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Table of content
Abstract
Introduction
The social and economic policies of the thatcher government
The effect of the falklands conflict
Conclusion
Bibliography
Appendix

For What Reasons Was Margaret Thatcher Able To Win The 1983 General Election

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Table of content

Abstract

Margaret Thatcher met much opposition and criticism from other political parties, members of her own party, the media and the general public during her first term. However, despite her initial unpopularity, she was re-elected for a second government in 1983. Therefore, the question this essay will focus on is that despite an unpopular first government for what reason was Margaret Thatcher was able to win the 1983 general election.

 

This essay will identify the factors that allowed Thatcher to be elected into a second government, and the individual importance of each different factor. This shall be achieved by looking at primary data from the time, including Gallup opinion polls, newspaper articles and other media. Furthermore, secondary sources from historians such as Denis Kavanagh and Hugo Young specializing on the Thatcher governments shall be assessed. The re-election of Thatcher in 1983 was not down to a singular pinpoint event, but a conjunction of causations that all affected her image and her perception by the British electorate. These events being namely Thatcher’s social and economic policies, the Falklands Island conflict against Argentina and the weakness of the Labour party, in terms of leadership and policies, as well as the formation of the SDP-Liberal Alliance. Due to these factors happening in a narrow space of time, and in the run-up to the 1983 general election, Thatcher was able to secure her second government.

 

The conclusion is reached that neither Thatcher’s socio-economic policies nor the Falklands conflict were reasons for her re-election, and the most important factor that determined her success in 1983 was the weakness of the Labour party due to the weakness in leadership, the weakness in policies and the formation of the SDP-Liberal Alliance which drew votes away from Labour.

Introduction

Margaret Thatcher is debatably the most divisive post-World War II Prime Minister . Thatcher’s premiership was wrought with strikes, riots and war all of which continues to divide public opinion. 

 

During her first term, Thatcher had been the object of public scrutiny. Both the national media and celebrity figures attacked Thatcher, often calling for her resignation and by the end of 1980, the Labour party was 24% ahead in the opinion polls. Thatcher was nearly the most unpopular Prime Minister in the history of polling, showing within her first year as Prime Minister, Thatcher had angered a large proportion of the electorate. 

 

A Guardian article published in early 2012 stated: “The Tory prime minister wasn't a great leader. She was the most socially destructive British politician of our times”. This shows the Thatcher era remains as controversial even today. However, despite public disquiet with a variety of her policies, Thatcher managed to retain power in the 1983 election due to two principal reasons. The first of these reasons was the Falklands Islands conflict, which created a surge of both patriotism and support for Thatcher’s perceived strength. Secondly the weakness of the Labour Party in particular, due to the ineptitude of Opposition Leader, Michael Foot, combined with the formation of the SDP-Liberal Alliance. The research question which follows is: despite an unpopular first term in government, why was Margaret Thatcher able to win the 1983 general election?

The social and economic policies of the thatcher government

Thatcher’s economic policy was based on monetarist economics.  Together with Geoffrey Howe, she implemented a series of policies that ultimately resulted in damaging electoral consequences for the Conservative Party. Firstly, Thatcher and Howe as part of the 1979 budget lowered direct taxes on income, but raised indirect taxes, which caused a short-term rise in inflation. In response to this upward inflationary pressure, Thatcher increased interest rates to slow the growth of the money supply. Moreover Value Added Tax (VAT) was increased from 8% or 12.5% to a uniform 15%, in order to fund the Falklands conflict, which was initially met with much aggression. These policies resulted in a drop in Thatcher’s popularity, which is evidenced by the Gallup opinion polls of the time, showing a diminution of personal support from 67% to 40%. Gallup, whose analyses are often cited as being extremely reliable, but of course are still limited in their scope given the number of respondents collated, administered these opinion polls. Nonetheless, we can determine these statistics are indicative of the sentiments of the British population at the time. Furthermore, she introduced cash limits on public spending and reduced government expenditure on important social services such as education and the NHS, as Turner puts it “squeezed everything that looked squeezable” . This cut alienated the middle class who made up a large proportion of the pro-Conservative electorate. Turner states none of Thatcher’s economic policies in her first term did anything to give the Conservatives a positive public perception. Equally, Conservative MP Baron Prior claimed the 1979 budget came as “an enormous shock”, showing that even within Thatcher’s own camp her policies were upsetting even them.

