As Labour hopes increase ahead of general election next year, how much do policies affect how people vote? - Ian Swanson

Could Labour’s poor election result 40 years ago and a much better one in 2017 hold any lessons for 2024?
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Labour now seems closer to power than it has been for many years. And Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, viewed by commentators as the most likely next prime minister, is having to produce and defend the policies which people will be asked to vote for in an election expected next year.

But how decisive are a party’s policies in determining who wins? This week marks the 40th anniversary of the 1983 general election, when Margaret Thatcher won a second term as prime minister and Labour had its worst performance since the Second World War, winning just 209 seats and 27.6 per cent of the vote.

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Labour’s 1983 manifesto – which ran to 39 pages and included pledges to scrap nuclear weapons and leave Europe – was later famously dubbed “the longest suicide note in history”. But the more likely key factors in the election result were the Falklands war and Labour divisions leading to the creation of the Social Democratic Party (SDP).

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer is seen by commentators as the most likely next prime minister (Picture: Rob Pinney/Getty Images)Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer is seen by commentators as the most likely next prime minister (Picture: Rob Pinney/Getty Images)
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer is seen by commentators as the most likely next prime minister (Picture: Rob Pinney/Getty Images)

Before she ordered the task force to the South Atlantic to recapture the Falklands from Argentina, Mrs Thatcher had been the least popular prime minister or party leader since the Second World War with a personal approval rating of just 24 per cent. But the Falklands conflict transformed her fortunes. Meanwhile, Michael Foot’s Labour party had been divided in a bitter battle following its loss of power in 1979. And after left-winger Tony Benn’s narrow defeat by Denis Healey for the deputy leadership in 1981, senior former ministers, including Roy Jenkins, David Owen and Shirley Williams, quit the party and formed the SDP which then fought the 1983 election in partnership with the Liberals as the Alliance and nearly pushed Labour into third place.

Despite the “suicide note” tag attached to the Labour manifesto, many of its proposals, which may have been attacked at the time, are policies which have since become mainstream and been implemented – devolution, gay rights, freedom of information, environmental protection and investment in public rather than private transport.

This week also marks six years since the 2017 general election – the snap poll called by Theresa May because she thought she could increase the slim Tory majority David Cameron had won in 2015, but which all went wrong, leaving her with no majority and dependent on Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionists. Labour, then led by Jeremy Corbyn, did much better than anyone expected, winning 40 per cent of the votes to the Tories’ 42.3 per cent.

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Labour’s 2017 manifesto included promises to scrap student tuition fees; nationalise the railways; Introduce a 50p tax rate for those paid over £123,000; free childcare for two, three and four year-olds; an end to zero-hours contracts; and a National Investment Bank to finance infrastructure. It may have been painted as left-wing, but it was popular.

Policies, personalities and prevailing circumstances all inevitably influence the outcome of elections, to different extents at different times. But it is worth remembering that sometimes, as in 1983, policies which may seem extreme or out of tune with opinion, do eventually become accepted as orthodox; and that at other times, like 2017, radical policies portrayed as extreme or outlandish can resonate with voters despite the nay-sayers.

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