Timeline: 1981 and the Labour Summer of Discontent

December 1980: Benn fails to gain election to the Shadow Cabinet. Roy Hattersley topped the poll as Foot looks to maintain a left/right balance. Margaret Thatcher is attacked by a flare in Cardiff as Tories reach their lowest ebb in the polls.

December 31st: In her Christmas message, Margaret Thatcher warns the nation of “another hard year” ahead


January 1981: Wembley Conference

Limehouse Declaration. Benn demands that the remaining Labour MPs take an ‘Oath of Loyalty’ and support the manifesto regardless of what is put in it. SDP formed.

February 13th – Foot talks of the “pesticidal nuisance’ and warns that MPs need to be ‘on guard to those who seek to subvert the party for quite undemocratic purposes” in a veiled attack at the rise of Militant.

March 10th  – Howe Budget. Seen as the toughest budget of the post war era, with unemployment rising, the government increase taxes on benefits.

April 2nd – Benn plunges the party into a leadership battle. Foot warns him that a “six month campaign can only detract from the main purpose, which is to defeat the Tories.”


April 3rd – Trade Union step in to talk Benn out of standing against Healey.

April 9th – Joe Gormley, the national union of mine workers leader, warns Benn not to stand.

April 12th – First wave of riots begin in Brixton.

June 3rd – Foot tells Benn to ‘put up or shut up’ asking him to challenge him rather than Healey. Benn is attacked in cabinet, and mutters under his breath that “this is not fair.”

June 7th – Roy Jenkins announces that he will stand in Warrington for the SDP.

June 23rd – Thatcher admits that unemployment will rise, past the current post war high of 2.8m.

July 1st – Ted Heath savages Thatcher and warns that further unemployment will trigger riots as you cannot have “500,000 young people walking the streets with nothing to do.”


July 5th – Toxteth riots begin.

July 7th – Government consider raising the school age to combat the increasing unemployment.

July 8th – Moss Side riots. Thatcher appears on TV to tell the nation that parents must do more to discipline their children and help prevent further riots

July 10th – Brixton riots begin

July 12th – Neil Kinnock unveils Labour plans to abolish private schools.

July 13th – Thatcher is pelted with tomatoes in Liverpool as she admits it has been “the worst  10 days” since her election. Willie Whitelaw plans for armed forces camps and water cannons to tackle rioting.

July 16th – Michael Heseltine is sent to Liverpool to address the aftermath of riots. Roy Jenkins loses Warrington – but the SDP do better than expected. The Red Cross announce plan to enter Maze Prison to address the hunger strikers.


July 20th – Shirley Williams attempts to stand in Croydon but is rejected by the local Liberal party.

July 22nd – Foot and Healey are defeated by the Labour NEC over the nuclear bases. NEC argues for immediate British withdrawal, while Foot had wanted to wait to speak to European counterparts.

July 23rd – Thatcher comes under pressure from the 1922 Committee to change her economic policy. She tells them that she cannot turn back on the plan now. After an intense 35 minute speech she receives no applause from MPs.

July 27th – Labour’s plan to leave the common market is attacked as ‘economic suicide’ by the press. The Tories claim that “it will take Britain back to 1939”

July 29th – Royal Wedding

July 30th – Tories announce plan to open up BT and the Post Office to private companies.

August 3rd – Foot refuses to answer question of whether he will serve with Benn. 50 MPs accuse the Benn campaign of intimidation.


September 2nd – Michael O Halloghan quits Labour to join the SDP. He was put under a severe amount of pressure in his Islington North constituency. His replacement would be Jeremy Corbyn.

September 9th – Benn is upset when Foot dismisses the deputy leadership campaign as trivial.

September 11th – Jim Prior, the employment secretary, warns that any upturn in the economy will not lead to a huge employment rise.

September 14th – Thatcher finally manages to ‘axe the wets’ and brings in Tebbit as employment secretary.

September 15th – Foot and Healey visit Moscow.

September 21st – Healey apologises to John Lansman after accusing him of inciting hatred at a Labour rally.

September 27th – Healey beats Benn by a nose.



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