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23 February 2015

Christopher Price: Reflections on a landslide

June 17, 1983: Christopher Price, a defeated Labour MP, reflects on the party's landslide defeat.

By Christopher Price

Christopher Price, a Labour MP for Birmingham Perry Barr 1966 to 1970, and for Lewisham West 1974 to 1983, has died. He was a longstanding friend and contributor to the New Statesman. We re-produce his reflections on Labour’s 1983 rout, in which he lost his seat.

Being washed away by a landslide is a weird experience; you clutch at imaginary handholds and fantasise about being saved by a few hundred votes, when you know perfectly well that the whole cliff is collapsing beneath you. For all the nicely calculated inquest verdicts, neither policies nor personalities were fundamental to the catastrophe – though on both accounts our performance was terrible. We lost because we had been perceived for some time as devoid of those qualities demand of their politicians – common sense, imagination, and above all, unity.

We did not lose the election in 1983; we lost it in 1980 and 1981 by our public schisms and our inability to resolve our problems internally with dignity and intelligence. It looks as if Neil Kinnock is going to win the leadership; but Labour will only win the next election if a genuine collective leadership (from Shore to Meacher) ensures that we do not indulge in mindless sloganising and fisticuffs this October. It is an expensive lesson which the electorate have taught us, but there is still time to learn from it.

It was the cancer of SDP suburbanism that ate fatally into the South London Labour vote. To some extent, voting for the Alliance was a convenient escape route for the genteel. But we have to face the fact that we need votes from the centre to win elections, and some of our hard, professional, white-collar activists are not always our best ambassadors.

One couple I met were natural Labour voters – he worked for a children’s hospital about to close, she with a literacy scheme with which I’d been associated. But they were solid for the Alliance. Why? Because she couldn’t stand the arrogant hypocrisy of Cambridge-educated literacy teachers (all professing Labour politics) preaching to their students as they emerged from illiteracy that it was bourgeois to progress thence to O-level exams. One of the labour movement’s least agreeable characteristics has been a propensity, inherited from Beatrice Webb, to instruct the working classes, in humourless, educated tones, what is good for them. It would be nice to think that over the next five years Labour activists will listen rather more carefully and preach somewhat less stridently.

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Christopher Price (1932-2015) served as Labour MP for Birmingham Perry Barr 1966-70, and Lewisham West 1974-83. He died in 2015.

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