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.

 

 

Two rival youth organisations inside the Labour Party


IMG_6202In 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.

IMG_6401Militant 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.