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.
In the early 80s, the Labour Party had two youth organisations that were at each other’s throats. The Labour Party Young Socialists (LPYS) was under the control of the Marxist group Militant and adopted a hard left programme of nationalisation and the overthrow of capitalism. Since the mid-70s, Militant had been in the LPYS driving seat and even had a representative on the Labour Party national executive.
The party bureaucracy didn’t enjoy this situation so they set up a separate student wing called the National Organisation of Labour Students (NOLS) – under the control of leadership friendly activists.
Militant responded with a spirited attempt to take over NOLS. Every NOLS conference became a battleground between Militant supporters and those aligned to Labour’s leadership. The pro-leadership group was initially called Clause 4 but then re-grouped into a faction called the Democratic Left.
NOLS remained under the control of Clause 4 while the LPYS continued with Militant. Eventually, Labour closed down the LPYS at the same time it carried out large scale expulsions of Militants from the party.
1979 was a pivotal year for world politics – only rivalled by 2016 with the election of Donald Trump as US president. Back in 79, Margaret Thatcher swept to power in the UK followed by Ronald Reagan in the United States. It heralded an era of free market economics and initially a drift to socially conservative attitudes – especially towards ethnic minorities and LGBT people.
The election marked the end of a post-war era of political and economic consensus. Since 1945, both main parties had accepted a mixed economy – part state and part privately owned. Industry was managed in a tripartite arrangement between bosses, unions and government with formalised structures for regular talks.
State owned bodies had run the utilities and key industries with commissions regulating pay and prices. Government departments determined policy and practice in large swathes of the economy because Whitehall owned the steel, gas, mining and other sectors.
All of this came to an end in 1979. Thatcher and her free market coterie took on organised labour but also elements in her own party who preferred a “One Nation” vision of society to her more aggressively individualist vision. On the left, there was a parallel movement of Marxists and socialists who also rejected the post-war consensus but wanted a very different kind of society with workers’ control and the end of capitalism.
The 1979 election saw three main protagonists duke it out for the keys to Number Ten. Thatcher was by far the most energetic and with everything to win. Labour leader Jim Callaghan was more popular as a person but had dithered over calling an election for a year in which the unions had staged major industrial action – the so-called Winter of Discontent – eroding Labour’s standing in the polls. By the election, he came across as a man weary of high office.
In the middle was David Steel, the Liberal leader, who had been propping up Labour in the so-called Lib-Lab pact – as Labour lost its majority during its 1974-79 term in office. This pact would damage the Liberals, many of whose supporters switched to the Tories. In fact, Labour’s vote didn’t slump so much as the Liberals collapsed into Thatcher’s arms.
Steel (left), Thatcher (centre) and Callaghan (right)