Continuing the story of the 1992 general election…
In the depths of what was for Labour supporters a despair-filled night, there were few enough moments to celebrate. A couple of rising Conservative stars – Lynda Chalker, the overseas development minister, and Francis Maude, financial secretary to the Treasury – lost their seats, but neither was exactly a household name, and neither was on the Thatcherite wing of the party.
Nor was Chris Patten, the one major opposition scalp, who lost his seat in Bath to Don Foster of the Liberal Democrats. Indeed the cheers that rang around Labour clubs when Patten’s result was announced were far exceeded by the whoops of delight heard at a Conservative gathering in London, where the guest list included Margaret Thatcher herself; there the wild applause was accompanied by shouts of ‘Tory gain at Bath!’
The absence of Patten from the Commons was a crucial loss, for his was a presence that would have made a considerable difference to Major’s cabinet. Conservative historian Robert Shepherd thought he was ‘the most able Tory strategist and thinker of his generation’, while John Major reflected simply: ‘I had lost my next chancellor of the exchequer.’
More than that, he had lost the one senior Conservative who could persuasively argue a pro-European position with passion and conviction, in a language that was readily understood by the public. In 1994 the cabinet minister William Waldegrave explained that, although Major had the right position on Europe, ‘he knows he hasn’t yet got the right language. This is where he misses Chris so much. Terribly. He could put the words on it.’
Patten was instead appointed as the last ever governor of Hong Kong (a job for which Thatcher had once considered Prince Charles, though it was ultimately decided that he wouldn’t be up to negotiating with the Chinese). He was never to return to British politics, much to the relief of the Thatcherite wing, for whom his articulate advocacy of the European cause was always a threat.
For his enemies, Patten’s handling of the election campaign had offered, during its course, another excuse for attacking him. The overwhelming consensus at the time was that it had been ‘run dreadfully badly’, though of course the result retrospectively justified everything.
The same could clearly not be said of the Labour Party, though despite the misery of election night, there was some hope for the future. A close analysis of the results showed just how tenuous was Major’s grasp on power: it transpired that if just 1284 voters in eleven marginal constituencies had voted differently, the Conservatives would have been denied a majority in the Commons. All elections are to a greater or lesser extent decided in a handful of swing constituencies, but this was particularly the case in 1992; the swing to Labour in Tory-held marginals was twice that of the national average, for Labour had learnt to target its campaigning, and was actually very well placed for the next election.
But the vagaries of the British electoral system meant that for the next four or five years there was to be a Conservative government. And the significance of that fact was hard to avoid. When Margaret Thatcher was asked, as the result became clear, what she made of her successor’s remarkable victory, she was exuberant. ‘It is a great night,’ she proclaimed. ‘It is the end of socialism.’ In her memoirs, published the following year, she wrote about James Callaghan’s administration as ‘the last Labour government and perhaps the last ever’, and it seemed all too plausible an analysis.
The Labour leadership’s immediate response was more defensive, finding a scapegoat in the shape of the tabloid newspapers. In the wake of the election defeat, Neil Kinnock announced that he was stepping down as Labour leader, and in his resignation speech he drew attention to an article by the Conservative Party’s former treasurer Alistair McAlpine which had cited as ‘the heroes of this campaign’ David English, Nicholas Lloyd and Kelvin MacKenzie, editors of the Daily Mail, the Daily Express and the Sun respectively. ‘Never has their attack on the Labour Party been so comprehensive,’ wrote McAlpine. ‘This was how the election was won and if the politicians, elated in their hour of victory, are tempted to believe otherwise, they are in very real trouble next time.’
Those comments inspired one of the Sun’s most famous front-page headlines: ‘It’s the Sun wot won it’, following on from its election-day cover which had shown a crude illustration of a light bulb containing Kinnock’s head, accompanied by the message: ‘If Kinnock wins today will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights.’
Whether McAlpine’s analysis, and the Sun’s chest-beating, were accurate or not remained debatable. Chris Patten had been sufficiently interested in the influence of the nation’s biggest-selling daily to commission some research into the question and discovered that, after more than a decade of Thatcherite cheerleading, ‘the majority of its readers throughout the campaign thought it a left-leaning and left-supporting paper’.
But in politics truth is often less important than perception, and when Tony Blair eventually came to power in the Labour Party, he was clear in his own mind that the Sun had played a crucial role in the 1992 election. Consequently, he took great care to court the paper’s proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, much to the fury of Neil Kinnock, who was still nursing his wounds years later. ‘You imagine what it’s like to have your head stuck inside a fucking light bulb, then you tell me how I’m supposed to feel,’ he raged at Blair’s press secretary, Alastair Campbell.
Kinnock’s departure as Labour leader, along with his deputy Roy Hattersley, marked a final break with the 1980s. Over the course of two elections, he had improved the Labour vote by three million from its low point in 1983, had put on nearly seven percentage points in the share of the vote, and had added sixty-two MPs to the parliamentary party.
Most importantly, he had kept the party together and ensured that it survived as the principal opposition to the Conservatives, which at times in the early 1980s had been far from certain. In the 1983 election the SDP/Liberal Alliance had come second in 63 per cent of Tory-held seats, in 1992 the Liberal Democrats came second in just 43 per cent of them. Kinnock had achieved everything except power (he never in his career held office in a British government), destined to be the leader who didn’t take his people to the promised land.
The weight that came with the leadership of Labour was never more apparent than in the few months after the election, as Kinnock shrugged off the burden and could be seen to relax after years of pressure. Appearances on television – notably on Have I Got News for You – and on radio, where he did a stint as a disc jockey on Radio 2, revealed that the humour and the passion that had first made his name had survived. His own verdict on his long period as leader demonstrated a sense of relief that it was all over: ‘What a bloody way to spend my forties!’
But perhaps the last word on Kinnock’s stewardship of the Labour Party should rest with the man who he faced at the despatch box twice a week, and who had no reason to feel any warmth toward him. ‘Neil was a more forceful leader than the Tory Party or the press ever acknowledged,’ wrote John Major in 1999. It was a typically generous tribute that reflected rather well on both men.
This is extracted from Alwyn Turner’s A Classless Society: Britain in the 1990s (Aurum Press, 2013).