1983 and All That

In a guest blog, David Cowling ponders the Labour Party's 1983 election campaign and whether it is set for a similar performance in 2017.

1983 and All That

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  • David Cowling Independent Political Analyst
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This article has been written independently by David Cowling and does not necessarily reflect the views of Ipsos MORI.

When Labour parents want to frighten their children to sleep they have only to whisper “1983”. The general election that year was the second-worst in Labour history; the party received 28% of the popular vote across Britain, returned 209 MPs and came within 700,000 votes of being pushed into third place by the Lib-SDP Alliance.

Comparisons with the party’s performance in 1983 have already begun to surface in the 2017 election campaign and this note offers a few thoughts on the subject.

In 1983, Labour was hit with a double-whammy: extensive and disadvantageous constituency boundary changes and the spectacular rise of the Lib-SDP Alliance.

In his introduction to ‘The BBC/ITN Guide to the New Parliamentary Constituencies’, Professor Ivor Crewe wrote that the 1983 boundary changes were:

 ... the most radical re-drawing of Britain’s electoral map since the Great Reform Act of 1832. Over 90% of the electorate are in constituencies whose boundaries have been altered in some way.

The total number of seats increased from 635 to 650 but within that increase there were damaging trends for Labour: the great Labour heartland metropolitan areas lost 16 seats and the much more Conservative-inclined shire counties gained an extra 23 seats. The net partisan effect of the 1983 changes, before the election campaign had even begun, was estimated to cost Labour nine seats and gain the Conservatives 21 seats.

Alongside these boundary changes that were so unhelpful to Labour, there was the post-1981 rise of the Lib-SDP Alliance that decisively fractured the anti-Conservative vote in the country.

By the time the 1983 general election campaign began, almost immediately following the results of the May 1983 local elections (in which the governing Conservatives made a net gain of 128 seats, compared with Labour’s net gain of 37), the Conservatives were in a very strong position in the opinion polls.

A total of 51 voting intention polls were published during the 1983 general election campaign. In the table below I have recorded the average support for the main parties in the first ten and then the last ten of those polls.
 

 

1st 10 polls

Last 10 polls

Result (GB)

 

%

%

%

Conservative

47

46

44

Labour

34

26

28

Lib/SDP Alliance

19

26

26


These averages are crude but there is no gainsaying their direction of travel: by the end of the campaign Labour was down eight points from where it started, the Alliance were up seven points over the same period and the Conservatives held solid throughout.

There is no evidence (as yet) that the 2017 campaign will be a re-run of what happened in the 1983 campaign. There are no disruptive constituency boundary changes this time; and nor is there any triumphant Lib-SDP Alliance snapping at Labour’s heels. However, we are justified in noting that the Conservatives begin the 2017 campaign in a similarly strong position. And that even in the disaster of 1983 Labour could still emerge with 41 Scottish MPs – 40 fewer than today. In polling terms, Labour begins the 2017 campaign registering figures that reflect where it finished in 1983; and if the Lib Dems increase their support throughout the 2017 campaign, where would such a surplus come from? If it is mostly from Labour then that party will be in dire trouble.

The table below sets out the 1983 campaign opinion polls. If a passion for comparisons with 1983 does develop, they might provide an interesting backdrop to the campaign polls that roll out in 2017.
 

Pollster

Fieldwork

Sample

Con

Lab

Alliance

Oths.

 

 

 

%

%

%

%

1983 result (GB)

 

 

44

28

26

2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MORI

8.6

1,101

44

28

26

2

Marplan

8.6

1,335

46

26

26

2

Gallup

7-8.6

2,003

45.5

26.5

26

2

Harris

7-8.6

   567

47

25

26

2

Audience Selec.

7.6

1,100

45

23

29

3

MORI

6-7.6

   867

47

26

25

2

NOP

6-7.6

1,040

46

28

24

2

Marplan

6.6

1,337

47

26

25

2

Audience Selec.

5.6

1,038

45

24

28

3

NOP

3.6

1,074

47

29

23

1

Marplan

3.6

1,311

44

27

27.5

1.5

Harris

2-3.6

1,041

47

28

23

2

MORI (panel)

2.6

1,067

43

32

23

2

MORI

1-3.6

   942

45

28

25

2

Gallup

31.5-2.6

1,989

45.5

31.5

22

1

Marplan

31.5-1.6

1,276

47

30

22

1

Harris

31.5-1.6

1,048

46

28

24

2

Audience Selec.

31.5

   504

44

29

25

2

MORI

31.5

1,026

44

32

21

3

Audience Selec.

30.5

1,056

41

30

24

5

Gallup

25-30.5

   918

47.5

28

23

1.5

Marplan

27.5

1,325

49.5

31

19

0.5

Harris

26-27.5

1,029

47

30

21

2

MORI

26.5

1,088

51

29

18

2

Gallup

24-26.5

2,015

49

31.5

18

1.5

MORI (panel)

24-25.5

1,023

46

30

23

1

Harris

24-25.5

1,034

48

33

18

1

Marplan

23-25.5

1,422

47.5

32.5

19

1

Audience Selec.

24.5

   557

45

32

21

2

NOP

23-24.5                      

1,104

52

33

14

1

Audience Selec.

23.5

1,071

45

32

20

3

MORI

23.5

1,068

51

33

15

Gallup

20-23.5

1,700

48

33

18

1

Marplan

20.5

1,700

48

33

18

1

Harris

19-20.5

1,052

45

36

18

1

MORI

19.5

1,100

46

37

16

1

MORI

17-18.5

   960

47

30

21

2

Harris

18.5

1,053

45

35

17

3

Audience Selec.

17.5

   507

44

33

21

2

NOP

16-17.5

1,584

49

31

19

1

Audience Selec.

16.5

1,154

46

31

21

2

MORI

16.5

1,090

44

37

17

2

Gallup

11-16.5

   946

46

33

19

2

MORI

12.5

   964

49

34

15

2

Harris

11.5

1,048

52

31

17

-

Marplan

9-11.5

1,457

46

34

19

1

MORI

5-11.5

1,824

46

32

22

-

MORI

10.5

1,047

46

31

21

2

MORI

6.5

1,090

45

34

20

1

Harris

5-6.5

1,053

46

38

15

1

Gallup

4-9.5

   971

49

31.5

17.5

2


David Cowling is an independent Political Analyst.

The author(s)

  • David Cowling Independent Political Analyst

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