History / Politics

‘It was not a happy period’


For those who want to be reminded of Tony Benn’s glory years in 1979-82, here are a dozen quotations, which are all taken from Alwyn Turner’s Rejoice! Rejoice! Britain in the 1980s (2010):

‘Serves us bloody right. We offer the electorate a choice between two Tory parties and they choose the real one. Now we find ourselves back in the wilderness for five years and the country’s going down the plughole.’ – Harry Perkins in Chris Mullin’s novel A Very British Coup (1982)

‘Having lost the last general election, the Labour Party is now hard at work preparing to lose the next.’ – Terence Lancaster, Daily Mirror political editor, July 1979

‘I hope next year when you have got the bad blood of the election disappointment out of your system, we will concentrate on building a party which will get back for our movement the millions of voters we have lost not to the Communist Party, not to the militant groups, but to the Tories and Liberals.’ – Denis Healey, Labour Party conference, October 1979

‘To the weak-hearted, the traitors and the cowards I say: “Get out of our movement. There is no place in it for you.”’ – Terry Fields, Militant member and future MP, Labour Party conference, October 1979

‘I am fed up with the right-wing leaders of the PLP: they don’t agree with the party on defence, on economic policy, on the Common Market, on cruise missiles, on wages, and it can’t go on for much longer.’ – Tony Benn, diary entry, July 1980

‘In those exhilarating years Tony seemed to be everywhere: on radio and television, writing books and in crowded meeting halls all over Britain. Audiences of hundreds and often thousands listened as he analyzed, examined, predicted and gave confidence that we could achieve socialism.’ – Ken Livingstone, If Voting Changed Anything, They’d Abolish It (1987)

‘He [Benn] tells them in effect that given the faith and the will-power it will all be quite easy. Those who have served with him in two governments know all too well that things are not remotely like that. They cannot believe he is unaware of his own gross over-simplification. Hence the antagonism among the MPs is directed not only against the policies but against the man.’ – Lord Longford, Diary of a Year (1982)

‘Politics is about personalities and how we behave as personalities, and whether our actions point to comradeship.’ – Jack Straw at PLP meeting, November 1981

‘We used to have a lot of old people come to meetings. The middle-class student types just laughed at them and mocked them, and so they stopped coming. In the old days we had meetings and then went off to the pub afterwards. These new people started coming in with sandwiches and flasks and the meetings went on until two or three in the morning.’ – Jim Evans, Labour councillor in Islington, 1981

‘Power without responsibility: now the prerogative of activists as well as harlots.’ – Austin Mitchell, Four Years in the Death of the Labour Party (1983)

‘It also needs to be said that you can compromise and compromise and compromise again and destroy the party you love.’ – David Owen, January 1981

‘The big event in the Labour Party in the early ’80s was the prospect that Mr Benn would become leader, which caused mild hysteria not only amongst the right-wing media but also amongst the establishment of the Labour Party. It wasn’t the worry that we would become unelectable, it was the worry that we would indeed be electable.’ – Chris Mullin, interviewed for the DVD release of A Very British Coup

‘It was not a happy period.’ – James Callaghan, Time and Chance (1987)

now available in paperback:


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