When it comes to elections, Labour leaders know what they have to try to avoid: any comparison to 1983. The only election fought under Michael Foot as leader was the moment the party suffered one of its most famous defeats. Labour won its lowest share of the vote since the introduction of universal suffrage in 1918, and the smallest number of seats in any election since Clement Attlee was elected in 1945. Afterward, Labour was plunged into a sea of recrimination and regret; the battle for the soul of the party was bloody and vicious. Not until 1997 would Labour win another election, ending 18 years of Conservative rule.
Many people blamed the party manifesto, which was dubbed “the longest suicide note in history,” a nickname that stuck. This term was coined by Gerald Kaufman, himself a Labour MP. One of the reasons the defeat was so bitter was the feeling among many on the center-right of the party that the scale of the loss came from the pledges on which the campaign was fought. The manifesto, officially called “A New Hope for Britain,” was considered overly long, rambling and radical. The policies — which included unilateral nuclear disarmament, the abolition of the House of Lords, withdrawal from the European Economic Community and a wide-scale program to renationalize the industries privatized by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher — have become emblematic of a supposedly extremist left-wing party that could not appeal to a more moderate electorate.
There were other contexts: Britain’s decisive victory against Argentina in the Falklands War in 1982 caused Thatcher’s popularity to skyrocket, enabling a rabid English patriotic rhetoric that evoked both empire and World War II to stir up support for the Conservatives. Labour was also hampered by defections from its rightward flank, the “Gang of Four,” who set up the new Social Democrat Party in 1981.
So. A wide-ranging, ambitious, hopeful manifesto that could be alternately described as unfocused, unrealistic and far too radical, produced under a leader often viewed as a dangerous left-winger. Foreign policy issues that gave the Conservatives a stronger position and a more natural base. And defections from the right, leading to three-way contests in a number of seats.
No historical parallels here, of course.
The comparisons between Labour’s drubbing Thursday night and its previous low point in 1983 started as soon as the exit poll was released at 10 p.m. The projections at that point seemed to show Labour winning only 191 seats, which would have been its worst result since 1935. Recriminations started immediately. From the right flank of the party, the results showed that Labour was stuck in the past. Unable to offer a realistic policy slate and unwilling to face up to the realities of Brexit, the party was instead wallowing in nostalgic socialism, appealing to a working-class electoral base that no longer existed or was no longer interested. From the left, the election set off a litany on the long trajectory of perceived media bias against the left — stretching back to Herbert Morrison’s complaints in the interwar period — and the more recent stories of New Labour and the fight over whether the soul of the party was truly socialist or merely social-democratic. (There was even an external echo: 1983’s Social Democrat Party would later merge with the Liberals to become the Liberal Democrats, whose leader, Jo Swinson, lost her seat Thursday.)
Of course, all political movements and parties look to their past to explain their identities. Parties celebrate key victories: the Conservatives always looking for their 1979 moment, or their 1987 landslide; Labour constantly wishing to reenact 1945. But for Labour especially, history is talismanic. The party’s engagement with its past has a particularly rich quality. That is where its story is rooted: not in a way that is necessarily backward-looking, but the party focuses on narratives that ground current social, political and economic problems in long-established structures. The Labour Party traces its roots back to figures like Attlee and Keir Hardie, to groups and moments such as the Movement for Colonial Freedom and Red Clydeside, and deeper into Britain’s past, to the Chartists, Robert Owen, the Levellers and the Diggers.
In 1959, when Labour first toyed with abandoning Clause IV of its constitution, which committed the party to redistributive socialism, members were outraged. Trade unionists at the party congress asked scornfully whether they should also stop singing “The Red Flag.” Even by then, many members were not ideologically committed socialists pushing for full nationalization and redistribution of wealth. But they were committed to the idea that Labour had been built on this ideology, and Clause IV was a vital connection to the past. The symbolism of the history was important to them.
Now a new focus on 1983 in light of 2019 will mean different things to different movements within the party. For the right, that election remains a cautionary tale — the longest suicide note in history leading to resounding defeat — but it was also a catalyst. Foot gave way to Neil Kinnock, who moved Labour toward the center; John Smith continued this trend; Tony Blair brought New Labour, newly shorn of Clause IV, to electoral triumph three times. For the left, 1983 is the point when it all began to go wrong: the moment that the party lost its roots and became mired in managerialism and wishy-washy platitudes, the era of soulless spin.
Now there is a new comparison for Labour politicians to fear. If Johnson stays in power for the full five years afforded to him by this election, no leader besides Blair will have led the Labour Party to victory in an election in half a century. Activists, who spent freezing winter nights handing out leaflets and a rain-sodden election day stomping up and down streets knocking on doors and getting out the vote, are exhausted, but they are already looking nervously to 2024.
There are no simple lessons from history, especially not when those histories are understood as much through feeling as through facts. History doesn’t exist outside interpretation: It is the stories we choose to tell about the past. As a party, Labour does best when it can tell a unified story about its own history and create a narrative about what it stands for that can be communicated on the doorstep and serve to hold together its loose coalition of MPs. The challenge in this moment is for it to work out what that story might be.
This is the fourth consecutive election Labour has lost. That last happened in 1992, though Labour went on to win the next one, in a landslide. To do that again, it needs to get its story straight.