Britain at the Polls 1983, and Peter Kellner’s timeless words

One of the advantages of reading older elections books, such as Britain at the Polls 1983 edited by Austin Ranney, is that by virtue of coming out a year or two after the election they have the advantage of the election result being known yet are also written before political history has become settled into certain clichés. In the case of election books written about either the 1979 and 1983 general elections, but before the Miners’ Strike and mass privatisations, words from this brief period of time really bring home how much of what is now usually meant by Thatcherism dated from her second term in office.

They also highlight continuing themes of British politics, such as the small core vote for parties beyond the Labour and Conservative duopoly and just what an electorally disastrous combination having an unpopular leader and doubts over your economic competence is.

Indeed, it is not hard to imagine the opening words of Peter Kellner’s chapter on 1983 being pressed into service with barely an edit for other elections. He wrote then:

Almost nothing went right for Labour in the 1983 general election. The party entered the election with unpopular policies, an unpopular leader, and a vivid public image of a party at war with itself. The month-long campaign, instead of erasing those impressions, intensified them.

In some respects subsequent research – and smarter analytical tools – means that the contents of this book are now dated, especially when it comes to the balance between economic recovery and the Falklands War in fuelling the Conservative Party’s recovery ahead of the 1983 election. That has been the subject of much debated and detailed dissection of evidence since, which leaves the fairly brief qualitative accounts in this book looking rather dated and crude. That aside, there is much still to enjoy and learn from.


If you like this, you might also be interested in Britain at the Polls 1979.

Buy Britain at the Polls 1983, edited by Austin Ranney here.


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