This extract from Alwyn Turner’s book Rejoice! Rejoice! Britain in the 1980s may or may not have some relevance to today…
In the wake of the 1979 general election defeat, it was Tony Benn who made all the running. ‘In those exhilarating years Tony seemed to be everywhere,’ remembered Ken Livingstone, then the Labour leader of the Greater London Council. ‘Audiences of hundreds and often thousands listened as he analyzed, examined, predicted and gave confidence that we could achieve socialism.’
Like so many others, Livingstone found Benn’s energy electrifying: ‘Not only did every speech seem to produce a new idea or policy but each one was crafted with a care and a beauty the movement had not heard since the death of Nye Bevan.’
It wasn’t a view universally shared. At the annual conference in 1980 Benn delivered one of his best-known speeches (‘a competent, “prime ministerial”-type speech,’ he thought), calling for an incoming Labour government to push through immediate legislation on the extension of industrial democracy and public ownership, the return of all powers from Europe and – to facilitate these moves – the abolition of the House of Lords, the latter to be achieved by the creation of a thousand new peers, who would then commit mass political suicide.
‘This was cloud cuckoo land,’ snorted David Owen, but the reception in the hall was rapturous. ‘He tells them in effect that given the faith and the will-power it will all be quite easy,’ reflected Lord Longford, unhappily. ‘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.’
This question of the personal animosity that Benn sometimes inspired was a major factor in how he was perceived. From his position, it was an irrelevancy – personality counted for much less than the issues (‘the ishoos’ as they were sometimes mockingly known, in a nod to his slightly impeded delivery) – and that view became orthodoxy on the left. ‘Personality clashes and the conflict of competing ambitions are a thin mask over the developing economic and social forces to which individual politicians respond,’ wrote Livingstone.
But there were many supporters who – quite reasonably – couldn’t separate Benn’s personal charm and appeal, his ever-enthusiastic optimism, from the message he was conveying. And, on the other side, there were opponents who simply wouldn’t accept this reductionist position: ‘Politics is about personalities and how we behave as personalities, and whether our actions point to comradeship,’ argued the future foreign secretary Jack Straw, who had been elected as a Labour MP in 1979.
For the press, which was almost universally hostile, it was Benn’s calm, unflustered discussion of the issues that caused ever greater irritation: ‘Though his tongue speaks with sweet reason, he has the mind of a ranter and the eyes of a fanatic,’ fretted the Daily Express.
Some of the same distaste and fear was directed at the ranks of activists (as opposed to those who were simply party members) that could be glimpsed over Benn’s shoulder. Long ago Sidney Webb, who had co-written the party’s constitution, had claimed that constituency parties ‘were frequently unrepresentative groups of nonentities dominated by fanatics, cranks and extremists’, and that assessment was primarily why the members had never been given much power within the movement. Now they were determined to rectify the situation.
‘We must not be afraid to challenge openly authoritarianism, dogma or the threat posed by the elitism of the activists,’ declared Owen in a speech in January 1980, but for many the problem was simply staying awake long enough to do any such challenging. The new breed of activist tended to be young, without family commitments, often without work commitments, and with an almost insatiable desire to attend political meetings, the longer the better.
‘Some of us go to meetings every night of the week,’ boasted a delegate to the Labour conference, with a hint of hostility towards those who couldn’t keep up. ‘We used to have a lot of old people come to meetings,’ explained Jim Evans, a Labour councillor in Islington, North London. ‘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.’
The issue of class was a recurring theme in the complaints of the older Labour figures: ‘It almost seemed as if this Seventies generation were bitter that they too had not had the opportunity of suffering real poverty and hardship like we did, but had only been able to study it at university,’ scoffed Nottinghamshire MP, Joe Ashton. His colleague Austin Mitchell was similarly scornful, talking about ‘power without responsibility, now the prerogative of activists as well as harlots’.
This, the Labour right complained, was the truth of the ‘active not passive democracy’ that Benn and his supporters wished to introduce into the party: handing over power not to the people, nor even to the mass membership, but to the ultra-committed activists who, like the labourers in the vineyard toiling all day, resented any suggestion that humble members of the electorate, arriving late in the afternoon, should be given equal consideration…