Photo by Red Dot via Unsplash

Guest blog by Simon Stiel. Simon has a degree in History and Politics from Queen Mary, University of London, and lives in the Chesham and Amersham constituency in Buckinghamshire.

9th June this year marks the fortieth anniversary of the 1983 General Election. The election took place three years before I was born, so I have no recollection of it. But the memory of the 1983 election has echoed down the subsequent four decades.

For different reasons, each of the major parties has reason to look back on the contest as a crucial moment in British political history. Above all, though, the anniversary of the 1983 general election reminds us that First Past the Post was cheating voters then as it does now. 

The Conservatives led by Margaret Thatcher achieved a landslide majority of 144 seats despite the economic and social turmoil of the previous four years. Overseen by the Saatchi & Saatchi agency, the Tories ran a campaign that insisted that Britain was on the right track and that it shouldn’t turn back. The Conservative Government would go on to shape Britain’s economy and society in substantial ways for the rest of the Eighties – and, arguably, well beyond. 

Labour had a disastrous election. Its leader Michael Foot was 69 years old, had a deep love of literature and addressing rallies and meetings across the country. Footage of him from the time shows him touring constituencies on the top deck of a double decker bus, waving to members of the public. However, the Party had substantial and public policy divisions about nuclear disarmament, the economy, constitutional reform, internal democracy and international affairs. The end result was a disaster: Labour’s share of the vote plummeted by nearly 10 percentage points – by far its worst return in the post war period.

As the election approached, the SDP-Liberal Alliance, meanwhile, had reason for optimism. Soaring in the polls, Alliance leader David Steel had told delegates at the Liberal Party Assembly in September 1981 to return to their constituencies and “prepare for government.” This remark would come back to bite Steel – and has gone down in the annals of misjudged political predictions. 

But should it have? The Alliance gained 25.4% of the vote – a colossal return for a third party under First Past the Post, and an increase of over 11 points from the Liberals’ performance in 1979. In this light, you’d be forgiven for viewing the 1983 election as a tremendous success for the Alliance.

Only under the distortive glare of First Past the Post did things look very different.

Labour, despite its hugely disappointing performance at the ballot box, still had 209 MPs in the House of Commons. By comparison, the Alliance had 23 MPs – up by 12, but nowhere near equivalent to the level of its support in the country.

How would British politics and history have turned out after 1983 had there been 165 Alliance MPs in the Commons – a proportional return? What could that have meant not just for the Eighties but for the future?

What we do know is that in 1983 as now, First Past the Post ignores the votes of millions of people across the country. It narrows the range of political possibilities, and skews our national conversation. 

I am not a member of any political party. I feel politically homeless and have felt so for a long time. I am sure there are many, many more people throughout the UK who share my sense of disenfranchisement.

Forty years on from the 1983 election, change is long overdue. Alongside fellow supporters of reform, I will keep making the case that First Past the Post is a scam, should be scrapped and should be replaced with something much better: Proportional Representation.