Love, Labour’s lost

30 years since Labour went down to its worst ever post-war election defeat, Francis Beckett remembers.

Neil Kinnock in 2008. Photograph: Getty Images

Thirty years ago, on 9 June 1983, Labour went down to its worst ever post-war election defeat. 396 Conservative MPs were elected, 209 Labour ones and 26 from the Liberal and Social Democratic Alliance. On the voting figures, Labour was almost pushed into third place by the Alliance.

I had a ringside seat in the Labour press office. Two months before, I’d been despatched to run media and publicity for the Party’s campaign at the Darlington bye-election.  Labour had just lost one of its safest seats, Bermondsey.  If we’d lost Darlington after that, we really would have been finished. 

In Darlington I chaired the press conferences, decided the media strategy, and did whatever I thought needed to be done.  Not so for the general election. At Labour’s head office, then near Elephant and Castle, senior officials spent the election allocating blame for the inevitable disaster. Labour had just appointed a new communications director, Nick Grant, and at the end his colleagues unanimously elected him as scapegoat. The truth was that he arrived too late to change anything, and anyway his colleagues wouldn’t let him.

National organisers Joyce Gould and David Hughes gave leader Michael Foot and deputy leader Dennis Healey punishing schedules of meetings of the faithful.  So they turned up exhausted, ragged and ill-prepared for the all-important broadcasting opportunities.  My colleague Jim Innes handled broadcasting, and wrote later:

“I fight for Healey’s time and my opponents in this fight are the national or regional or constituency agents.  It means that I work for the radio stations.  The Tories manipulate them and then they manipulate me.  The Labour Party just pays my wages.” 

I took a call from Joyce Gould, furious to hear that a regional organiser had waited some hours for an answer to a query. We had, I said, been busy with journalists, and she replied icily: “It’s a matter of priorities, isn’t it, Francis?”  Indeed it was.

A huge campaign  committee – thirty or forty people, many of them trade union leaders - met every morning and debated policy along sectarian lines. This committee chose a lowest common denominator slogan – “Think positive, act positive, vote Labour.”  It also chose the worst campaign song in history.  If you have never heard it, that’s a tribute to Jim Innes, who listened to it once, then swore us to secrecy, and got exactly six copies made so that each press officer could take one as a keepsake. Here’s a sample:

If you and me
Believe in democracy
We’re gonna put
Michael Foot
In the league where he belongs.

In our blackest moments, Jim led us in a wild dance round our room, singing the song to the martial music that went with it.

In the absence of strategy, ministers and even press officers tried to make themselves useful by bits of freelance activity.  I was leaked a report from the National Economic Development Council document with a quote from CBI Chairman Campbell Fraser to the effect that anyone knowing the truth about our industrial future will 'take the first boat out of the country.'   The office wasn’t interested, so I took it to Neil Kinnock.  His speech about it won us almost the only good headlines of the campaign. The next day I was called to see research director Geoff Bish. The NEDC report had been on his desk all the time. They were not going to use it because it might embarrass TUC general secretary Len Murray.

On the morning of 9 June I met Foot’s chief of staff, Dick Clements, who had been the one voice of optimism throughout the campaign. “At least we didn’t peak too early” he said.

After he conceded defeat, Foot was driven at breakneck speed to London from Wales.  As soon as we heard he was on the roundabout at Elephant and Castle, Jim Innes and I led a charge of cheering staffers onto the steps of the building, forming them into a phalanx to stand between Foot and the journalists and let him enter with dignity.  It seemed like something useful to do, and was probably better than punching a journalist, which is what we both felt like doing after the brutally unfair treatment Foot had had.  “When are you going to resign, Mr Foot?” yelled the Express’s Peter Hitchens (now a Mail columnist), holding his recorder over our shoulders, and somehow his hand was twisted and his recorder ended up a mangled heap on the floor. It was an accident - Jim said so himself.

As dawn broke on 10 May, Foot and Healey spoke to the staff.  Healey, who looked ill and exhausted, said Labour leaders must never again be given such a ridiculous schedule.

I wrote a paper for the shadow cabinet afterwards, attacking the attitude summed up by one complacent union leader: “Labour isn’t going to sell itself like soap flakes.”  I wasn’t to know that in time Labour would come to believe it needed to sell itself exactly like soap flakes, which was just as big an error.