When the Left nearly took over the Labour party in 1981

Over the last two years, there has been a revolution within the Labour Party in the UK. The Left has taken control of all the key levers in the party from the national executive committee to the leadership. Only the parliamentary party remains as an obstacle to total domination.

Rewind 37 years to the early 1980s – to the last time the Left came anywhere close to taking over the party. Back then, the right wing of the party had strong allies. While the left had a strong base in the constituencies and the national executive, the right wing was able to lean on certain trade union bosses. The struggle was much more evenly balanced.

Labour had lost the 1979 general election and Thatcher had come to power. Many in the party blamed the outgoing prime minister James Callaghan and his chancellor of the exchequer Dennis Healey. They believed socialist principles had been jettisoned during the 1974-79 Labour government and now wanted commitments to nuclear disarmament, nationalisation and abolishing the House of Lords.

But equally, there were trade union leaders who despised the Left and simply wanted a middle of the road Labour party back in power giving them access to Downing Street once more. They feared Thatcher was creating a society in which the unions would see their membership erode as manufacturing was allowed to decline and a new politics where they were being sidelined.

Things came to an almighty head when Callaghan decided to resign as party leader, having stuck around for a year after losing the 79 election. The Left devoted their energy into taking the deputy leadership. Tony Benn would run against Dennis Healey. This became a vicious battle fought in every constituency and union branch. In the end, by a slim margin, Healey won.

This film captures the intensity and vitriol that was unleashed at that time.



My student union election poster from 1982 – Liverpool Guild of Undergraduates

Tony McMahonIn my first year at university, I ran for the welfare officer position in the student union at Liverpool Uni.

The Labour Club was heavily influenced by the Marxist policies of the Militant Tendency and so the programme I ran on included calls to nationalise the top 200 monopolies, a £90 minimum wage and a 35 hour week. I think the latter demand probably terrified some of the arts students!

Note the heavy fringe of the time. Think my hair would have been dyed jet black – think Phil Oakey of the Human League.

The poster was drawn with a felt-tip pen. Seems so weirdly amateur now but we had no digital magic back in those far off days.


When I ran as a Labour candidate for the student union in 1982

It was my first year at university and the Labour Club decided I should run for the post of Welfare Officer of the Guild of Undergraduates at the University of Liverpool. The Labour Club was then very much under the sway of Militant – a Marxist group within the Labour Party that has now evolved into the Socialist Party.

Consequently, I ran on such policies as the nationalisation of the top 200 monopolies, a £90 minimum wage (generous in those days!) and the introduction of a 35 hour week. I even joked at the time that a 35 hour week would lose the support of arts students who barely managed ten hours a week.

Think I got about 120 votes. Though I remember a Militant saying to me afterwards: “120 Marxists at the university!!” Think that was a case of revolutionary optimism.

Running for Labour in 1982
Running for Labour in 1982