Thursday, 16 February 2017
607 General Election 1983
First viewed : May 1983
This was a landmark general election in many ways. Personally, it was the first one in which I was able to vote. One of my fellow pupils, a nice girl called Claire Twigger, turned 18 on polling day and was on the front page of the Rochdale Observer waving her polling card. At the start of the campaign, I was wavering between the Tories and the SDP-Liberal Alliance and told the Tory candidate in our constituency Geoffrey Dickens that when I met him early in the campaign. My father had bought all three manifestos including Labour's notorious "longest suicide note in history" and I diligently read all three. That pointed me towards the Alliance and that firmed up as they gained on Labour in the opinion polls in the last week of the campaign even though our Liberal candidate Richard Knowles seemed a bit wet.
We were in a new seat, Littleborough and Saddleworth, that was very different from the previous one, Heywood and Royton represented by Labour right winger Joel Barnett. Barnett had been edged out of the Labour selections for the new constituencies and wasn't standing anywhere. Dickens had moved over from a Huddersfield seat and had attracted some bad publicity during the previous parliament when he almost left his wife but changed his mind on the drive to a mistress he'd picked up at a tea dance. Other than that, he was a right wing, populist buffoon with an obsession about sex that he tried to disguise as concern about paedophilia and Satanism. Knowles was a councillor in Oldham. The Labour candidate was an ex-councillor who'd been turfed out of his ward the year before following a steep rate rise.
The Conservative campaign was smooth and efficient, led by chairman Cecil Parkinson , the only sticky moment being a fierce grilling on TV for Mrs Thatcher over the sinking of the Belgrano by a viewer . The Labour campaign was a complete disaster from start to finish. Saddled with a fantasy land manifesto and a leader who looked like a confused old man, his gift for parliamentary oratory useless on the stump or TV, they made matters worse by openly disagreeing over nuclear disarmament -their greatest Achilles heel - and, in Dennis Healey and Neil Kinnock's cases, disparaging the Falklands victory.
The Alliance campaign was a game of two halves. David Steel for the Liberals had bowed to Roy Jenkins' experience and agreed to serve under him in an Alliance government. However the so-called "Prime Minister Designate" who'd been unimpressive in Parliament , was little better than Foot in the campaign. I remember him doing a Party Election Broadcast and not even looking at the camera. With a week to go, the leaders had a "summit" at Steel's house where he basically told Jenkins he was useless and that he was taking over the campaign. As soon as he did so, their standing in the opinion polls improved and in some of them they crept ahead of Labour.
The election date was right in the middle of my A Levels so I couldn't fully engage with the campaign and I couldn't stay up for the results.
The result was the biggest outrage the first past the post system has foisted on the country although UKIP supporters have a fair case for nominating 2015 instead. The Alliance surge was just a little too late for them to overtake Labour in the popular vote but they were less than a million votes behind. They ended up with 26 seats compared to Labour's 209. Despite the Falklands factor, the Tories actually polled less votes than in 1979 but ended up with an enormous majority. What most depressed me was the fate of the brave defectors who left the Labour tribe with all but four ( who included David Owen ) going down, usually in third place ( although poor Dick Crawshaw whom local Liberals wouldn't accept as their candidate came fourth ). Only John Horam ever returned to the Commons and he did it by becoming a Tory although Tom McNally survived to play a part in the Coalition government as a peer.
The only SDP gain ( the Liberals managed half a dozen ) came in Scotland where an unknown postgraduate student named Charles Kennedy ousted a Tory minister.