With the Tories starting a five-year term and planning to use voter ID and boundary changes to entrench their hefty majority, many can see that simply doing more electioneering is an inadequate response. We need to build participation in collective action, get some wins under our belts, raise expectations, raise hope and change ideas in ways that 5-minute doorstep conversations with strangers never will. But with unions shrunken and defensive, and fights failing to generalise, where might resistance come from? Unite activist Ian Allinson busts some Blairite myths about the 1983 and 1997 elections and argues that there are important lessons from 1992.
On 31 March 1990 around 250,000 people marched from Kennington Park to Trafalgar Square against the hated poll tax, were attacked by police and fought back in what became known as the Poll Tax riot. A quarter of a million people may not seem big these days, but it was the biggest march in Britain since the peak of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) in the early 1980s – and considerably more militant.
The campaign against the poll tax saw around 20 million people summoned to court for non-payment, throwing local government finances into crisis. Popular resistance defeated the poll tax and exacerbated tensions in the Tory Party (over Europe!). This led to Michael Heseltine challenging Thatcher for the Tory leadership and Thatcher’s resignation in November 1990. She was replaced by John Major, who was seen as a weak, compromise, caretaker leader.
Mass opposition the poll tax boosted Labour in the polls, with Labour pulling ahead in the polls when it was first introduced in Scotland in 1989, peaking at over 50% when it was brought in in England and Wales in April 1990. Yet Neil Kinnock’s Labour Party refused to back the non-payment campaign. Deputy Leader Roy Hattersley called for ‘exemplary sentences’ for rioters. By the time of the 9 April 1992 election, the polls had narrowed but still predicted a small Labour majority, or Labour as the biggest party in a hung parliament. A week before election day Kinnock staged a triumphalist 10,000-strong rally in the Sheffield Arena. However, Labour only got 11.6 million votes, not much more than half the numbers who had resisted the poll tax, and the Tories were returned with a majority of 21. For many, despite Kinnock’s dismal politics, the shock meant disappointment far worse than 2019. Yet before the end of 1992 the Tories were holed below the waterline and were not to recover in time to avoid giving Labour a landslide victory in the 1997 election. How did this happen?
Graph 1 above shows Labour’s dismal performance at the 1983 election, which the right and the media usually put down to either the Michael Foot ‘longest suicide note in history’ manifesto1 or the boost given to Thatcher by the Falklands War. Yet a better look at the graph suggests a different explanation. The Tory vote was actually down from 1979. The biggest change was the launch of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) breakaway from Labour, which formed the ‘Alliance’ with the Liberal Party and took nearly as many votes as Labour. They only won 23 seats but helped the Tories to victory in many more. Over the subsequent 1987 and 1992 elections the Labour vote steadily increased as the Alliance (later renamed the Liberal Democrats) were squeezed and turnout rose. But in April 1992 Labour still fell short.
In July 1992 John Smith replaced Neil Kinnock as Labour leader, but this had no dramatic effect on polling, though Labour’s support was gradually rising after the election. Two big events shifted things.
In 1990 the Tories had taken the UK into the European Union’s Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM), tying the pound to European currencies in preparation for the launch of the Euro. In September 1992 a run on the pound led to the Tories pouring hundreds of billions of pounds into trying to prop up the currency and promising to increase interest rates to 15%, with potentially devastating effects on borrowers. The government cracked under the pressure, crashing out of the ERM on Black Wednesday, 16 September 1992. The Tories’ reputation for economic competence was in tatters.
On 13 October 1992 Michael Heseltine announced the closure of 31 of the 50 remaining working coal mines. Following the terrible defeat suffered by the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) in the 1984-5 strike, there was widespread feeling that the closures proved that NUM leader Arthur Scargill’s warnings had been right, and the movement responded. Mobilisation was helped by a Daily Mirror briefly liberated by owner and fraudster Robert Maxwell’s death2. The Mirror promoted the march and carried articles by Paul Foot and Tony Benn. Many Tory supporters felt that the closures betrayed the scab Union of Democratic Mineworkers (UDM), whose members also faced unemployment. Around 150,000 marched in London despite pouring rain. There were serious discussions about occupying pits and wide support for a general strike. The government wobbled and announced a moratorium on the pit closures, though it forced them through once the movement was demobilised. In the eyes of millions Scargill was vindicated and the Tories shown to be dishonest and disloyal.
Graph 2 shows a slight further rise in Labour’s polling after the death of John Smith in May 1994 and the election of Tony Blair in July, but these were not decisive factors. As graph 1 shows, the rise in Labour’s polling from 1992-7 was on trend with the rises since 1983. The factor that was new in the 1997 election was the collapse of the Tory vote. Without this, the Tories would still have won. The 1997 landslide wasn’t due to Blair’s genius – it was due to Tory handling of the economy and mass opposition to pit closures. Graph 1, then, shows the effect of New Labour, whose vote dropped away dramatically with non-voting soaring to the 2001 election – even before the Iraq war. Turnout fell sharply as people felt there was little to choose between any of the main parties. Blair only won three elections because of the long time it took for the Tory vote to recover from the catastrophe of 1992. Indeed, the Tory vote still hasn’t recovered to pre-1992 levels.
There are several important lessons from this for today. Firstly, we should refute the right’s myths about 1983 and 1997, which don’t fit the history. A return to the political centre-ground would not guarantee success. Secondly, Johnson’s Tories are vulnerable to events. They face an emerging global recession, an accelerating climate crisis, pressures from Scotland and Ireland for the break-up of the UK, shifting global power relationships – and they won on a manifesto that lacked any coherent strategy for the future of the UK in the world economy3. Thirdly, if an upsurge of resistance could arise around the NUM so soon after its crushing defeat and a surprise Tory election victory, we shouldn’t assume the same can’t happen now. We know that the working class has suffered decades of what Eric Hobsbawm called ‘compression’: intensified work, poor or falling wages, insecure employment, worsening housing, declining public services etc. and that such compression creates the conditions for an upsurge of struggle at some point. Around the world we are seeing the fruits of this compression including in Algeria, Catalonia, Chile, Columbia, Ecuador, France, Guinea, Haiti, Hong Kong, India, Iraq, Iran, Kazakhstan, Lebanon, Puerto Rico and Sudan. This isn’t an argument to wait for the upsurge. It is an argument to prepare for it. That means taking the enthusiasm and skills learned in the election campaign, developing them and applying them to building power and participation in collective action in workplaces and communities. It means achieving wins now. And it means putting solidarity at the heart of our work, so that whenever any group resist, they get support from across the movement, helping them win, fanning the small flames of resistance and maximising the chances of them spreading.
1 The manifesto was more left-wing than usual and was branded by Labour MP Gerald Kaufman ‘the longest suicide note in history’. It included unilateral nuclear disarmament, withdrawal from the European Economic Community (predecessor to the EU), abolition of the House of Lords and some renationalisation of privatised industries.
2 Maxwell, who had bullied staff to control the Mirror, racked up massive debts, secretly borrowed from the staff pension fund (a scandal which led to changes to the law) and died in mysterious circumstances. Gregor Gall describes ‘the partial occupation by journalists of the space in which editorial content was determined during the hiatus after the death of Robert Maxwell and the resultant relatively arm’s length control of the newspaper by legal administrators in 1991. For a period of about a year, journalists heavily influenced the content and direction of the newspaper in a way they had not before’.