 

Thatcher’s economic policy was designed to combat inflation and at the start of the 1980s was failing to do so. At the end of the Callaghan cabinet in 1979, inflation stood at 10.1% and by the start of the 1980s it had already hit 20%, peaking at 21.9% in January 1981.  Inflation had fallen by the summer of 1981, and by the end of the first term of Thatcher’s government reached 22.3%, however unemployment peaked at its highest level since the 1930s. It stood at its highest point at 2,500,000, a million more than at the end of Callaghan’s administration. This level of unemployment led to mass levels of discontent amongst the more severely hit areas afflicted by recession, with Gallup Opinion polls showing a 14% drop in satisfaction rates with the Thatcher government.  It was not just the working class angered by Thatcherite economics; Sir Arthur Norman, a leading industrialist was quoted to have said in 1981 that “the removal of Mrs. Thatcher would be the best thing that could happen to the economy” . There is strong reason to believe the Thatcherite economic policy was the cause of a series of riots in 1981, due to the rise in unemployment. The riots led to the British media deciding that there needed to be a “U-Turn” in Thatcher’s economic policy. Furthermore, policies such as the increased interest rates aggravated the natural Conservative allies in the Confederation of British Industry, with CEO Terence Beckett called for a “bare knuckle fight” with the government. In early 1982 British manufacturing output was now 30% lower than it had been in 1978, causing resentment amongst British industrialists. By December 1980, Thatcher’s approval rating had hit a low of any British prime minister, falling by 23% and as the recession of the early 1980s got worse, Thatcher raised taxes despite the advice and concerns of 364 leading economists. Despite that from 1982, inflation did begin to decrease to a more stable level below 20% and the economy was becoming stronger, it is not likely that the economic recovery is the reason for the change in Conservative opinion polls; firstly, unemployment was still extremely high and on the rise, sitting at 3.3 million at its peak following the 1983 election and the manufacturing output was still at an all-time low having dropped 30% since 1978.

 

In brief, the state of the Thatcher government just prior to the Falklands conflict was met with hostility and unpopularity; the historiography is illustrative – the position of the Thatcher government prior to the Falklands was weak. The Conservative economic policies had caused the public opinion of the Conservatives to fall and Turner and Morgan state that for these reasons Thatcher should not have won the 1983 election. Therefore economic and social policies may be discounted as a reason as to why Thatcher was re-elected in 1983, and were arguably more detrimental to Thatcher’s popularity.

The effect of the falklands conflict

The Falklands Conflict, which lasted from April to June 1982, marked a turning point in Thatcher’s unpopular first term as Prime Minister.  When Argentina first invaded the Falkland Islands on April 2nd 1982, most Britons did not know where they were and the connection they had to the United Kingdom. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that when Thatcher announced in the House of Commons on April 3rd that a naval and military task force was being assembled with a view to leave to the South Atlantic, her decision was met with criticism from both politicians and civilians. Conversely, some attribute this little known conflict as one of Thatcher’s successes and a major reason of her re-election.

 

Michael Foot, the leader of Labour, supported Thatcher’s decision, saying that “There is longer term interest to ensure that foul and brutal aggression does not succeed in our world. If it does, there will be a danger not merely to the Falkland Islands, but to people all over this dangerous planet”.  Foot, however supportive he may have been at the offset, was said to have been appalled once the fighting began. Some left wing media seemed to be opposed to the decision made by Thatcher, with the Tribune publishing an article calling the decision to engage Argentina “Thatcher’s mad gamble” . The Tribune is associated with Democratic socialism and supports the Labour party, so articles published by the Tribune are likely to be very critical of the Thatcher government, especially of Thatcher’s political decisions. However, as the war in the Falklands got underway, a surge of patriotism overcame the UK, and by the end of the Falklands dispute, Thatcher had redeemed herself in the eyes of the public. Julian Barnes wrote in 2002, “The Falklands was the making of Mrs. Thatcher”. As The Observer is traditionally left wing, it would be expected Barnes would be critical of Thatcher. Therefore, it is surprising Barnes is quite neutral toward Thatcher, which may suggest Barnes believes that despite the fact the Falklands was not especially well handled, it had a positive impact on her reputation. In other media, The Sun became an ardent supporter of Thatcher and the War, with the most notable headline of “Gotcha!” being published following the sinking of the Argentinean warship the Belgrano. With regards to The Sun, Greenslade felt “Most people probably think of the Falklands war as Thatcher's war. For me - and, I suspect, for a good many other journalists, that bizarre spasm of post-imperial imperialism was really the Sun's war”.  This suggests The Sun put a huge emphasis on rallying support for The Falklands, and therefore by proxy, on rallying support for Thatcher, and considering the majority of The Sun’s readership was in the C2DE demographic, those more likely to vote in favour of Labour, which would have allowed Thatcher to gain popularity, but as is shown in the Appendix, they do not change their allegiance to Thatcher, and therefore it can be determined that in reality the Falklands was not a cause of Thatcher’s re-election.

