This extract from Alwyn Turner’s book Rejoice! Rejoice! goes back to 1979 and the aftermath of a disastrous election defeat for the Labour Party.
Tony Benn was now in a unique position, exempted from the left’s attacks on the previous government, despite having been a leading member of it, because he spoke more clearly than anyone of the need for reforms. He had emerged during the 1970s as the most persuasive and charismatic leader of the left for two decades, charming, funny and impassioned, as adept in the television studio as he was at mass rallies, and his growing popularity was the source of some concern.
‘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,’ reflected Chris Mullin, some years later. ‘It wasn’t the worry that we would become unelectable, it was the worry that we would indeed be electable.’
Having served as industry secretary under Wilson and having found his proposals for industrial reform blocked, Benn’s dissatisfaction – together with his ability to tell the story from the inside – chimed with those thousands of activists who felt cheated by the leadership, so that although he had not originated the demands for change, they became identified almost entirely with him.
The Labour establishment was not slow to recognize the danger, even if it was not entirely sure how to respond. ‘Having lost the last general election, the Labour Party is now hard at work preparing to lose the next,’ wrote Terence Lancaster in the Daily Mirror in June 1979, warning that if the choice of leader was to be left to conference, ‘Tony Benn would ride to an easy victory’. In an editorial headlined ‘Labour: the road to oblivion’, the same paper spelt out the ultimate fear that the left’s proposals on internal democracy could produce a situation where the party ‘will split in two. And a split could keep the Tories in power for a generation.’
Less friendly commentators came to the same conclusion at the autumn conference that year; Benn, wrote the Daily Mail, had ‘planted a time-bomb which could still explode and split Labour’s left wing from a new social democratic and liberal party’.
That conference was a public relations disaster for the Labour Party, setting a pattern that was to become very familiar over the next few years. The surviving MPs, fewer in number than they had been for twenty years, sat in a single ramped block, under continual attack from the rostrum and even from the platform. ‘I feel like a defendant in a People’s Court,’ commented one, and there was little that week to dispel the impression.
‘I come not to praise [James] Callaghan but to bury him,’ announced Ron Hayward, the party’s general secretary, to enthusiastic cheers. He proceeded to analyse what had gone wrong: ‘Why was there a winter of discontent? The reason was that, for good or ill, the cabinet supported by the MPs ignored congress and conference decisions. It was as simple as that.’
A succession of speakers followed the same direction, blaming the parliamentary party for all that had gone wrong and insisting that, if only the wisdom of the conference had been heeded, things would have been well. The sustained fury that was unleashed that week upon the hapless MPs was unprecedented in mainstream British politics and did more damage to the party’s image than anything since Callaghan had returned from Guadeloupe in the midst of the winter of discontent to enquire – in the words put in his mouth by the Sun – ‘Crisis? What crisis?’
‘There is no guarantee of even the politest and mildest form of applause for those who oppose the left,’ noted one contemporary account. ‘It is not only deference but some of the ordinary conventions of public debate that have gone.’ In vain did Michael Foot try to explain that ‘It is easy to say that all you have to do is to obey conference’s decisions. Sometimes conference asks for contradictory things.’
No one was listening. Nor did they pay much attention to Denis Healey as, recognizing that now was not the time for his brand of pragmatic politics, he shrugged off the entire experience: ‘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.’