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Michael Foot: What did the 'longest suicide note' say?

By Rajini Vaidyanathan
BBC News Magazine

The death of Michael Foot has revived memories of his 1983 election manifesto for Labour - dubbed "the longest suicide note in history" after the party's drubbing in the polls.

Many of the policies in the 1983 Labour manifesto were criticised for veering into the outlandish, but 27 years later some of them have strange parallels with today.

NUCLEAR DISARMAMENT

One of the most notable policies in the 1983 manifesto was a call for Britain to take unilateral action to scrap its nuclear weapons, albeit to help encourage worldwide disarmament.

CND march 1983
The CND debate lost its potency after the end of the Cold War

It said: "We must use unilateral steps taken by Britain to secure multilateral solutions on the international level."

Advocates of nuclear disarmament including Michael Foot argued that if Britain got rid of its arsenal, others would follow suit, and that this was a basis on which to build peace and co-operation. But with the Cold War still ongoing at that point, there was strong public support for Britain to have a nuclear deterrent.

Today, the debate is couched in slightly different terms, and somebody calling for the government not to renew the Trident missile system, might not be viewed as a left-wing idealist. There are plenty who criticise the UK's deterrent scheme on the basis either of cost or of a changed strategic situation - where terrorism and rogue states are the new threats.

EUROPE

To go back to the 1983 manifesto is to be reminded that the Labour position on Europe has been utterly reversed.

Referendum meeting
Despite a referendum in '75, Labour remained divided over Europe in '83

In 1983, the Labour manifesto called for a withdrawal from the European Economic Community (EEC). It was something that caused much division in the party.

The manifesto specifically said: "On taking office we will open preliminary negotiations with the other EEC member states to establish a timetable for withdrawal; and we will publish the results of these negotiations in a White Paper."

Today, Labour's position is 180° the other way. Neither it, nor the Conservatives, seek withdrawal from the EU, although it is the LibDems which are the most pro-European of the main three parties. Ukip is the largest party to advocate withdrawal from Europe.

BANKS

The 1983 manifesto called for, through the Bank of England, "much closer direct control over bank lending. Agreed development plans will be concluded with the banks and other financial institutions."

Cash machine
Labour wanted greater control of banks in '83

Before the economic crash of 2008, such a policy would have been unthinkable in mainstream politics. But since then, there has been much talk about how the government could exert influence on banks' lending policy - although the emphasis has been to encourage more, rather than less, lending. In July last year, the government unveiled a plan to guarantee billions of pounds of bank loans to small businesses.

Later on in the manifesto the party said it expects  "the major clearing banks to co operate with us fully on these reforms, in the national interest. However, should they fail to do so, we shall stand ready to take one or more of them into public ownership. This will not in any way affect the integrity of customers' deposits".

Other economic pledges from 1983 have a certain resonance with today.

"Establish a National Investment Bank to put new resources from private institutions and from the government - including North Sea oil revenues - on a large scale into our industrial priorities. The bank will attract and channel savings, by agreement, in a way that guarantees these savings and improves the quality of investment in the UK."

The government has outlined a range of proposals to set up an infrastructure bank to help ensure that projects funded jointly by the private and public sector can continue to be funded, even in this economic climate.

NATIONAL MINIMUM WAGE

"We will also discuss with the TUC the possibility of introducing a minimum wage," asserted the 1983 manifesto.

A firmer pledge to introduce a minimum wage came in the by then New Labour 1997 manifesto, and an act bringing it in came the next year. After initial Conservative opposition, the party has now indicated it supports the idea.

The current level is £5.80 an hour for workers aged 22 and over, £4.83 for those who are 18-21 and £3.57 for 16 and 17-year-olds.

FOXHUNTING

"Hare coursing, fox hunting and all forms of hunting with dogs will be made illegal."

This commitment was accompanied by an attempt to establish Labour as the party of animal rights.

After many years of failed private members bills, the Hunting Act of 2004 got a ban on to the statute books and the practice of hunting with dogs is now outlawed. But the national debate that preceded the ban was highly emotive and the Conservative Party says the ban had been an "abject failure". It wants MPs to be allowed a free vote on repealing it.



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