 

Before the Falklands, the Gallup poll put Thatcher’s average monthly approval score at just 36%, falling to a record low of 28% in October 1981. After the Falklands, the poll put Thatcher’s approval rating back up to an average of 47% in June 1983, after which it began to fall again to pre-Falklands levels. As previously stated, the Gallup poll is generally seen as a very objective and neutral entity. We can assume the statistics from the Gallup poll will be objective, as it is not influenced politically or indeed toward or against the Thatcher cabinet, although it is only an opinion poll.

 

Kavanagh stated the Falklands helped to portray Thatcher as decisive, resolute and principled, which the Conservatives leaned on heavily in the 1983 election, in a campaign strategy and slogan entitled “The Resolute Approach”, which Kavanagh sees as being crucial to the Conservative success in the 1983 election. However, Vinen takes a completely different view and states that less than a third of Conservative candidates mentioned the Falklands at all in their 1983 campaign speeches, although many talked about the restoration of British “prestige” . Vinen states few voters admitted to the Falklands having an effect on how they cast their votes. However Kavanagh ultimately takes the stance that the Falklands was not the single deciding factor for Thatcher’s victory in the 1983 election and in fact it was only important when coupled with other factors.

 

It would appear that whilst the Falklands was an important reason for Thatcher’s re-election, as shown by Kavanagh’s assessment it did not directly influence the voting of members of the public, or at least was not a deciding factor on how they cast their ballot, despite the patriotism and renewed love for Thatcher that the Falklands induced. This is supported by Vinen’s assessment. In addition, despite the fact that even before the Falklands, Conservative ratings were gradually beginning to lift, Young states victory in the Falklands lifted Thatcher and the Conservatives onto a plateau of public support that six months prior to the victory would have been nearly unobtainable. Moreover, the victory also took away the hopes of other parties had been entertaining to improve their own dismal situation. Young was a writer for the Guardian, and was known to have been very left wing, which suggests that he would be critical of Thatcher and her government. Young was, however, in his obituary said to be “firm, but fair” , with regards to Thatcher, meaning Young’s views could be reliable. Thatcher stated that “The Falklands Factor” changed the British political scene and had given the Conservative party the elevation they needed to overtake the Opposition in the opinion polls. Ultimately, however, the voting statistics did not change as a result of the Falklands conflict.

 

We can see the Falklands conflict was, in the opinion of both Thatcher and many historians believed to be a key reason for Thatcher’s re-election. However, we can see in reality, the conflict was not as instrumental in Thatcher’s re-election.

The weakness of the labour opposition and the formation of the SDP-liberal alliance

As Thatcher’s government was beset with problems prior to the 1983 election, Labour should have had an electoral victory assured. However, in the run up to the 1983 election, the Labour Party themselves were faced with many challenges that affected them politically including a weak party Leader , weak policies (that did not endear them to the public) and internal divisions within the party, some so strong that it led to a formation of a new party, the SDP-Liberal Alliance.

Leadership

A major weakness for Labour was leadership; many thought that Michael Foot was unable to inspire the party or engage with the electorate. Firstly, Foot’s victory to become leader of the Labour party came as a shock to many; Kavanagh states Foot “was not the real choice of the other party members.  Furthermore, he was the least popular candidate amongst the electorate. Gallup polls had shown that Foot had only received 30% of the vote supporting him for party leader. Foot’s appointment as leader of the opposition came as a shock as he had been a determined backbencher for a huge amount of time; he had only accepted a front bench job after thirty years in the House of Commons. However, his appointment was unexpected mostly because he simply did not look like a leader; Alwyn Turner states, “His appearance simply was not one of a leader; both in his attire and the way in which he carried himself.”  In an age where the notion of “media-beauty” mattered, Foot was not nearly as connected with the voters as Thatcher. Turner notes “it was not entirely clear what his appeal to the electorate was supposed to be”  which shows Foot, and by extension Labour, were not as adept at appealing to the electorate as Thatcher and the Conservatives. Foot’s public appeal was again not helped by the fact that he looked older than his predecessor Callaghan, who was in fact the elder and that two days after he became Leader of the Opposition, he fell down the stairs at the House of Commons and, as put by Turner, looked weak and feeble at Prime Minister’s Questions when he was on crutches. The importance of this is emphasised by Foot’s biographer, Kenneth Morgan: “Compared with the abrasive, authoritarian image of Mrs Thatcher, Foot always ended up far behind”.  Critics state Morgan’s judgements are said to be elegantly balanced and accurate, suggesting they may be a useful source. A poll a month after he became leader showed he was seen as being as important as cabinet minister Tony Benn and Chancellor of the Exchequer, Geoffrey Howe. Turner puts it that although Foot was leader, the electorate suspected there was a presence of a “backseat driver” –Foot was not entirely in control of his party and there was an outside influence guiding him. Morgan states, “When Labour lost the general election of 1983, a decisive factor cited again and again by voters was Foot’s quality as a leader”. Morgan’s dispassionate analysis of Foot’s tenure means it is a useful source to draw upon.

