History of The British Labour Party - The "Wilderness Years" (1979–1997) - Kinnock Years

Kinnock Years

Michael Foot resigned and was replaced as leader by Neil Kinnock who was elected on 2 October 1983 and progressively moved the party towards the centre. Labour improved its performance in 1987, gaining 20 seats and so reducing the Conservative majority from 143 to 102. They were now firmly established as the second political party in Britain as the Alliance had once again failed to make a breakthrough with seats and it subsequently collapsed, prompting a merger of the SDP and Liberals to form the Liberal Democrats.

The Seventies and Eighties were significant for Labour in the rise of left-wing Labour councils (derided by the political right as the “loony left”) which emphasised improvements in housing and amenities, participation and rights for women and minorities, workers’ control, decentralisation, and opposition to neoliberalism. The left regarded local councils as part of an extra-parliamentary mode of opposition, alongside community groups and town halls. David Blunkett, once a member of Labour’s left-wing, described Labour town halls as “a rudimentary opposition movement against the ruling party in Westminster.” The left councils greatly advanced the cause of blacks, women, and homosexuals within the political system, while also opening up council-decision making.

Increasingly, Labour councils were radicalized to act in open defiance of the Thatcher Government. Instead of cutting expenditure, they raised rates and all kinds of borrowing and lease-back arrangements were entered into with overseas banks and private financial institutions in order to sustain capital programmes. The increased radicalization of Labour councils during this period could be attributed to the policies of the Thatcher Government, which involved reductions in government financial aid to both council housing and local authorities, together with a change in the government's allocation formula so that local authority areas of high expenditure were disproportionately affected. As noted by Peter Shore

“Since the areas of critical housing need were invariably Labour-controlled, as were the high-spending councils where social needs of all kinds were at their greatest, it was Labour councils in inner-city areas that were targeted to take the full brunt of government expenditure cuts.”

The Greater London Council, under the leadership of Ken Livingstone from 1981 to 1986, carried out a number of progressive policies such as a programme of grants to voluntary groups (which cost £47 million in 1984–85: £100 million in 1999 prices) and a “Fares Fair” policy, which cut London Transport fares by 25%. Although this policy was controversially ruled out by a House of Lords judgement, it was replaced by a more subtle cheap fares policy before London Transport was removed from GLC control by the government in 1984.

In 1983, The Liverpool Labour party (then under the effective control of the Trotskyist Militant Tendency group) embarked upon an ambitious programme of municipal reform. Apart from promoting propaganda for class conflict, as characterised by continual protests and “days of action” in which council workers and even school pupils were encouraged to participate, the Militant Labour council devoted much time and effort to improving the quality of the inner-city environment. New houses were constructed, while new parks, sports centres, and other leisure facilities were created. In addition, within a short space of time, 8,000 housing units were refurbished and 4,000 units had been built. Altogether, the results were an improvement on previous councils run by all parties.

Following the 1987 election, Kinnock began expelling Militant Tendency members from the party. They would later form the Socialist Party and the Scottish Socialist Party although a remnant of Militant continues to operate within the Labour Party through the newspaper Socialist Appeal.

During the course of the 1980s, the GLC and several other Labour councils attempted to promote local economic recovery by setting up a network of enterprise boards and agencies. In addition, the GLC, Glasgow, Liverpool, Sheffield, and smaller London councils like Lambeth, Camden, and Islington adopted policies that challenged the Thatcher Government’s insistence on budgetary cuts and privatisation.

The Labour councils in old metropolitan counties of West Midlands, South Yorkshire, Greater London, and Greater Manchester led the way in developing interventionist economic policies. In the met county areas, Inward Investment Agencies, Enterprise Boards, Low Pay Units, and Co-operative Development Agencies proliferated, while parts of the country such as Salford Quays and Cardiff Bay were redeveloped. The Labour council in Birmingham in the 1980s worked to diversify the business visitor economy, as characterised by the decision to build a new, purpose-built convention centre in a decaying, inner-city district around Broad Street. By the mid-1990s, the success of this strategy was evident by the success of the International convention centre leading to wider redevelopment, as characterised by the building of a Sea Life Centre, the National Indoor Arena, bars, hotels, and thousands of newly constructed and refurbished flats and houses. This helped to revitalise the city centre and brought in people and money to both and the city and the West Midlands region as a whole.

During the Eighties and Nineties, Labour councils vied to attract inward investment and build themselves up as tourist and retail centres. The relatively left-wing Labour council in Southampton was popular among property developers for its ambitious city centre plans, while the labour council in Sheffield set up a partnership with business to redevelop a large part of Sheffield that had been abandoned by steel closures. Some Labour councils also remedied the neglect of management and service delivery during the mid-Eighties under the Thatcher Government and introduced charters and guaranteed standards of service for local residents before a similar “Citizen’s Charter” was launched by the Major Government.

In November 1990, Margaret Thatcher resigned as prime minister and was succeeded by John Major. Most opinion polls had shown Labour comfortably ahead of the Tories for more than a year before Mrs Thatcher's resignation, with the fall in Tory support blamed largely on the introduction of the unpopular poll tax, combined with the fact that the economy was sliding into recession at the time. One of the reasons Mrs Thatcher gave for her resignation was that she felt the Tories would stand a better chance of re-election with a new leader at the helm.

The change of leader in the Tory government saw a turnaround in support for the Tories, who regularly topped the opinion polls throughout 1991 although Labour regained the lead more than once.

The "yo yo" in the opinion polls continued into 1992, though after November 1990 any Labour lead in the polls was rarely sufficient for a majority. Major resisted Kinnock's calls for a general election throughout 1991. Kinnock campaigned on the theme "It's Time for a Change", urging voters to elect a new government after more than a decade of unbroken Conservative rule. However, the Conservatives themselves had undergone a dramatic change in the change of leader from Margaret Thatcher to John Major, at least in terms of style if not substance, whereas Kinnock was now the longest serving leader of any of the major political parties at the time and was now the longest-serving opposition leader in British political history.

From the outset, it was clearly a well-received change, as Labour's 14-point lead in the November 1990 "Poll of Polls" was replaced by an 8% Tory lead a month later.

The election on 9 April 1992 was widely tipped to result in a hung parliament or a narrow Labour majority, but in the event the Conservatives were returned to power, though with a much reduced majority of 21 in 1992. Despite the increased number of seats and votes, it was still an incredibly disappointing result for members and supporters of the Labour party, and for the first time in over 30 years there was serious doubt among the public and the media as to whether Labour could ever return to government.

Even before the country went to the polls, it seemed doubtful as to whether Labour could form a majority as an 8% electoral swing was needed across the country for this to be achieved. When Labour lost the election, there was widespread public and media debate as to whether the party could ever return to government, as had happened in 1959, not least due to the fact that it had failed to beat an incumbent Conservative government during a time of recession and high unemployment.

Read more about this topic:  History Of The British Labour Party, The "Wilderness Years" (1979–1997)

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