Terry Fields and Dave Nellist - two Militant MPS, credit: Dave Sinclair (uploaded 05/06/2013)
Terry Fields and Dave Nellist - two Militant MPS, credit: Dave Sinclair (uploaded 05/06/2013)

Two Militant MPs, the ‘longest suicide note in history’, early Liverpool tremors…

The 1983 general election occurred 40 years ago, on Thursday 9 June. The Tories won a landslide victory, which Labour’s right wing blamed on a left-wing manifesto. But new left-wing MPs were elected, including Jeremy Corbyn and two supporters of the Militant newspaper (forerunner of The Socialist). We asked one of those former MPs and now Socialist Party national committee member Dave Nellist to recall some of the events of that pivotal year.

What happened in the 1983 general election?

The general election of 1983 saw Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher re-elected with an increased majority of 144. The election consolidated ‘Thatcherism’ and opened a decade of privatisations, deregulations, and attacks on the working class.

The Tories, and Mrs Thatcher in particular, used the previous year’s Falklands War between the UK and Argentina, which ended 12 months earlier in June 1982, as a political tool to successfully boost the government and her national leadership in the general election.

The election was a significant defeat for the Labour Party, with the loss of 52 seats and its national vote falling to 27%. In addition to the ‘Falklands factor’, Labour’s loss of three million votes between 1979 and 1983 was compounded by the creation of the Social Democratic Party (SDP).

Two years earlier, in March 1981, four ‘moderate’ (in reality, right-wing) Labour MPs and former MPs, all former cabinet ministers and known as the ‘Gang of Four’, split from the Labour Party. Twenty-eight more Labour MPs and one Tory were to join over the next twelve months (though a more significant number of right-wing MPs with the same policies as the splitters stayed in the Labour Party). It was the biggest parliamentary defection for almost a hundred years.

Shortly before the 1983 election, the SDP formed an electoral alliance with the Liberal Party (later, the two merged to become the Liberal Democrats). The SDP was set up to prevent Labour from returning to government with a series of left policies. Big business gave the SDP millions of pounds to assist in that task. Similar to the £9 million David Sainsbury gave the Liberal Democrats in 2019 to help build an alternative to Labour then under the radical policies of Jeremy Corbyn.

The press and media used that split from Labour, and the internal witch-hunt against the Militant and its supporters, to portray a divided party.

In 1979 the votes were: Tory 13.7 million, Labour 11.5 million, and Liberal 4.3 million. In 1983 it was: Tory 13 million, Labour 8.5 million, and the SDP-Liberal Alliance 7.8 million.

Five Militant supporters stood as Labour candidates. Cathy Wilson received 2.4% on the Isle of Wight in a seat that had been (and still is) Tory since 1931. Rod Fitch gained 29.6% in Brighton Kemptown – almost Labour’s best result in the south of England in 1983. Pat Wall was narrowly defeated in Bradford North with 30.9%. And there were two victories.

In Coventry South East my candidacy recorded 41.1%, with a reduced Labour majority of 7% on changed boundaries (the majority in 1987 climbed to 17.6%). But in Liverpool, Labour’s vote rose from 42.7% in 1979 to 47.3% in 1983. And Liverpool Broadgreen saw the third-largest swing to Labour in the country, and Terry Fields was elected with 40.9% of the vote.

Why was Labour’s 1983 manifesto described as the “longest suicide note in history”?

It was the description given by the late former Labour MP, Gerald Kaufman. Before becoming an MP, Kaufman was a newspaper journalist and a writer on the BBC TV satirical programme ‘That was the Week That Was’.

Today’s Labour right-wing still uses his sarcastic put-down of Labour’s 1983 radical programme to characterise the supposedly inevitable election defeats of parties campaigning on socialist policies.

But there was more to the outcome of the 1983 election and it is arguable that, without that socialist alternative, Labour’s defeat could have been greater.

Labour’s 1983 programme, ‘The New Hope for Britain’, was radical – a clear indictment of the then Tory government and, more widely, capitalism. It proposed massive public investment, withdrawal from the European Economic Community (which would later become the European Union) and nuclear disarmament.