Labour policies

In between elections, Labour adopted policies that made the Conservatives seem a stronger alternative. A big issue identified in the run up to the 1983 election process was when Labour published its “1983 Labour Manifesto”. Members of Labour spurned the Labour Manifesto, with Kauffman calling it “the longest suicide note in history”. Aside from highlighting the problems with the manifesto, this statement could also be indicative of deep-rooted divisions within Labour. The manifesto outlined their advocation of a non-nuclear defense policy, the only party to do so, and at the time tension between the USRR and the West was high, and the general public wanted security and safety, which was offered by the Conservatives, who in their own 1983 Manifesto stated that “Labour would give up Britain's nuclear deterrent and prevent the United States from using its bases in Britain which are part of its nuclear shield over Europe...We will not gamble with our defence” . The Conservatives were playing to the fear of the electorate. Vinen sees this as one of the more important factors in Thatcher’s re-election. Moreover, apropos defence, the Labour Party came out badly at the end of the Falklands, as their objection towards military intervention was read by the general population as a lack of support for the British military, whereas Conservative’s appeared to be in full support of the troops. At a time when so many were supportive of the troops, this put a serious dent in Labour’s standing in the public eye.

The SDP-liberal alliance

What also weakened Labour were the internal divisions within the party. Firstly, the split of “the Gang of Four” (Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Shirley Williams and Bill Rodgers) to form the SDP, as they believed the Labour party had become too left-wing and they would no long seek Labour candidature unless party policies were changed. They were especially angered by the influence of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and the trade unions. They were urged at the Liberal Assembly of 1980 to leave Labour by David Steel, leader of the Liberals. By 1981, the leaders of the two parties had agreed on an alliance.

 

This Alliance began to drain support from the Labour Party. Michael Lynch sees this as being a major difficulty for the Labour party at the time.  Furthermore, the voting statistics show in comparison to the 1979 election, Labour had 10% less votes in 1983, and as Morgan states this would have been enough to clench a Labour victory and the SDP-Liberal Alliance had 10% than their Liberal predecessors, showing Labour was losing its standing with the electorate. What’s more, the split of the SDP from Labour marked the internal divisions within Labour at the time; Foot, a member of the left-wing backbench of the Labour party had taken over from Callaghan, who was more moderate. Turner describes the Labour party at the time as being in a “civil war” and that parliamentary opposition by the time of the 1983 election had for all intents and purposes gone AWOL. This is demonstrated by when Callaghan’s speech against nuclear disarmament and not even the generally pro-Labour newspapers of the Daily Star and Daily Mirror could mask the sheer enormity of the conflict. With the copious, highly publicised internal divisions within the party, the Conservatives provided a stronger, more cohesive unit in which voters believed they could rely on. The split was of importance in the run up to the 1983 election, as the newly formed SDP-Liberal alliance took with a significant chunk of the Labour electorate. We see this in the voting statistics by comparing the 1979 election with that of 1983; in 1979 Labour had 37% of the public vote whereas the Liberals had 13.8%. By contrast, this gap was much smaller in the 1983 election with Labour holding 27.6% of the vote and the Alliance holding 25% . These statistics indicate many of the former Labour electorate had shifted their vote to the Alliance following the split of the Gang of Four. In addition to this internal division, during the 1983 election campaign on May 25th, former Labour leader James Callaghan gave a speech on nuclear disarmament, in which he said “Britain should dismantle their nuclear weapons for nothing in return. We should not give them up unilaterally”. This had a disastrous backlash for Labour, especially as the Labour Manifesto had promised to do, and this was seen as a challenge to Foot’s authority. David Owen, Leader of the Social Democrats said “If Labour ever had any chance – which it did not – this would be a blow from which it would not recover” . This suggests many politicians of the time saw the conventional Labour Party to be moribund, incapable of election and victory over Thatcher.

