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Radio Moscow reviews the 1979 election

Margaret Thatcher visits the Cabinet War Rooms

The visit of Margaret Thatcher to the Cabinet War Rooms, 4 April 1984. IWM-1984-15-1.

With all the recent coverage of the life and times of Margaret Thatcher, I thought it might be interesting to delve into the Radio Moscow material stored at Duxford to see how the election of Britain’s first female Prime Minister was reported to British listeners by a Soviet media source. Expecting a diatribe against the ‘Iron Lady’ from a committed ideological opponent, I was surprised to find instead concentrated criticism of James Callaghan’s outgoing Labour government.

Initial analysis found only a passing reference to Thatcher. There was an official greeting offered by Soviet Statesman Aleksey Kosygin and an acknowledgement that the first woman Prime Minister had made history. Otherwise, Radio Moscow reserved its criticism for Callaghan, and his predecessor Harold Wilson, accusing them of losing the election and attacking them on terms that would later become familiar amongst opponents of Thatcher.

Wilson was criticised for ignoring the voices of the left and thus limping, rather than storming, to victory in 1974. Key to the criticism was that both he and Callaghan tried to damage the trade union movement – a policy Radio Moscow acknowledged Thatcher would also pursue. Callaghan was also blamed for saddling workers with the ‘entire burden of the economic crisis for the sake of assuring the profits of the monopoly corporations.’

These hardly sound like traditional Labour policies – but to me it seems this was the aim of Radio Moscow. They wanted listeners to think the election was lost because Labour was not socialist enough, not because socialism had been rejected by the public. The British Communist Party was quoted claiming the election ‘highlights the need for a left alternative, a policy resisting the domination of big business, creating jobs and restraining prices’ – which Radio Moscow claimed Labour was not.  Thus, Thatcher’s victory was not over the left, but over a misdirected Labour Party.

British electioneering was also a cause of defeat. Radio Moscow told listeners no one bothered with reading manifestoes anymore – ‘British voters… make their choice on the strength of how impressed they are by this or that political personality on the television screen’. The recent arrival of televised Presidential-style debates and TV-personality politicians demonstrate that this tendency within UK politics has not abated.

Another trend identified by Radio Moscow then also sounds familiar to us today. Press barons, and their vested interests, were noted for their promotion of the Conservative Party: a policy born from an ‘almost pathological fear of a Labour victory’. Here again was a reason for Labour’s defeat unrelated to a rejection of socialism.

Focussing on Labour’s defeat, rather than Margaret Thatcher’s victory, undoubtedly fitted with Radio Moscow’s motives. They wanted to portray the endless march of socialism, and Labour’s defeat did not fit this narrative. However, by uncoupling Labour from true socialism and using excuses such as television influence or Conservative media owners, Radio Moscow could argue that Margaret Thatcher might have won, but true socialism had not lost.

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