Labour's most disastrous general election defeat. On 9 June 1983, Margaret Thatcher's government won a majority of 144, with Labour getting just 27.6 per cent of the vote, its lowest since 1918.

Its manifesto for that election, "New Hope for Britain", has been described by Gerald Kaufman, a shadow minister privy to its construction, as "the longest suicide note in history". It was long, all right - almost as long as the Tory and Liberal-SDP Alliance manifestos combined - but was it really as senselessly extreme as its detractors have since suggested?

It was certainly not short on left-wing hubris: trade union legislation passed since 1979 would be repealed, council house sales ended, privatised industries and utilities returned to the public sector and other sections of the economy nationalised "as required by the national interest". Britain would negotiate its withdrawal from what was then the EEC. There would be a five-year national plan, a national economic assessment, a plan for coal, a tripartite national planning council, a department of economic and industrial planning and a new price commission - all betraying a devout, old Labour faith in bureaucratic wisdom.

But look at certain non-economic aspects of the 1983 manifesto and it suddenly seems much less wacky. While young Tony Blair was still getting into parliament, Michael Foot's party was already offering Scottish devolution, House of Lords reform, a freedom of information act and more state aid for political parties - all of which were enacted during Blair's first term in office. In its section on the environment, Labour 1983 commends "wider rights of access to the land" and a ban on fox-hunting: hardly the antithesis of new Labour.

On social policy, Labour 1983 seems positively prescient. It argued that the state must "accept the wide variety in the type and size of families" and recognise that the marriage tax allowance did not guarantee support for all families with children - an idea effected 15 years later by Gordon Brown, when he abolished the allowance in favour of "inclusive" benefits such as the Working Families Tax Credit. Labour's 1983 stance on race and gender resounds in the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000 and the Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Act 2002, while its aim to end "unfair discrimination against homosexuals" finds echoes in new Labour's attempts to repeal Section 28 and broaden adoption rights.

The point of all this is not just to show that new and old Labour have more in common than the Blairites allow; it is also a challenge to the Tory take on the past 20 years. Tories moan that they have "lost the vote but won the argument", and that new Labour is simply Thatcherism vindicated. In the economic sphere, this is largely true - although Labour's 1983 manifesto does advocate a minimum wage (implemented in 1998), plus the sort of protection for part-time workers enshrined in the Employment Relations Act 1999.

However, in the social and cultural spheres, the Tories should feel anything but smug. Back in 1983, for example, they cited Labour's support for gays, single parents and ethnic minorities as proof of its "loony left" character. But when Tories observe today's eclectic society and democratised culture (very different from that of 1983, when Sloane Rangers and Brideshead were in vogue), and see colleagues such as Michael Portillo scrambling towards multiculturalism, they should realise that yesterday's "loonies" are part of today's mainstream.

As such, today's Tories might reread Labour's 1983 manifesto and accept that although the big economic argument of that year (private ownership or public ownership?) has been won, the big sociocultural argument (Christian traditionalism or secular pluralism?) has been lost. Given its stress on economic planning, Labour's 1983 manifesto does look archaic. But so does the 1983 Tory manifesto, given its stress on marriage-based households and its reluctance to admit alternative family structures. And just as Labour had to acknowledge economic defeat before it could recover in the late 20th century, so the Tories must now acknowledge cultural defeat if they are to recover in the early 21st.

Richard Kelly teaches politics at Manchester Grammar School