In a Britain of mass unemployment, for example, it drew attention to the madness of three million homes lacking basic amenities or needing major repair, while 500,000 construction workers were unemployed. Labour called for a major increase in public investment, including transport, housing and energy conservation, and in industry, especially in new technology – “with public enterprise taking the lead”.

The manifesto promised to raise child benefits, increase pensions and spend more on education, social services and the NHS.

But its limitations were similar to those of the more recent manifestos of 2017 and 2019. It eloquently described the widening chasm between rich and poor, but it sought to eliminate inequality without eliminating the source of that inequality, capitalism.

The witch hunt against Militant had already begun before its first MPs were elected. What did it look like in 1983?

Well-known Militant supporter Pat Wall should have won Bradford North in 1983 but for a vicious press campaign led by the Sunday Times. Just over a year before the election, at the beginning of March 1982, Pat spoke in a university debate on the issue of socialism and the state.

Pat argued for real democracy, including ending the constitutional powers of the monarchy and the unelected positions of judges, and the full mobilisation of the labour movement to support the government moving on socialist lines. But, he warned, a capitalist class threatened with the loss of its power and privileges would view democracy differently. Indeed, one of Mrs Thatcher’s ‘liberal’ ministers, Sir Ian Gilmour, had written in a book, five years earlier, that “Conservatives do not worship democracy… For them majority rule is a device… for Conservatives, therefore, democracy is a means to an end and not an end in itself.”

Yet ‘Marxism equals totalitarianism and violence’ was the theme of the media reports, even though Pat had sought to warn that partial nationalisation, while not satisfying the problems facing the working class, could push the capitalist establishment towards sabotaging and eventually bringing down a radical and socialist government.

This was not an academic point. The debate occurred just over eight years after a murderous military coup in Chile toppled the elected socialist Allende government.

The vicious campaign against Pat included journalists camping outside his house, and letters being sent to his employer demanding he be sacked.

In the 1983 election the former local Labour MP, right winger Ben Ford, stood as an independent against him, and the right-wing SDP targeted Pat. Even ‘left-wing’ Labour leader Michael Foot spoke at a rally in Bradford a few days before the election and attacked Pat using the same lies of the Sunday Times.

The SDP took 25% of the vote, and Ben Ford 9%. Pat’s vote was squeezed, and he lost that election by 1,600 votes but won in 1987 with a 12% swing, one of the highest in the country!

In the post-election period, Labour’s right was able to complete the expulsion of the five members of the Militant Editorial Board at the party conference at Brighton.

Although the expulsions of Peter Taaffe, Ted Grant, Lynn Walsh, Clare Doyle and Keith Dickinson were steamrollered through by right-wing union leaders, 80% of the constituency Labour Party delegates at the conference voted against, and the ‘Militant Five’ were given a standing ovation.

Unfortunately, that was not seen on the live TV coverage of the conference, as the national executive ordered the expulsions to be heard in a closed session. Even many of those who voted for expulsions did so in a mistaken attempt to ‘get unity’ and ‘improve the image of the party’ after the worst electoral defeat in its recent history.

What was unfolding in Liverpool?

It seems unfair to discuss 1983 in Liverpool in the context of one election result. But that result, the election of Terry Fields as MP for the Broadgreen constituency, was a product of a momentous class struggle unfolding in that city which reached its peak over the next couple of years.

As Peter Taaffe and Tony Mulhearn noted in ‘Liverpool, A City That Dared to Fight’, Liverpool became “synonymous with militancy”. “When visiting Indonesia in 1984, Tory Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was greeted by demonstrating students chanting ‘Liverpool! Liverpool! Liverpool!’ – and they weren’t referring to the famous football team.”

Liverpool’s left-wing surge had been reflected by the selection by party membership of Militant supporters as prospective MPs: Tony Mulhearn in Toxteth, Terry Fields in Kirkdale; Terry Harrison in Edge Hill; and Derek Hatton in Wavertree. Though boundary changes were to leave Terry as the only Militant supporter standing, in the newly created Broadgreen constituency.

