The 1983 election: highlights and hindsight

I spent more of my bank holiday than is healthy watching the rerun of the 1983 election on BBC Parliament.

When I lived through it, I was an innocent and idealistic 15 year old. I really believed people would be so outraged that the Alliance had polled 7 million votes, finishing marginally behind Labour but with about a ninth of their seats. As Shirley Williams said, it was “absolute rubbish.” Surely we would have PR within a decade?

Thirty years on, it depresses me that we are no further forward. Westminster remains the last bastion of first past the post, for Scots anyway. I have to wonder, why do people accept a Parliament that they didn’t ask for? By rights we should have 140 MPs and proportionately much more influence.

I didn’t see that much coverage then, because I was in bed or at school when all the excitement was happening, so it was good to immerse myself in it. I had, though, spent the previous month working hard for Bob Maclennan in Caithness and Sutherland. Here are some of my highlights:

Russell Johnston’s best ever result in his Inverness seat. Interesting, too, his prescient comment that it wasn’t sustainable to have two parties who agreed with each other on most things.

As an aside, Russell’s defeated Tory was one David Maclean. A month later, he won the by-election caused by Willie Whitelaw’s elevation to the Lords. He went on to be the staunchest advocate of keeping MPs’ expenses secret and is now in the Lords himself,

Of course seeing the rest of my native Highlands fall to the Alliance was fantastic. We went into 1983 with 2 Liberal, 1 Labour and 1 Tory and ended up with all 4 for us. Charles Kennedy defeated Conservative Minister Hamish Gray and Bob’s vote increased hugely in Caithness.  And they’ve stayed that way at Westminster level since.

Malcolm Bruce’s election in Gordon – described as “a little orange pip” on the map was another highlight, particularly as I hope to be going to celebrate his 30th anniversary in June.

I learned something that hadn’t passed my radar before. The Tory seen off by David Owen in Plymouth Devonport was one Ann Widdecombe.

Seeing Shirley Williams lose was not fun, but I was fascinated by her view that she was in no hurry to get back to Westminster. She felt that she could do more to change the world outside than as a backbench MP facing a massive government majority. She talked about doing something about unemployment – which ended up being her book “A job to live.” It was ten years before she would return to Westminster, this time as a life peer.

I found the glimpse into Northern Irish affairs in the wake of the hunger strikes and IRA attacks which I remember all too vividly. I had forgotten what it was like to hear Gerry Adams say that a brutal murder of a soldier committed by the IRA was all the British Government’s fault. Thank goodness for the work that the Major & Blair governments did to bring piece.

Moments which made me laugh – Esther Rantzen showing off Wilberforce, the Downing Street cat, who promptly legged it. Alan Beith’s hairdo, which belonged in the early 70s, probably in a Carry On movie.

There was also a certain irony over  predictions of great things for Cecil Parkinson who we now know had already informed Mrs Thatcher of his affair with his secretary and her pregnancy and had to resign four months later.

As always, a glimpse of David Penhaligon brought a tear to my eye.  Even at 15, he’d inspired me with his Conference speeches.

This is my election in the same way Tom Baker is my Doctor. Reliving it was painful in places but I understand why that election ignited a need to fight injustice and encourage practical, people-centred politics. And I’ll keep going with that one.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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27 Comments

  • paul barker 2nd Apr '13 - 5:36pm

    I also spent most of the day in 1983, a very odd experience – everybody looked about 12 & spoke like minor members of the aristocracy.
    My overwhelming feeling was how 1983 echoed our situation –
    theres been no formal split in the Labour Party but if anything they are more divided now with both Left & Right calling each other Entryists. They also begin from a lower base, its easy to forget that Labour got 38% of the vote in 1979.
    If Labour blogs are any guide most of their activists live in a dream world, they expect to win.
    The big differenc between now & 1983 is that The Tories seem as divided as Labour.

  • Tony Dawson 2nd Apr '13 - 6:40pm

    The sad thing for me in 1983 was our failure to elect John Shipley in Newcastle North. He came just about the closest third place you could get. As we were canvassing up the West Road we were genuinely converting dozens of people to our cause, convincing both Labour and Tory past supporters that we could win. Another week of the campaign and we would probably have done it.

