British General Election 1992: Must Labour Lose?

By Popular Demand: A thread on the Labour Party’s response to the 1992 General Election – The last time it lost four times in a row

The prominent question dominating Labour thinking was ‘If not now, when? If we cannot win in a recession, when can we?’.

Labour held a huge poll lead towards the end of the 90s and entered the contest as bookmakers favourites. Polls showed it too close to call.

Defeat led to questions of electoral reform, the tabloid press, the working class and whether to move further towards the centre ground:

On election night, Tony Blair was the first Shadow Cabinet Minister to define defeat. He saw it as a positive step forward:

‘Our sense of disappointment must be balanced by the achievement that we took so many seats in different parts of the country. But it was too much to do’

Ken Livingstone disagreed with Blair’s ‘optimism’ on TV:

‘We should have had a commanding majority of over 100 seats but the whole party has moved too far to the right. Too frightened to challenge vested interests’

Former leader Michael Foot claimed it was the ‘filthy press’ who had won it for the Tories.

The victory was ‘a bad day for democracy’. He argued that ‘The Tories have fought a pretty dirty campaign and its paid off’.

Backbencher Jeremy Corbyn aligned defeat to ‘not at any stage proposing arms cuts’ to pay for public services.

He claimed ‘we need to have a debate on policy rather than be plunged into an immediate leadership election’

Dennis Skinner argued that it was the Pro-European sentiment:

‘We got into bed with Jaques Delors and the rest of them (EU)’ over Maastricht. ‘The British punters can see Trouble with a capital T’ in the Common Market. ‘What we need is a bit of class politics’

Clare Short was critical of the whole campaign and policy review process:

‘Labour was seen as having lost its soul, its identity and its integrity’.

Robin Cook felt the party had been fighting the last election

‘We drafted our policies and then froze them in aspic three years before the election’

Much debate centred on the anti-Tory forces uniting together in an electoral pact

Liberal Lord Jenkins said the result raised questions about whether the Labour Party ‘could ever win a majority on its own’

Patricia Hewitt claimed the campaign had been ‘fine until the last minute’. She argued that ‘millions simply didn’t trust Labour’ as a ‘desperately old-fashioned party’

Instead with ‘a bold position on electoral reform we would have done better’.

Robin Cook was Labour’s biggest advocate for reform:

PR ‘would be better than five year’s majority Tory government. I hope we will be able to make an early change’.

Peter Mandelson pointed to policy changes:

‘How by changing the electoral system will the Labour Party win more votes and attract support for the ideas and programme it puts forward?

At the end of the day that is what wins elections. Not providing an electoral device’

Dennis Skinner rejected the advances of the Lib Dems with an attack on the SDP:

‘I’ve been sick to death of hearing Dr Death, Shirley Poppins and Woy of the Wadicals and now Paddy Backdown about how we should collaborate’

The left/right divided on their summary of the Kinnock Years.

Alastair Campbell took to Breakfast TV to defend him against the press onslaught:

‘He has saved the Labour Party from oblivion and made it – we thought – electable. It just didn’t happen. It is very very sad’

On the left, Seamus Milne urged the party to shift leftwards and hoped for ‘some humility’ from the leaders and ‘more tolerance to those who advocated a different strategy’.

Labour would never win being the ‘better managers of capitalism’ than the Tories.

Tony Benn believed Kinnock had a Thatcherite interpretation of the working class

‘The trouble is that we have accepted the Sun in its evaluation of the nature of these people’

Benn urged a move to the left:

‘The party did not offer the electors a radical, credible and democratic alternative vision of the sort of society which it wished to create’

Benn argued that Labour had wrongly distanced itself from the real fighters:

‘from the battles for social justice that were forced on the trade unions, local councils, anti-poll tax campaigners and even those who opposed the Gulf War’

Diane Abbott praised Kinnock’s ‘courage and commitment’ but claimed that ‘everything was sacrificed to so-called electability’

She claimed he was ‘notably more vindictive to his erstwhile left-wing colleagues’ in the party and that ‘if you live by the sword you die by the sword’

Equally as critical was Kinnock’s old Militant foe @DegsyHatton

‘Kinnock will go down as the worst leader Labour ever had’

Eric Hobsbawm took the opposite view and declared:

‘Kinnock is the best leader since Clement Attlee. He leaves the party more united than it has probably ever been’.