Despite the Conservatives winning the 1983 general election with a landslide majority and Labour’s support falling from its 1979 level, Terry won Broadgreen with a majority of 3,800!

The Broadgreen campaign evidenced the scale of the enthusiasm for socialist ideas in the election. A minimum of 200 canvassers were involved over weekends in the run-up to the election. On election day, 500 workers from Liverpool and other parts of the country worked in the constituency.

The city had seen a major strike of 20,000 workers against privatisation of the council’s refuse and street cleaning services. Liberal control of the council had collapsed in the 1983 council elections with Labour gaining 12 seats, including several won by Militant supporters.

22,000 more Liverpudlians voted Labour because of its programme of “no privatisation, a £2 rent cut, no spending cuts, a massive housing repairs programme, 6,000 new council houses, 4,000 new council jobs, and no rate rises to compensate for Tory-Liberal cuts!”

Until 1964, Liverpool could be described as a ‘Tory city’, mainly represented by Tory and Liberal MPs. In the 1983 general election, with the Tories winning a landslide nationally, there was not a single Tory MP in Liverpool for the first time in 100 years.

Militant’s two new MPs took their seats in parliament. How did you and Terry use the platform?

Terry Fields’ maiden speech in Parliament, on 24 June, reflected the bitterness that most workers on Merseyside felt for the Tories. He disdained the parliamentary pleasantries and the convention of an uncontroversial first speech (which for most MPs consisted of congratulating opposition speakers and wishing their retiring or defeated predecessor well).

Terry announced he was not there to appeal to the ruling class but to express the real feelings of working-class people against the Tory government and the system they represented. “Having listened to the cant and hypocrisy from the Conservative benches, it is difficult to keep my temper, let alone observe the proprieties of this place.” (His speech is still well worth a read today and can be found at bit.ly/Terrymaidenspeech).

Terry ended: “The media and my political opponents during the election, in seeking to denigrate me and the socialism I stood for, made great play of the label ‘militant’. Let me make my position clear. I wear the badge of a militant with honour, and do not forget that a militant is only a moderate who has got up off his knees. In time, the whole of the working class will arise from their knees, and you will not be laughing then.”

My own maiden speech, on 8 July, was about youth and unemployment because “in the city of Coventry, once the richest working-class city in the country with two-thirds of the workforce in manufacturing industry, the prospects for our school leavers are now bleak. Only one in ten of those leaving the fifth form last summer have found work. In a city that was built on engineering, only 243 out of 5,000 who left school this summer have found apprenticeships.”

Working with young workers on government training schemes – previously Youth Opportunities Programme (YOP), and from 1983 Youth Training Schemes (YTS) – would occupy much of our time in the months ahead. Not least because the schemes had an appalling health and safety record.

In the previous three years, there were over 3,000 reported injuries and 17 fatalities on the YOP. Two more trainees died in the first two months of the YTS that year. We worked with several families in protests, organising meetings with ministers, lobbies and demonstrations.

Why is 1983 worth revisiting today?

1983 was just a harbinger of nine years of battles inside and outside parliament, for Terry and myself. Momentous struggles in Liverpool, in the miners’ strike, against the rightward move of Labour and the witch hunt against Militant and other socialists, the Gulf War, the defeat of the poll tax and the resignation of Mrs Thatcher!

Labour’s 1983 manifesto had radical policies that echoed in the 2017 and 2019 manifestos with Jeremy Corbyn as leader. There were the attacks and sustained character assassinations on the proponents of socialist policies, as we have seen again in more recent years.

Then, as now, there were thousands of activists trying to build a socialist alternative; then grouped around the Militant newspaper inside the Labour Party, today outside in the ranks of the Socialist Party. 

Our opponents are still the same: a capitalist class determined to enrich its power and privileges at the expense of working people, and those layers currently at the top of the labour and trade union movement who defend that system, rather than challenging it. The battles of 1983 are still with us today.

Further Reading

Liverpool – A City that Dared to Fight £14.95

The Rise of Militant: The First 30 Years £11.99

Available at leftbooks.co.uk