    My own great publicity event marathon run around the borders of my own constituency (Tyne Bridge) was interrupted by this slim blond woman who insisted upon ‘opening’ a new bridge across the Tyne which had been open perfectly well for weeks! Daughter-in-Law of some Greek sailor chappie.

  • 1983 was supposed to be a revolution for UK politics, but the backwash from regaining the Falklands scuppered all that. I was heavily involved in Bermondsey at the time when the Labour trendy set were confidently predicting that the constituency would revert to Labour.

    So the outcome was very double edged, Simon maintained a substantial majority, but across the country we were left bitterly disappointed. There is no doubt in my mind that proportional representation would have provided better governance in the last 30 years: there have been so many polarising and damaging policies – poll tax, how privatisations were carried out, the sad saga of education policy (I confess I have no idea why we let Gove get away with so much), the Iraq war and more could have been different for the better. And now electoral reform is likely to be off the agenda for 20 years at least, ironically as a result of a most tenaciously enduring coalition between Labour and Tory parties, which leaves us stuck with a system that enforces polarisation.

    Looking back the Alliance was unstable in that SDP on the ground were relatively clueless in matters of campaigning, but had important influential voices at the top. In the end David Owen always spoke authoritatively, but without much of a hinterland of support and so ended up as a loose canon that I believe became a negative factor. What in the end has been the impact of the SDP on the party? I think it has made the party more centrist and pragmatic, which for good or ill has produced a more stable coalition government today.

  • Eddie Sammon 2nd Apr '13 - 8:50pm

    First past the post isn’t all that bad – person with the most votes represents the constituency, simple. So let’s not treat PR like the holy grail that all other parties are so evil for not supporting.

  • Graham Martin-Royle 2nd Apr '13 - 9:56pm

    The trouble with first past the post is that, although the person who gets the most votes wins, they may not get a majority of the votes cast. Indeed, most MPs are elected on less than 50% which means that the majority of those who voted, voted against that person.

  • Eddie Sammon 2nd Apr '13 - 10:36pm

    I think with voting the fundamental point is what is more important, the party or the individual? If it is the individual then FPTP is the best system and if it is the party then PR under the party list system is the most important. I would be in favour of PR under the party list system because independents cannot form a government. I was never a fan of AV.

  • Eddie Sammon 2nd Apr '13 - 10:42pm

    Plus, I feel people mainly vote for the party rather than the individual.

  • Ed Shepherd 2nd Apr '13 - 11:28pm

    My view of the 1983 election is that the result ultimately boiled down to people wanting strong leadership. Michael Foot was an intelligent, well-meaning man but he seemed like a figure from the past who could not fit into the emerging world of modern media presentation. The SDP-Alliance Party Thingy had too many leadership figures: Jenkins, Williams, Owen and one or two others. No doubt all clever, well-meaning folk but none of them were particularly popular or seen as strong leaders, I think. And they were handicapped by the fact that they had run from another political party instead of taking on the most extreme elements of that party [Well done and fair play to Neil Kinnock who would eventually face down the extremists and make the Labour Party able to win power again]. David Steel of the Liberals was another well-meaning character but not seen as strong. That left Margaret Thatcher riding the South Atlantic wave…She was seen as a strong leader, even by the many who had reason to fear her radical free-market policies. She was clearly in absolutely brutal control of her party and left landed patricians like Willie Whitelaw too frightened to speak up when he disagreed with her. It ended up with an old stager like Harold MacMillan having to be the Tory to stand up and criticise her policies. Thinking about it, every general election I can remember was won by the leader who was clearly the strongest in terms of controlling their party. Except 1992 which was virtually a dead-heat between two leaders who were amiable chaps but not particularly admired or respected.

  • Matthew Huntbach 3rd Apr '13 - 12:22am

    Graham Martin-Royle

    The trouble with first past the post is that, although the person who gets the most votes wins, they may not get a majority of the votes cast.

    No, that is not the only trouble, I would say it’s not even the main trouble.

