History / Politics

Labourites in the vineyard

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.artwork-tony-benn-narrow

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…


2 thoughts on “Labourites in the vineyard

  1. I remember Benn on morning TV the day after the 1983 election, celebrating Labour’s dire performance on the grounds that Labour had campaigned on a more left-wing manifesto than ever before. This was despite his own personal defeat at the election. Quite clearly Benn had no concerns about his own financial situation. And why should he have done so? He had married into money. He had the public school and Oxford background that would guarantee him decently remunerated employment within the left-wing elite – should he ever have needed to earn a crust. Organic of course.

    Benn became an MP at the age of 25 – virtually straight out of Oxford University. Perhaps the original ‘Red Prince’, though his grandfathers were Liberals rather than Labour. Benn had done nothing of note before coming an MP. His main formative experience was as a Minister in the 1964-70 and 1974-79 governments. This was also his first experience with complexity. While the Labour Governments faced predictable opposition to its reforms from senior Civil Servants, business and the intelligence services, the major battle and the cause of its ultimate downfall was with the trade unions. Benn could not face the obvious conclusion that in Britian in 1979 a successful socialist economy as much as a successful capitalist economy would require trade union reform. As an adult who can’t face the responsibilities and challenges of adult life regresses to childhood, Benn when faced by complexity regressed to gross over-simplification.

    Benn was undoubtedly a major political influence and that is perhaps why there are so many parallels with the current situation in British politics. Over the last 35 years, the class divide within Labour politics has been intensified by the expansion of higher education and the de-industrialisation of Britain’s economy, by the growth of high paid employment and by the concentration of union membership within the public sector. In the way that Benn refused to face the need for trade union reform, Corbyn has chosen to ignore the challenges he faces due to the differences that exist between Labour voters and Labour Party members. The two main issues of contention are BREXIT and Muslim immigration and assimilation. Calling his own base ‘racist’ will be no more successful for Corbyn than Hillary Clinton calling voters ‘deplorables’ and then hoping that they will vote for her.


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