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Sounds familiar? Labour in the 1980s

9th August 2016

Sounds familiar? Labour in the 1980s

Excerpts from Defeat from the Jaws of Victory
by Richard Heffernan and Mike Marqusee (Verso Books, 1992)
The late Mike Marqusee was for many years editor of Labour Briefing

The failures of the 1974-79 Labour government produced a radicalisation within Labour’s ranks. This was expressed at the 1980 conference. Tony Benn surfed this radical wave in his campaign to become deputy leader, narrowly defeated in 1981. The leader and deputy leader were at this time elected by an electoral college of Party Members, Affiliated Trade Unions and Labour MPs.  Before that, only the MPs voted to decide the leader and deputy. Probably the level of abuse aimed at Jeremy Corbyn by the establishment today exceeds that endured by Tony Benn in the 1980s. Denis Healey’s counter-campaign echoes Owen Smith’s leadership bid today in many respects, with radical posturing on policy combined with personal insults and denunciation of left wing supporters.

Labour’s Conference 1980
  “The media ridiculed the Party’s divisions and the occasional chaos of the proceedings in Blackpool. But many of the speakers insisted that what the media found so amusing was nothing less than democracy in action: a freewheeling, unscripted, bottom-up democracy more precious to the Party than any other political asset. There were 179 contributions from the conference floor during that week in 1980 – including 113 from constituency delegates.

  “A decade later it became commonplace to make jokes about the conferences of the early 1980s and to deride the unseemly spectacle of front-bench Labour MPs having to queue up for their turn at the rostrum . For many media pundits the ascendancy of the rank and file was an affront to their conception of politics as a game played out within the precincts of Westminster and a handful of television studios, a game in which they controlled the rules and kept the score. They loathed the Labour conference above all because they could not control its agenda, because it allowed to be placed before masses of people arguments – about alternative economic policies, about democracy, about workers’ rights, about the horror of nuclear weapons – which they had spent much of their lives excluding from public view.

  “On the Friday morning, during the last session of the conference, the Party’s general secretary, Ron Hayward, tried to make a virtue of the fierce debates and unpredictable votes. ‘Have a look at the Tory conference,’ he advised delegates, then joked, ‘We are going to do it to you next year. I will select the resolutions; you will darned well see no other resolutions will come on. We will make sure the standing ovations are done at the right time. You cannot really get much life in a cemetery, can you?’ Ten years later Ron Hayward could have been talking about Labour’s own conferences, purged of dissent, calculated and controlled to the last detail. What he meant as a joke was, under the leadership of Neil Kinnock, to become a reality…”

Benn’s Campaign for Deputy Leader
  “Following intensive discussions across the Left, on 3 April Tony Benn declared he would stand for election as deputy leader at the next party conference. To the Left Tony Benn, articulate, experienced and full of conviction, was an automatic standard-bearer. To the Labour Right, he was a standing affront. Former Labour cabinet ministers, backed by the Tory press and the labour-supporting Daily Mirror, queued up to condemn Benn for daring to use the Party’s new democratic machinery.” (The electoral college mentioned in the introduction.)  “Few politicians have had to endure the abuse dished out to Benn during the months that followed. Fighting on an unambiguous political platform, he took his campaign to the grass roots of the Labour Party and the trade unions.  In every major city in the country he addressed public meetings the size and like of which had not been seen in the labour movement for years. In those months Benn appeared to be everywhere, speaking to audiences big and small, groups of Party and union activists, peace campaigners, striking workers, unemployment marchers. Wherever he went he received an enthusiastic response not only from Party members but also from a substantial swathe of the public which felt bitterly betrayed by the last” (1974-79) “Labour government.

  “Benn sought the deputy leadership not as an individual politician offering himself for high office but as the chosen representative of the groundswell of left opinion among Labour’s rank and file. It was because his message found a ready echo at the grass roots that Benn’s campaign took the Labour movement by storm throughout the spring and summer of 1981. Indeed, even though the candidate himself was hospitalised for much of the campaign, it continued unabated, belying the claim that this was simply a one-man band.

  “The energy and success of the Benn campaign and the possibility that he would win the election at the Labour conference in October shook the establishment - and not only the Labour establishment – profoundly. At this time Labour was ahead of the Tories in the opinion polls, the prospect of a Labour government under left leadership taking office in the near future seemed a real one to newspaper proprietors, television pundits, City bankers, industrialists, military men and other pillars of the status quo…”

Denis Healey’s Counter-Campaign
  (Denis) “Healey and his supporters fought a wretchedly defensive campaign, evading the arguments and relying heavily on media hostility to their opponents. Healey knew that he had no basis of support within the constituency parties and hoped that the trade unions and the payroll vote of Labour MPs would save him. Yet the strength of the Labour left was such that that he felt obliged to respond to its political demands. He declared himself in favour of a Labour government that would ‘carry through a planned socialist programme’. Its first objective would be to ‘restore full employment’ and implement an ‘alternative economic strategy’, which would require ‘real increases in public expenditure’...

  “When it did not echo Benn’s rhetoric, the Healey camp was resorting to personal denunciations of him and his supporters. Unwilling to accept that their own failings has spurred the spontaneous growth of a grassroots left wing, Labour’s parliamentary leaders painted the Benn forces as an alien conspiracy which had to be extirpated from the Party. In July 1981, shadow Chancellor Peter Shore denounced Benn’s supporters as people ‘who have joined our ranks not to further the democratic socialist cause but to subvert it… they should be strongly dealt with because there is no room for infiltrators, conspirators and wreckers in the Labour Party’.”

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