    The main trouble, I think, is that the ONLY people who get representation are those who are the majority, or at least biggest opinion in their own neighbourhood.

    In 1983 in Kent, Surrey and Sussex we saw every single MP returned was a Conservative. What about the substantial number of people in those counties who did not vote Conservative? Who was to speak for them? How can an MP for somewhere up north or inner London speak for someone in one of the south-east counties? But how could the man elected as MY Conservative MP in 1983 speak for me, when he was a millionaire who had no idea what it was like to live as my family lived, and who stood for policies which were against our interests? And not only that, EVERY MP for every constituency in my county and the neighbouring counties was of this party who DID NOT SPEAK FOR US. We were left without representation, without a voice in Parliament, and therefore rendered invisible. To the outside world, Kent, Surrey and Sussex consisted solely of wealthy people living in big houses, because that was the impression given by the MPs we had. How could that possibly be “democracy”?

    Yet it was a sophisticated argument that most people didn’t really get. Because of this distortion, many working class people in these counties had stopped identifying with the Labour Party anyway – it seemed to be a party which spoke only for the industrial north, which along with the Conservatives didn’t care about poor people in the south. In a small number of places the Liberal Party had started to make an impact, but it became caught up with the SDP which was never able to do that because it seemed very much to be a leader oriented London-based party.

  • Matthew Huntbach 3rd Apr '13 - 12:47am

    Carl Gardner

    Second, how unconvincing, on the night, was the line spun by many Labour people that “the SDP split the anti-Tory vote”. It was clear that no Tories believed this, and it was convincingly rubbished on the night by people like Roy Jenkins and David Owen. Yet it’s bedded down as received wisdom on the Labour left.

    Indeed, it’s a line regularly repeated to this day.

    But every poll which asked how people who said they would vote Liberal or SDP would have voted had the choice been only Labour or Conservative showed an almost even division between the two. So how could it have made a difference if, had there been no Liberal or SDP candidate, an equal number of votes would have gone to the Labour and to the Conservative candidate?

    The problem was that the SDP had started off with the aim of replacing the Labour Party, of taking mainly Labour votes. It failed in this within months of its foundation. In fact it was the Liberal Party, not the SDP, which had found ways of winning in places that were assumed always to be Labour – Bermondsey, Tower Hamlets, Leeds West, Liverpool Edge Hill. The SDP never managed to carve out a place for itself, the mark of its failure was when it started to ask the Liberal Party for a share of “winnable” seats i.e. constituencies where there was already a substantial Liberal vote, often built up by hard local activist work – which the SDP dismissed as irrelevant, claiming the Liberal Party was “sleepy” because winning votes was easy-peasy, just a matter of a smart centrally organised campaign from the London HQ, they’d show us how to do it, none of this tatty local leaflet stuff.

    Many of those who had joined the SDP thinking it was easy-peasy, left after that hard lesson, but the better ones who saw the Liberals had a point learnt it and joined with the Liberals in the merger. However, none of this was reported in the media, which continued to make out that the SDP was the dominant feature in the Alliance, to the point of assuming that the few eccentrics who had neither left the SDP nor supported the merger were as significant as the bulk of the Liberals and SDP who had gone along with it.

    Because of this mis-reporting in the media, it continued to be believed by many that the SDP was the more significant part of the Alliance and that the SDP was still as it had set out to be when first started. Hence the belief that it “split the vote” and so “let the Conservatives in”.

  • Martin Pierce 3rd Apr '13 - 9:02am

    It might have been 10 years before Shirley was back in Parliament but it wasn’t for want of trying. 2 years later she was candidate for Cambridge and came a worthy second in the 1987 Election, despite all our efforts. Sadly didn’t get to see the rerun on Monday as wife and children might not have been very amused but it was fairly painful the first time round. Alan Watson losing Richmond by 74 votes, where I subsequently lived for 20 years, was a particular low point

  • Steve Griffiths 3rd Apr '13 - 10:29am

    Caron was an “innocent and idealistic 15 year old” and Stephen Tall tells us on another thread that “It was not an election I remember (I was six)”. Well I was a 29 year old parish councillor and young Liberal activist and remember very well the impact of that election and the previous one (1979), which felt at the time even more devastating. I recall the 1983 count in my constituency of Witney, where our chap got a creditable 30% against Douglas Hurd, with Labour a distant 13%. We had a good candidate (local councillorJohn Baston) and we ‘worked our socks off’ for him. My abiding memory of the Thatcher administration was that it was the time of my life when the nation was most divided against itself……well until the current administration that is.

