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┬áthe 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.



Jim Callaghan heckled during his 1979 election speech

A rather forgotten incident here when Pat Arrowsmith – veteran CND campaigner – heckled a beleaguered Jim Callaghan who had held on to his Cardiff seat in the 1979 general election but just lost the country to Thatcher and the Tories.

She was shouting at him about Ireland and British intervention in the province. For those of you fascinated by the ins and outs of ultra-left politics, Arrowsmith was running against Callaghan as a candidate for the Socialist Unity party. This was a front for the International Marxist Group (IMG), which felt it had to put up candidates because a rival sect – the Socialist Workers Party – had been running in elections.

Callaghan probably had other things on his mind – like getting back to Downing Street, packing his belongings and going into opposition. But he invited Arrowsmith to speak on the platform after he had finished. Though when she appeared at the microphone to make a speech about removing British troops from Northern Ireland, Callaghan had already left the stage.

1979 General Election – James Callaghan fights back

In the 1979 general election, a local Liberal campaigner came round to our family house and as a chatty, politically obsessed 15 year old, I got into a long conversation with her. She was convinced that the electorate would reject the right wing economics being proposed by Margaret Thatcher as too extreme. Most people, she continued, didn’t wish for a rupture with the post-war consensus – they just wanted it to work better.

I was very sceptical. Pessimistic even. I had no doubt as a political swot even by that tender age that Labour was doomed. My school was trending heavily Tory. At a mock election, the Labour candidate was treated like a leper or pariah. The Liberal was jeered and sheepishly exited the school stage as if expecting to be lynched. The Tory, by marked contrast, was cheered to the rafters. That told me everything I needed to know.

But – Jim Callaghan fought a brave campaign. And even managed to narrow the Tory lead. However….it was too little, too late.