Of the modernisers, Tony Blair remained loyal to Kinnock. He wrote that Labour was ‘on the verge of extinction’ before Kinnock took over.

Kinnock ‘reformed it, pulled it from despair to renewed confidence, revitalised it and made it a serious contender’

The early front runner, John Smith, promised to build on Kinnock’s legacy:

‘Kinnock’s achievements in modernising the Labour Party have not been in vain. They will be carried forward

Bryan Gould emerged as his rival and offered a more radical critique:

‘it is about time we had the courage to argue for what we believed in rather than endlessly anguish about image’

Gould warned

‘Too many prefer the old style certainties to the new agenda we must now adopt. Unless we are prepared to make changes we will not be able to excite the voters after 1996’

Gould called for a move to win ‘those who want to make something of themselves’ and to ensure that Labour ‘would not be setting caps on their aspirations’

Gould dismissed Labour’s lazy attacks on the Tories

‘Major cannot be caricatured as an old-style Tory saloon bar racist…Labour can no longer take black and minority ethnic voters for granted’.

He also attacked John Smith’s ‘Shadow Budget’ tax plans:

‘Our tax proposals appeared to set a cap on people’s aspirations, particularly in the south of England where we need to attract support’

John Smith rejected the criticism on his tax plans:

‘If you want to give higher pensions and child benefit and give more cash to schools and hospitals, you have to find the money for it’

Smith set out his appeal to the country:
‘I don’t just want to speak for Labour voters. I want to speak for the majority in Britain who are opposed to this Government…We must never forget we are fighting for a better and more just society’
One candidate who sought to run was Ken Livingstone. Ken, who had a column in the Sun, attracted the support of the paper. He claimed:

‘I am not prepared to sit back and watch Labour lose again’. He said ‘John Smith is the beneficiary of a democratic carve up’

Clare Short responded by criticising Ken’s ‘childish student style politics’ for which she was dubbed ‘Killjoy Clare’ by the Sun
Tony Benn was dismayed by the Smith/Gould contest:

He wrote in his diary that Gould ‘is a barrister who got on to the media through Thames Television’ and Smith ‘a right-wing Scottish Conservative, a passionate European, who I know and like, but profoundly disagree with’.

Woodrow Wyatt – onetime Labour MP now News of the World columnist – urged the party to ‘haul down the red flag’. He called for ‘a bright young leader who must sincerely embrace modern capitalism with a human face’.
By the end of April John Smith appeared to have the leadership ‘in the bag’ after securing the support of the majority of MPs and trade unions. Debate turned to the further modernisation within the party
Margaret Beckett called for ‘a determined a united leadership team’ and that the party ‘must become once again the party of radical ideas’
John Prescott called for an end to the spin doctors

‘The party must take control of its own affairs and not let it go to others who feel they can run it. They are wrong’.

David Blunkett rejected calls to revise Clause IV:

‘What we can do without is an internal debate about a constitution which has no bearing on our popularity with the electorate, which is substantially unknown to the majority of people in Britain’.

Gordon Brown called on Labour to ‘seize the intellectual initiative’ and lead the debates on ‘the constitution and individual rights, on the financing of public services and on the new environmental economics’
Brown urged Labour to ‘set the pace for change in Britain as we not only advance the case for the NHS but also address the challenges of the 1990s and beyond’
Tony Blair called for an appeal to ‘the individual’:

‘We have to recognise that we live in a different culture where lifestyles are more individual and more varied; and where it is good that they are, since it is the freedom to make such life-choices that socialists fought for’

Blair argued:

‘The party itself is not historically redundant but it must be trusted as a vehicle for achieving its objectives in the modern world. It means having credibility: people must identify themselves with Labour

Blair concluded that Labour’s:

‘Hope of victory lies within itself: to learn from history rather than be shackled by it and never to equate change with betrayal. Not to change is to betray. Our people deserve something better than the Tories. We must see that they get it’

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