  • Simon Banks 3rd Apr '13 - 4:03pm

    Carl: PR makes coalitions virtually inevitable: yes. It gives undue power to third parties: no. First, because under the present system they generally have far less power than their support warrants. Secondly, because it’s only true at all if there are only three significant parties. Nearly all countries with PR evolve a system with four or more: for example, Germany had four and now has five. Ireland has had four or five for a long time though the identity of the smaller parties has changed.

  • Matthew Huntbach 3rd Apr '13 - 5:08pm

    Carl Gardner

    Only Geoffrey Howe seemed to really grasp the strength of the case for PR and to see the strongest case against it – that it basically forces coalition government and tends to give third parties (ironically) disproportionate power.

    What follows from the logic of anyone who argues that is that the main thing wrong with our current government is the Liberal Democrat influence in it. If it doesn’t matter that representation gets distorted so long as it leads to a full majority for the largest party, then surely what we should have now is a full Conservative government. Why should the distribution of the third party vote make any difference to that? If the Liberal Democrats had spread their campaigning more evenly, as the Liberal-SDP alliiance did in 1983, they would have won more votes but less seats, as the Liberal-SDP alliance did in 1983. So why is it that people – and in particular almost everyone in the Labour Party – moan about the Liberal Democrats “propping up the Tories”, yet think it would be perfectly fine to have a pure Tory government with exactly the same share of the votes for the parties as we have now?

    Of course, as the current situation shows, third parties mostly don’t get big power from the situation. It seems to be thought they get the choice of which coalition to form – but it also depends on which of the other parties is most willing. If one is and the other isn’t, there is no bargaining power. There is no bargaining power also if, as in the current situation, the numbers of fourth and fifth party MPs are such that only one coalition is viable.

  • David Allen 3rd Apr '13 - 6:03pm

    Matthew Huntbach said:

    “The SDP never managed to carve out a place for itself, the mark of its failure was when it started to ask the Liberal Party for a share of “winnable” seats i.e. constituencies where there was already a substantial Liberal vote…”

    Translation: Some very chauvinistic Liberals tried to argue that 100% of the seats where the demographics was favourable to the Alliance parties should be retained by the Liberals as sitting tenants, while the new upstart SDP should just go away and fight the black holes where no Liberals had ventured for decades. Fortunately, other Liberals were more flexible. If they had not been, the Alliance would have foundered over Liberal selfishness. As it was, the Liberals still contested far more winnable seats than the SDP did, and hence won far more seats. Chauvinistic Liberals like to believe that they “beat” the SDP in 1983 by harder work and better campaigning. Well, they did have campaigning strengths, but their main secret ingredient was simply having been around for longer and having had more than two years to build up local support.

    “Beating” the SDP was a bit of a Pyrrhic victory for the Liberals. I was an SDP-er who argued from 1983 onwards that we should merge with the Liberals. It was difficult, because of the underlying conflicts and the arrogant and unconstructive behaviour exhibited by quite a lot of Liberals on one side and by David Owen on the other. So we didn’t merge until it was too late, and we were eventually punished by the electorate for the way that these defects of personality had prevented us making a coherent case as a potential government in 1987. Have we learnt anything from it all? Doubt it!

  • Matthew Huntbach 4th Apr '13 - 1:02am

    David Allen

    Translation: Some very chauvinistic Liberals tried to argue that 100% of the seats where the demographics was favourable to the Alliance parties …

    But there you go, you are making my point. The SDP was not a Labour Party Mark II, it did not attract support mainly from former Labour voters or in particular in strongly Labour voting areas. It did not appeal to a demographic distinct to that to which the Liberal Party appealled, it did well in the sort of places that the Liberal Party tended to do well in. So it did not split the Labour vote. QED.

