A battle was raging between the left and right inside the Labour Party in the early 1980s. The Labour right feared they were losing control.
Two recently re-released books, Hammer of the Left by 1980s Labour politician John Golding and journalist Michael Crick’s Militant, look at what went on then.
They are handbooks for a new generation of Labour right wingers learning how to fight old battles. The left, both inside and outside Labour, have lessons to learn from the 1980s too.
When the Labour government was booted out of office in 1979 it had spent the previous two years making workers pay for a bosses’ crisis. A cap on public sector workers’ pay sparked a series of strikes in the winter of 1978-79—the “Winter of Discontent”.
There was discontent inside Labour’s own ranks too. Party conferences and its national executive committee frequently passed motions opposed to Labour government policies.
None of this bothered prime minister James Callaghan who, in the words of Golding, saw conference decisions “merely as declarations of opinion”.
He took Labour into the 1979 general election on a right wing manifesto—and lost.
Workers were not inspired to vote for a party that had spent years attacking them, while union leaders held back the struggle.
Yet anger among Labour activists produced a swing to the left. Denis Healey, the right’s replacement for Callaghan, was defeated by the left’s candidate Michael Foot.
But this wasn’t enough to satisfy the Labour left’s desire for change. They demanded the right to re-select sitting MPs before elections and a change in the way the party leader was elected.
Previously the leader was elected by Labour MPs only. But in 1981 the left won a proposal to elect leaders by a “college” of union bloc votes, Constituency Labour Parties and MPs.
This small rule change was enough for some right wing Labour MPs, who feared they would further lose control, to threaten resignation.
For the left, it was a huge step forwards. That same year, Tony Benn launched a challenge for Labour deputy leader. Benn’s campaign rallies attracted thousands of Labour party activists.
They were excited by the rise of the left—and the prospect of a Labour Party that could offer a genuine alternative to Margaret Thatcher.
This excitement reflected a genuine desire among sections of workers and trade unionists for a party that can fight for their interests against the Tories and the bosses. For many, that party was Labour.
But for Labour politicians, winning elections means having to appeal to voters from all sections of society—not just workers and the left. So they talk of governing in a “national interest”.
What they’re really saying is that they’ll try to manage capitalism responsibly—and that means acting in the bosses’ interests. Marxists Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein explained that this contradiction is at the heart of the tension between the left and right inside Labour.
They wrote, “Labour voices working class aspirations but only to the extent that they can be fitted into the workings of the national state.
“The balance between the two factors is represented in the split between Labour’s left and right—each side representing one aspect of the common reformist whole.”
Because the position of Labour MPs relies entirely on being elected, this rightward pull is stronger on them than the activists at Labour’s base.
Unfortunately Labour’s focus on parliament and elections also means that MPs are more powerful.
So when a group of Labour MPs broke away to form the Social Democratic Party (SDP) in 1981, it actually strengthened the right.
Crick described how “Foot was coming under increasing pressure from the right”. “The implied threat was that if he did not act against the far left, the ranks of Labour MPs would shrink still further,” he wrote.
Spurred on by reports in the media of a “Trotskyite” takeover of the Labour Party, Foot launched an investigation into the far left group Militant.
It was the first of many witch-hunts, but the real target was Labour’s hard left around Benn. By attacking Militant, the Labour right hoped to make it harder for the whole left to organise.
For their part, the Bennite left was paralysed. The Labour left also feel the pull of elections and the need to keep the party together, even as the right attacks them.
What’s more Labour’s near-defeat at the hands of the SDP in a by-election in the previously safe seat of Warrington shook the party. Many who backed Benn started to fear that the left had gone too far.
Benn narrowly lost the deputy leadership election, and he began to lose the support of a layer of trade union officials and soft left MPs he had relied on. In 1982 he agreed not to mount another challenge.
The truth was that while there had been a shift to the left among Labour Party activists, the working class was still demoralised and fragmented.
This led to a shift to the right and a drain on Labour’s support.
The move to the left in Labour was important—it represented a radicalisation of a significant layer of party activists.
But the left’s enthusiasm for rule changes and block votes was a world away from the actual experience of the working class.
Recent industrial defeats had left workers with little confidence in the possibility of change.
The focus on internal party battles did nothing to relate to that atmosphere, let alone start to change it.
Now, faced with the reality of electoral defeat, the left began to chase after right wing votes.
Foot backed Thatcher’s war in the Falklands in the “national interest”. To his credit Benn stood against the war, but was increasingly isolated. Even Militant refused to back the call for the withdrawal of the British fleet.
When Labour lost the general election again in 1983, Foot was replaced by Neil Kinnock from the party’s soft left.
He was backed by many Labour members who had supported Benn in 1981, as well as most of the unions.
Now Labour’s return to the right began in earnest. Kinnock made it his task to get rid of Militant completely.
This began with an attack on the Militant-controlled Liverpool City Council in 1985 for setting an illegal budget.
Kinnock’s plan to “modernise” Labour also included calling for the imprisonment of Poll Tax protesters in 1991—just as they brought down Thatcher.
At a time of huge bitterness towards the Tories, Kinnock managed to lose the elections in 1987 and 1992. His legacy was to pave the way for the era of Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and New Labour.
There are important differences today. Labour’s leader Jeremy Corbyn and his shadow chancellor John McDonnell have spent their entire political lives on the left.
And the vote for Corbyn by more than 88,000 registered supporters—not actual Labour Party members—shows there is a radicalisation taking place beyond Labour’s ranks.
But there are similarities, and the danger of repeating old mistakes.
Faced with vicious opposition from the party’s right, some on the left are gearing up for more internal battles.
Labour conference this September is likely to see lengthy and complicated debates over party rules all with the aim of just keeping Corbyn in place.
It’s important to stand up to the Labour right.
But the lesson of the 1980s should be that focusing on internal battles eventually means giving way to the right.
More than 200,000 people voted for Corbyn as leader. Very few of them will want to take part in bureaucratic wrangling over rule changes in interminable party meetings.
But thousands of them will have joined the Stop Trident and Stand Up to Racism protests this year.
Thousands more will probably join the People’s Assembly demonstration against austerity on 16 April.
Defending Corbyn from the right will mean building on this potential—not in a fight to change
Labour, but in a fight to change society.
Read moreHammer of the Left: the battle for the soul of the Labour Party
by John Golding
by Michael Crick
Jeremy Corbyn, Labour and the fight for socialism
by Charlie Kimber
The Labour Party—a Marxist History
by Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein
Available at Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to bookmarksbookshop.co.uk