 

As Philip Gould stated in The Unfinished Revolution, “the point could not have been made clearer, the new majority were the working class, not the middle class voters. Labour and this new majority were parting company. Labour was dragging its feet and they were surging ahead. Labour had lost its purpose”. Partisan dealignment had occurred and the working class who would usually vote Labour was now voting towards the Alliance or Conservatives as a result of better alternatives, weak leadership, as shown by Morgan, and weak policies. Appendix 2 shows between 1979 and 1983, the support from the working classes had dropped by 10% and this seems to have shifted to the Alliance. The Conservative vote remained largely unchanged, showing the Conservatives were neither any more popular nor unpopular than in prior years, but as there was both more competition (in the form of the SDP-Alliance) and less competition (in the form of Labour).

Conclusion

Thatcher’s first government could have easily been a political disaster. The Conservatives had nearly lost all the respect of the country due to the economic and social policies they had implemented between 1979 and 1982. Although from 1982, when inflation began to decrease and the economy began to stabilize, Conservative opinion polls began to rise again, it is not likely the economic recovery is the reason for the change in opinion polls; firstly, unemployment was still extremely high and on the rise, sitting at 3.3 million at its peak following the 1983 election whilst manufacturing output was still at an all-time low having dropped 30% since 1978. It is unlikely the discontent would be alleviated with employment at an all-time low and that the British public would vote for Thatcher, so it seems as if the economic and social policies on the whole were a detriment to Thatcher’s government rather than a factor affecting her re-election.

 

More likely a reason for Thatcher’s reelection was the victory of the Falklands and at the same time Labour’s lack of appeal to the public. At the same time Britain went into economic recovery in 1982, Britain had succeeded in defeating Argentina in the Falklands, and the opinion polls went on the rise in favour of the Conservatives, whilst support for Labour declined due to the hesitation surrounding the Falklands. Michael Foot had become leader of the Opposition by this point and was severely unable to connect with the public, opposed to Thatcher who, despite her faults, was apt at connecting with the public and other members of the government during speeches. Labour had also failed to give the British public the assurance they needed after the Cold War, with Callaghan suggesting prior to the 1983 general elections that they give up their nuclear arms without any other country, specifically the USSR.

 

The weakness of the Labour party greatly contributed to Thatcher’s re-election but could not have done so without the wave of British patriotism brought in following success in the Conservative success in the Falklands conflict, which as Hugo Young states victory lifted Thatcher and the Conservatives onto a plateau of public support that six months prior to the victory would have been nearly unobtainable – Thatcher was elected for her second government on June 9th 1983, nearly a year after the Falklands conflict. The weaknesses of the Labour party, when coupled with the British success in the Falklands were reliant on each other for allowing Thatcher’s re-election, and in spite of all the negativity faced by the Thatcher government, the Conservative government managed to win for a second term.

Bibliography

Books

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McSmith, A (2010) No Such Thing As Society – Constable and Robson Ltd, United Kingdom

 

Middleton, R (1997) Government versus the Market: the growth of the public sector, economic management, and the British economic performance c. 1890-1979. Cheltenham, Edward Elgar, United Kingdom

 

Morgan, K (2010) Michal Foot: A Life Harper Press, United Kingdom

 

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Turner, AW (2010) Rejoice! Rejoice! Britain in the 1980s, Aurum Press Ltd, United Kingdom

 

Vinen, R (2009) Thatcher’s Britain, Simon & Shuster, United Kingdom

 

Young, H (1993) One Of Us, Pan Books, United Kingdom

Journals

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Hattersly R (2010), A great man, a lousy leader The Guardian page 65

 

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Appendix

Figure - 1 Results Through Time – 1979 & 1983 General  Election
Figure - 1 Results Through Time – 1979 & 1983 General Election
Figure -2 Conservative Victory
Figure -2 Conservative Victory
Middle class (ABC1)
1974 (Oct)
1979
1983
Conservative
56
59
55
Labour
19
24
16
Lib/Alliance/LD
21
15
28
Con lead
37
35
39

Skilled working class (C2)

Conservative
26
41
40
Labour
49
41
32
Lib/Alliance/LD
20
15
26
Con lead
-23
0
8

Semi/unskilled working class (DE)

Conservative
22
34
33
Labour
57
49
41
Lib/Alliance/LD
16
13
24
Con lead
-35
-15
-8
Figure - 3 British Voting Behavior 19774 – 1983 By Social Class
;