  • David Allen 4th Apr '13 - 1:42am

    Matthew,

    I largely agree that the SDP did not “split the Labour vote”. What they did was boost the Alliance vote from the typical 18-20% gained previously by the Liberals up to 26% in 1983. This they did by attracting some 6-8% more people to vote for the two Alliance parties. Primarily, I think they did it by showing that the Alliance contained political heavyweights who could credibly govern, and contained sober and serious people with safe hands, complementing the Liberals, who tended to be sharper,brighter, but less commonsensical.

    Where did those extra 6-8% come from? Well, partly from Labour, but some would instead have voted Tory had they not been impressed by the new Alliance.

    Was it a failure to attract so few people? Well, if it was, it was less of a failure than has been achieved subsequently – it was our high water mark in vote percentage! I would prefer to suggest that mass shifts in national voting intention are just not easily achieved.

    Was it a failure of the SDP’s original aims? Not really. The aim was never solely to “split Labour”. It was to attract voters from both right and left. There it had some success. As to knocking Foot’s Labour out of contention, well, the Alliance and the Tories between them did that pretty effectively. Indeed, they were hit so hard that they did learn from the experience – if slowly and haltingly. We improved Labour’s performance. Not what we set out to do, but, not a total waste of effort either.

  • Matthew Huntbach 4th Apr '13 - 12:01pm

    David

    When you write of the “typical 18-20% gained previously by the Liberals”, in fact that was not typical – it was what was achieved in the 1974 general elections. However, I would say those elections were the turning point, establishing a permanent third party force in British politics. It could have just been a flash in the pan, but underneath the slow building up of credible local campaigning teams was taking place, and this played the key part in the Alliance success in the 1980s. Media commentary and history books – because this is now history – tend to ignore all that and put everything that happened to the third party vote in the 1980s as down solely to the SDP, as if the Liberal Party had made no progress at all since it was almost wiped out in the 1950s. As one who was there at the time, witness to so much that happened, I wish to correct that. I also wish, and I hope you will join me in this, to speak out against those who now claim the Liberal Party then was all about extreme free market economics, and the SDP was all about state control. It’s become a common line now from people who were not there then to suggest that Orange Book “economic liberalism” in the Liberal Democrats derives from the Liberal Party, and “social liberalism” derives from the SDP. This is simply not true – if anything it was part of the SDP’s being “sober and serious” that it tended if anything to be more in favour of conventional free market economics that the Liberals – there were plenty of people like myself on the left of the Liberal Party whose antipathy to the SDP came partly from that, so I am appalled to find it now written up as if people like me who then insisted we were “liberals and not social democrats” are now written up as if we were we proto-Orange Bookers.

    There was enormous optimism about the SDP when it was founded, so we Liberals who even then knew full well how hard it was to play the third party game were often looked down upon as defeatists for some of what we said and the tactics we urged. I remember someone (a work colleague, someone with no particular political links) asking me some time before the 1983 general election “How many seats do you think the Alliance will win?”. When I replied “Oh, maybe 25-30”, the person was shocked, expecting me to say many times that. Yet my estimate was based on what I knew was going on at grassroots level, and it was accurate.

    Yes, the SDP did attract a few new voters, and a few good people, yourself included, who became valuable long-term activists in the third party movement. It attracted many who thought it an easy route to power, and quickly dropped out when they found it was not so. Those who survived that shock and stayed were the best. In many cases it attracted people who probably would have joined the Liberal Party had they been in areas of Liberal Party activity, but they were not so they knew little about what the Liberal Party was doing.

    The sobriety and seriousness which you say the SDP brought to the Alliance was also brought by local government responsibility, which was primarily a Liberal Party thing. Again, the media tended to write off Liberals as unrealistic dreamers who had no idea of how to run things, ignoring the way that many Liberals gained direct experience of control in local government, which, yes, was a serious sobering up exercise for us. That local government responsibility started in the 1970s, and grew in the 1980s.

