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The Labour Party, 1900-Present

4. Labour in Opposition: 1979-1997

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About this Lecture


In this module, we think about the long period that Labour had in opposition from the election of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister in 1979 to the landslide electoral victory of Tony Blair’s New Labour in 1997, focusing in particular on the question of why Labour was so incapable of electoral success during this period. We begin by examining the contested legacy of the 1974-9 Labour government which created deep ideological divisions within the party and exaggerated three wings: (i) the moderates, (ii) the ‘soft’ left embodied by Michael Foot, and (iii) the ‘hard’ left embodied by Tony Benn. We then focus on three reasons for Labour’s loss to Margaret Thatcher in the 1983 General Election (i) the strength of Labour’s ‘hard’ left, (ii) the breakaway of the ‘Gang of Four’ and the foundation of the Social Democrat Party, and (iii) Thatcher’s electoral boost from victory in the Falklands War. We then move on to think about reform within the Labour Party under Neil Kinnock and Tony Blair to form a more credible party image and juxtapose this against Conservative ‘sleaze’ and internal divisions over Euroscepticism in the runup to the 1997 General Election and the historic triumph of Tony Blair.


In this course, Dr Kevin Hickson (University of Liverpool) examines the history of the Labour Party from its founding as the Labour Representation Committee in 1900 to the present-day leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. In the first module, we think about the origins and growth of the Labour Party until the end of the Second World War. The second module focuses on the political achievements and enduring legacies of Labour’s first majority government under Clement Attlee, 1945-51. In the third module, we consider the difficulties faced by Harold Wilson and James Callaghan who led Labour governments from 1964-70 and 1974-9. In the fourth module, we think about Labour’s long period in opposition from 1979-97 and try to understand why Labour was so incapable of succeeding in general elections, focusing in particular on the legacy of the 1974-9 Wilson/Callaghan governments. Finally, in the fifth module, we think about the period from 1997 to the present, focusing in particular on the phenomenon of New Labour and the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn.


Dr Kevin Hickson is a Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Liverpool. His teaching and research interests are in the field of British politics, political history and political ideologies.

Cite this Lecture

APA style

Hickson, K. (2019, September 26). The Labour Party, 1900-Present - Labour in Opposition: 1979-1997 [Video]. MASSOLIT.

MLA style

Hickson, K. "The Labour Party, 1900-Present – Labour in Opposition: 1979-1997." MASSOLIT, uploaded by MASSOLIT, 26 Sep 2019,