The worst loss of all
Labour’s defeat in April 1992 had a profound impact on the party. What are the lessons for today, asks Paul Richards
Twenty years ago this month Labour suffered one of its worst defeats in a general election. It is a defeat which hangs heavy in the hearts of Labour supporters and has some important lessons for Ed Miliband.
The defeat on 9 April 1992 was not the worst in terms of loss of seats or share of the vote. That honour belongs to Michael Foot and Gordon Brown. Indeed, Labour gained 42 seats, and its share of the vote was 34.4 per cent (in 2010 it was 29.6 per cent). But Neil Kinnock’s defeat at the hands of John Major was the worst in terms of its psychological impact. To lose a fourth election in a row, in a recession and at the hands of a government whose poll tax had provoked civil disobedience and riots, left Labour activists reeling. In 1970, defeat was a surprise, but part of a pattern of periods of Labour government followed by defeat. In 1983 and 1987, the loss was expected from the moment the manifestos were published. In both elections, coming second, not third, was seen as something of an achievement.
But in 1992, the Labour party had undergone a thorough modernisation of its presentation under Peter Mandelson (although Mandelson himself was off pursuing election in Hartlepool). Labour had engaged in a grinding, painful policy review designed to eradicate line by line the election-losing policies of the 1980s. The tale is told best in Labour Rebuilt by Colin Hughes and Patrick Wintour, which maps out the policy review in forensic detail. It was clear early on that the end point of the Kinnock review was a modern Swedish- or German-style social democratic party, comfortable with markets and globalisation, committed to Nato and nuclear deterrence, and in the mainstream of European politics.
So by 1992, with some dramatic by-election, European election and council election victories under his belt, a party united, a lead in the opinion polls, and a carefully costed and modest manifesto, Kinnock could expect to win, or at least be leading a coalition government. I was with him on the steps of Labour’s HQ on the Walworth Road (now being converted into flats), with a throng of Labour staff and supporters, when he threw in the towel. Some were in tears. Others directed their anger at the press pack and snappers covering the concession speech. Among the staffers and volunteers were some of the ‘Luvvies for Labour’ who had been at the election night party in Millbank hours earlier. I recall Ben Elton miming throwing himself out of a window, and standing with Susan Tully from EastEnders while waiting for Neil Kinnock to return to London from south Wales. One of the few frontbenchers with a southern seat, Bryan Gould, was there in the thick of it. Up and down the Walworth Road, carloads of Young Conservatives sang ‘four-nil, four-nil, four-nil, four-nil’.
A modern manifesto, slick communications and a healthy position in the opinion polls: what could possibly go wrong? The fact that it did raised some painful questions for Labour. One was the suitability of Kinnock himself. Despite the esteem in which he was held in the Labour party itself, it was apparent that this affection did not extend into the southern English constituencies which Labour needed to win. The so-called Sheffield Rally had nothing to do with it. Blaming Sheffield is the supreme example of post-event rationalisation. Swaths of ‘middle England’ had made their mind up about Kinnock well before 1992, just as they did about Brown before 2010. Don’t get me wrong, if Kinnock said jump, I would have asked ‘how high?’ I loved his oratory and admired his fortitude. But the uncomfortable truth is that Kinnock, like Foot before him and Brown after him, appealed to Labour voters with the old-time religion and the reassuring statements. But they could not make the Labour party more than a party of labour.
A conclusion made by many in the party after 1992 was that a telegenic, personable leader was an important component in victory. The party chose John Smith, now lionised, but at the time subject to grumbling that ‘one more heave’ was not going to win the election. After Smith’s death in 1994, though, the party chose the good-looking ‘English’ candidate over the crumpled-looking Scot.
A second conclusion was that the policy review had not gone far enough. The herculean task of dumping unilateral nuclear disarmament, the closed shop, withdrawal from the European Economic Community, nationalisation of the utilities and other remnants of the 1983 suicide note had merely drawn the poison. It was not enough to be palatable. Labour needed to be positively attractive. The first Blairite reform was replacing the Edwardian language of clause IV, part IV with a modern statement of values. But it was the pledge card policy nuggets which allowed Labour candidates and campaigners to reassure and rebuild Labour’s support among people who had voted Tory in 1992.
It was also in this period that we established Progress as a platform for Labour modernisers. It will not be long before we are celebrating Progress’ 20th anniversary.
Of the current shadow cabinet, only Harriet Harman and Peter Hain were members of parliament prior to the 1992 election. Tessa Jowell has been around since the 1980s and entered parliament in 1992. A few of the others were active in politics, working as policy advisers or in thinktanks. For example, Yvette Cooper was Harman’s parliamentary researcher, and spent the autumn of 1992 in Little Rock, Arkansas working on Bill Clinton’s successful bid for the presidency. Many of the new MPs elected in 2010 were not even adults in 1992: Stella Creasy was 15, Rachel Reeves was 13, Chuka Umunna was 14, and Jonathan Reynolds was 12. Pamela Nash, the MP for Airdrie and Shotts, was eight years old. For them, the 1992 election may only be the stuff of teenage, or even childhood, memories. As the 20th anniversary approaches, they should think hard about what it meant. 1992 was proof that Labour election victories do not happen by accident. There is no pendulum that swings back and forth. Nor do they happen because the Tories are unpopular if Labour is loathed even more.
Then, as now, Labour’s chances of victory rest on a few thousand voters in the southern marginals: places such as Thurrock, Hastings, Southampton, Crawley, Brighton and Norwich. Labour is not campaigning in a vacuum. The Tories aim not only to keep the seats they have got, but also to take seats from Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Any Labour MP with a notional majority under 500 following the boundary changes will feel the heat.
If Labour cannot win over the hard-working, car-owning, owner-occupiers in southern and eastern towns and suburbs, piling up majorities in northern cities will count for nothing. This substratum of our society decides who governs. This is the real ‘political class’ – the people who decide who forms the cabinet. They do not like high taxes, an out-of-control benefits bill, or an interfering government. They have never been to Wales, Liverpool or Newcastle, but they have been to Ibiza and Majorca. In 1992, they preferred a grey man and party which had bashed the miners, brought in the poll tax and could not give a hoot about mass unemployment.
Labour’s leader has to look them (or their grown-up children) in the eye and win them over to a party they rejected in record numbers barely two years ago. No one said it was going to be a walk in the park.
Paul Richards is the author of Labour’s Revival and a contributor to The Purple Book. Thanks to Biteback Publishing for allowing this article to be reproduced
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.
election 1992, John Major, Kinnock, Labour's future, Peter Mandelson