    One can see now it was a survival of the fittest thing – those Liberals who had that lack of common sense you mention tended not to get anywhere, those who had it got stuck into local government and built the party up that way. The consequence was the clumpiness of support that won us more Parliamentary seats in the last couple of elections than we achieved with a greater share of the vote in 1983.

    I’m afraid Nick Clegg and those around him now remind me very much of the SDP leaders back in the 1980s – thinking that gaining votes is all about looking sober and serious at the top, and having a strong national campaign directed by professional Public Relations people; writing off the importance of having active and keen local members, in fact showing something of contempt, though perhaps it is really fear, of local activists who also want to be involved in running the party politically as well as just doing the donkey work of campaigning.

  • Steve Griffiths 4th Apr '13 - 3:02pm

    Matthew

    “It’s become a common line now from people who were not there then to suggest that Orange Book “economic liberalism” in the Liberal Democrats derives from the Liberal Party, and “social liberalism” derives from the SDP.”

    Absolutely correct. I was there and voted against merger because I believed, as did many of the other ‘NO to merger’ voters, that the party would be pulled to the RIGHT by the SDP, not the left. I am just as frustrated at being thought of as a ‘proto Orange Booker’ – I was unhappy with most of its contents. I consider myself a member of the libertarian left, not the socialist left and there were many of us in the party. There seems recently to have been an attempt to deny there ever were such members holding those views in the party, whether deliberatly or unintentionally.

  • I’m with matthew on the sdp, it annoys me today to hear them being lionised as some sort of saving force in progressive politics. Where they did (rarely) get elected it was usually on the backs of local liberals. 83 was a desperate, awful election night..

  • David Allen 4th Apr '13 - 7:39pm

    Matthew,

    “Media commentary and history books … tend to … put everything that happened to the third party vote in the 1980s as down solely to the SDP, as if the Liberal Party had made no progress at all … As one who was there at the time, witness to so much that happened, I wish to correct that.”

    Well, you have a point I suppose, but it doesn’t help to produce commentaries that are equally biased the other way. If the SDP had not been subjected to so much sneering and sniping by Liberals, then and still now, perhaps Owen would not have been able to get away with his policy of undermining the Alliance by stealth and resisting proper co-operation. The real electoral disaster was 1987, when the crazy disunited double-headed Alliance campaign met its comeuppance from Spitting Image and from the voters, who saw disunity for what it was. Of course Owen was at fault for that. So was the chauvinist wing of the Liberals.

    Yes, the media thought the SDP were newsworthy, because they were. It isn’t often that a major party splits. It isn’t often that a Minister like Jenkins walks out of high office for the sake of principle, well aware that oblivion may beckon. That’s newsworthy. Pavement politics, viewed at national level, is not. Rennardism did of course achieve its greatest advances in terms of seats long after the Lib Dems had been formed, from 1997 onwards. That didn’t make many headlines either (until in 2010 it meant a hung parliament), not because of any anti-LD bias, but just because it wasn’t big news.

  • David Allen 4th Apr '13 - 7:46pm

    “I also wish, and I hope you will join me in this, to speak out against those who now claim the Liberal Party then was all about extreme free market economics, and the SDP was all about state control. It’s become a common line now from people who were not there then to suggest that Orange Book “economic liberalism” in the Liberal Democrats derives from the Liberal Party, and “social liberalism” derives from the SDP. This is simply not true…”

    I’d agree with pretty much all of that, Matthew. In a romantic sort of way, I think a lot of Liberals thought they were the left-wing conscience of the Alliance, while a lot of SDPers equally romantically believed that they were. Insofar as the differences were real, I guess the Liberals were more inclined to clever ideas, whereas the SDP, or at least some of them, were more concerned about social justice. It could have been a partnership which was more than the sum of its parts, if those differing emphases had interacted constructively. But they didn’t.

  • mark fairclough 4th Apr '13 - 9:41pm

    i think one mistake the alliance made was the seat shareout,in too many cases the SDP side fought seats the Liberal side should have & the Liberal side fought seats the SDP side should have, i,m trying to say both sides fought seats the other should have

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