Colm Murphy on researching Labour’s view of the 1980s ‘loony left’

Thanks to the generous support of the Society, I was able to visit the Labour History Archive and Study Centre, located at the People’s History Museum in Manchester. This trip was for my research into the Labour Party in the 1980s. I focus on the Labour leadership’s perceptions of the ‘loony left’ Labour councils, leading up to the 1987 election and Margaret Thatcher’s third victory.

In the archives were scores of revealing documents. For instance, I mined the Party’s archived material on general election strategy and communications in 1987. This provided useful insights into Neil Kinnock’s and Labour’s policy strategy, and the programmes they attempted to broadcast through an unforgiving media. I also discovered an archival goldmine: the papers of left-wing writer Hilary Wainwright, including several transcripts from 1986-87 of private interviews with key political actors, such as industry spokesperson John Smith, GLC leader Ken Livingstone, and figures from the grassroots, controversial ‘black sections’, and the women’s movement.

In addition, the archivists found me truly exciting material. I pored over the correspondence and papers of pollster Philip Gould and newly appointed Director of Communications Peter Mandelson from 1984 onwards, as they sought along with others to radically overhaul the Party’s electoral research and communications. Amusingly, this demonstrated that the 1980s Labour Party were somewhat slapdash in paying invoices. On one occasion, as an emergency stop-gap, poor Gould was forced to pay £7,000 to a photographer out of his own pocket.

However, more suggestive were the internal reports produced by Gould, Deborah Mattinson and others, such as Labour and Britain in the 1990s, which pioneered the use of ‘focus groups’ to weave narratives explaining Labour’s haemorrhaging vote. They argued that Labour had ‘lost touch’ with its electorate. These studies apparently discovered (though as we do not have access to the original field notes, we should be sceptical) that former Labour voters, referencing contemporary councillors such as Livingstone and Derek Hatton, felt that the Party had abandoned the aspirant working class ‘majority’ in favour of ‘extremist’ trade unionists and ‘militants’, and in the London context ‘minorities’ such as homosexuals and non-white communities.

Not only did these findings laid the groundwork for Labour’s famous Policy Review and clear ideological shift later in the 1980s and 1990s, but they also pose questions on how to historicise ‘identity politics’ in the British left. ‘New Labour’ were known for pioneering legislation in this area, such as civil partnerships; however, on this evidence supposed forebears seem to view pro-minority policies as electorally harmful. Therefore, this material sheds light on the contingencies and multiple paths open to Kinnock’s ‘modernisers’ as they tried to transform the Party and wider labour movement.

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