It is never ‘Labour’s turn’: Learning from 1992

April 9 2022 marks the thirtieth anniversary of Labour’s devastating 1992 defeat. The party’s crushing loss that year shocked the entire political establishment in Britain. The defeat was deeply troubling for the Left, since Labour had gone into the election convinced it would win. The main factor in the Tories’ plummeting popularity was the dire state of the economy. The UK had been mired in a deep recession with unemployment above three million. The housing market was ravaged by a wave of repossessions and negative equity, striking at the heart of the economic fortunes of Middle England. The Lawson boom which brought unprecedented electoral success to the Tories in 1987 spectacularly imploded. The Conservative’s claim to economic competence now looked badly tarnished.

Moreover, the Tories had been in power for thirteen years. The Cabinet coup d’état against Margaret Thatcher in 1990 left a traumatised parliamentary party uncertain of how to deal with her divisive legacy of growing inequality and social disharmony. While the avuncular John Major provided temporary political relief, the Conservatives were rocked by bitter disputes over Europe, seemingly exhausted by the travails of office.

As such, Labour entered the election with a narrow but consistent poll lead. The party projected a disciplined image of moderation and economic responsibility that secured editorial endorsement in the Financial Times. The factional Left had been routed over the previous decade, as commitments on unilateralism and wholesale public ownership were consigned to the dustbin of history.

The climate in which Labour fought the 1992 election thus appeared politically and economically propitious. Yet the party was still heavily defeated, achieving a lower share of the popular vote than at any election between 1945 and 1979 (the unexpected result led to an inquiry into the methodology of opinion polls). It was a defeat as fundamental as that of 1983 and 1987.

Not surprisingly, there was a lengthy inquest. The Left tried to blame Neil Kinnock who they condemned as a traitor, having previously turned his back on their political saviour, Tony Benn. The academics Richard Heffernan and Mike Marqusee insisted defeat was, ‘the result of errors and failures of leadership, of political mistakes and organisational blunders that could have been avoided’. In striving to be better managers of capitalism, Labour allegedly lost its distinctive appeal to the working-class.

Elsewhere, blame focused on strategic mistakes during the campaign. The attack on the Tories over ‘Jennifer’s Ear’ backfired when it appeared that Labour made factual errors in its presentation of the case of two little girls, one waiting months for treatment on the NHS, the other going private. There was confusion within the Shadow Cabinet over Labour’s stance on Proportional Representation (PR). Meanwhile, the triumphalist Sheffield Rally created the impression Labour believed it had already won. Kinnock’s cries of ‘well, alright!’ to the assembled ranks of activists shattered his carefully cultivated image of prime ministerial authority.

In fact, none of these accounts offered a remotely plausible explanation of why the party was again routed. As the Guardian commentator Peter Jenkins later remarked, Labour ultimately lost in 1992 ‘because it was Labour’.

The class base of the electorate had been changing for decades – to Labour’s obvious disadvantage. Not only were there numerically fewer working-class electors. Those who previously supported Labour as a result of enduring class affiliation were more likely to switch parties, the new breed of ‘floating voter’. Private home ownership was replacing council housing, trade union membership was declining, while the industrial towns in Northern England were entering the post-industrial era, eroding long-standing political loyalties. Modernisers in the party feared Labour was wedded to an ‘old-fashioned’ ethos centred on trade union producer interests, while it was predominantly identified with the declining sectors of society – inner-city council estates, the industrial North, benefit claimants, as well as heavy industries, notably mining. That labourist identity was undermining the party’s cause even in 1992.

Meanwhile, Labour lacked intellectually credible economic and social policies. The party remained wedded to the collectivist prospectus of the post-war Keynesian welfare state. Labour’s programme was perceived by floating voters as a concerted attack on affluence. In John Smith’s infamous Shadow Budget, the party promised an increase in child benefit and the state pension, funded by raising National Insurance contributions on higher income earners (a proposal which even the Left-wing MP, Ken Livingstone, decried as a cap on aspiration). The putative tax rise gave invaluable ammunition to the hostile tabloid media, warning voters of the ‘tax bombshell’ to come. The Conservatives thus succeeded in presenting Labour as a threat to the livelihoods and aspirations of millions of Middle England voters.

Thirty years on, the events of 1992 scarcely provide clear-cut lessons for the current leadership. Nevertheless, the experience should focus minds, since it demonstrates that the unpopularity of an incompetent Conservative incumbent is insufficient to secure victory, particularly if voters do not trust Labour’s instincts on taxation and public spending.

More fundamentally, 1992 serves as a reminder that general elections in Britain are not determined by a swing of the electoral pendulum in which eventually it will be ‘Labour’s turn’. On the contrary, if voters fear the party will make a mess in power, they will not elect it.

As such, Labour must purge itself of comforting illusions. Yes, it has made tentative progress under its leader, Sir Keir Starmer, fighting its way back to the political mainstream. Yet the party is still some way from building a winning coalition of voters. Hopes abound that the so-called ‘Red Wall’ Northern and Midlands seats lost to Boris Johnson in 2019 will return as voters react angrily to the cost of living crisis and perceived Conservative mismanagement leading to the highest tax burden since World War Two.

But the breed of new working and middle-class voters populating these constituencies will eye the prospect of a Labour government warily if they do not fundamentally trust the party to manage the economy and realise their aspirations. As in 1992, if an alternative government poses an existential threat to their increasingly precarious personal prosperity, those voters will not hesitate to opt for ‘safety first’.

For more on Labour history, and how it informs politics today, see Building the Foundations for Labour’s Future by Nathan Yeowell.

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