Michael Foot Centenary: reflections on his 1983 Manifesto

Today is the centenary of the birth of Michael Foot, Leader of the Labour Party from 1980 to 1983 – and during the infamous defeat at the 1983 General Election.

Foot is remembered fondly in the Labour Party for his intelligence, oratory, brilliant writing, wit and charm, and not just for the 1983 defeat. Most of the blame for that is attached to the 1983 Labour Manifesto, which is only ever mentioned alongside Gerald Kaufman’s description of it as ‘the longest suicide note in history’. Foot may well have been the only person capable of holding the Labour Party together at the time. He believed that the only credible Manifesto was one based on the resolutions passed at Labour Conference, and that is what it was. Responsibility should therefore be widely shared.

The most controversial items in the Manifesto – unilateral nuclear disarmament, leaving the EEC, and nationalisation – have dominated the subsequent debate about its merits. But it also included a raft of progressive policies, many of which ultimately became law under New Labour – including devolution to the nations, freedom of information, equal pay and other rights for women, and more action to end racial discrimination. Reading through 30 years on, I think its economic and social policies deserve a more generous retrospective review. It is tempting to agree with Neil Clark, writing a Guardian Opinion piece, about what really happened in that Election: ‘In truth the real “suicide note” in 1983 election was the Conservative party manifesto, which, with its dogmatic espousal of free-market policies, put on us on the road we are today: a debt-ridden, privatised service economy with massive differentials in wealth; a country where the majority of people – working class and middle class – are exploited by an unaccountable, transnational corporate and financial elite.’

The housing policies in the 1983 Manifesto reflect different housing priorities from now: although there were significant housing shortages, there was a general belief that the they could be tackled and overcome. No-one imagined that affordable housebuilding would suffer so spectacularly and for so long under Thatcher, nor that it would fail to revive in the subsequent 30 years. So, although the Manifesto had a commitment to restore the council housebuilding programme ended by Thatcher, the priority for the promised ‘immediate 50 per cent increase in (council) housing investment programmes’ was given to ‘the urgent repair and replacement of run-down estates.’ And there was a commitment on rents: ‘We will freeze all rents for the first full year’.

Then, as now, Labour sought a balanced housing tenure policy rather than a damaging obsession with one tenure: ‘Our aim is a decent home for all with real freedom of choice between renting and owning, on terms people can afford. Labour governments have done more than any others to assist owner occupiers; and we will extend this by giving special assistance to first-time buyers and council tenants.

Only 6 years after the ground breaking homelessness legislation, and before most people became aware of the bed and breakfast crisis about to explode, Labour committed to go further by extending the ‘priority’ groups under the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act, including more single people, and generally to strengthen the rights of homeless people.

There was a hugely different attitude towards council tenants from the one that has become common today: in addition to a national action programme to repair and improve or replace run-down estates, there was a commitment to ‘strengthen tenants’ rights on security, repairs and improvements, access to files, exchanges, transfers, moves between local authority areas, and rehousing rights on breakdown of relationship’ and a progressive reform agenda: ‘to encourage more responsive and decentralised housing management and maintenance, and promote tenant participation and democracy, including housing co-operatives’.

The policy towards the private rented sector reflected the then common view that absentee private landlordism would become a thing of the past, with home ownership and social renting became the norm. There was a commitment to transfer homes from private landlords to social landlords and home owners, a commitment to repeal shorthold tenure, and policies to strengthen tenants’ right on deposits and harassment. And a right to repair was promised for all tenants irrespective of landlord.

On land, the Manifesto promised to put the interests of local people ahead of property speculators through positive land planning and by enabling councils to buy (non owner occupied) development land at current use value. That would put the cat among the pigeons nowadays.

If I can’t go so far as to agree with Neil Clark’s view that the 1983 Manifesto was ‘not so suicidal after all’, he may be right that it was the missed opportunity to derail the neo-liberal bandwagon. The Manifesto certainly had a strong Keynesian ethic, and a commitment to social justice and ‘affordable housing for all’ that it is helpful to reflect on now.

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