X Close

Where it all went wrong for Labour This mess has nothing on the screaming mobs and punch-ups of the Battle of Benn-Healey

The leader the SDP never had (Photo by Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

The leader the SDP never had (Photo by Jack Taylor/Getty Images)


May 11, 2021   5 mins

When did it all go wrong for the Labour Party? Some people say 2010, when they picked the “wrong” Miliband, or 2007, when Tony Blair departed the stage. Some might look back to 1951, when Clement Attlee gambled and lost on a snap election, bringing down the curtain on the great transformative government of mid-century. Or perhaps even 1900, when the party was formed as an alliance between working-class trade unionists and middle-class progressives — a marriage that, as recent events suggest, is becoming unhappier by the day.

But here’s a more colourful choice. Exactly forty years ago, Westminster’s specialists in failure were engulfed in what remains the most poisonous, shambolic, vitriolic and downright entertaining contest in my lifetime: the race for the Labour deputy leadership between Denis Healey and Tony Benn. Or, as the Daily Express called it, “the political showdown of the century”.

You read that right, by the way. This was merely the contest for the deputy leadership — though as Angela Rayner would be the first to point out, the deputy leadership sometimes matters more than you’d think. Yet as political battles go, it was an epic: the Marathon of the British left, the Stalingrad of the sociologists, the Gaugamela of the Guardian readers.

Incredibly, the Battle of Benn-Healey lasted for almost seven months, from April to October 1981. It had it all: “screaming mobs”, an “orgy of intolerance”, behaviour that “would not have been out of place at a Nuremberg rally” and a personality cult that would have Stalin turning “in his grave with envy”. This is all from a single article on the contest, by Labour’s own Roy Hattersley.

Another star of the future, Neil Kinnock, made a more dramatic cameo appearance, having a physical fight with a Benn supporter in the toilets in Blackpool’s Grand Hotel. As the future Labour leader put it: “I beat the shit out of him 
 there was blood and vomit all over the place.” His party was a kinder, gentler place in those days.

Let’s rewind a bit. Having lost office to Margaret Thatcher in 1979, Labour had sought solace in its traditional hobby of tearing itself apart. Its last Prime Minister, Jim Callaghan, the only man to have held all four great offices of state, had vacated the stage with accusations of treachery ringing in his ears. In a desperate attempt to protect themselves from their own activists, his fellow MPs elected the aged pamphleteer Michael Foot as his replacement.

Even some of Foot’s own supporters conceded that he was a ridiculous person to submit to the voters as a possible Prime Minister. By the spring of 1981, with the party lurching to the Left, some 28 Labour MPs had walked out to found the new Social Democratic Party. And it was then, with his unerring instinct for controversy, that Tony Benn, former Viscount Stansgate, self-appointed tribune of the plebs, polite, articulate and charming, a “cool, calculated, deliberate, with-malice-aforethought liar” (Mirror) with the “mind of a ranter and the eyes of a fanatic” (Express), decided to challenge Denis Healey for the deputy leadership.

A veteran of the Allied landings at Anzio, the magnificently browed Healey had been Callaghan’s Chancellor. Firmly on the Right of the party, he had steered Britain through the disaster of a bailout from the International Monetary Fund. He stood for moderate social democracy, for the Atlantic alliance, for traditional politics and (in his admirers’ minds) for sanity. The voters liked him. Many of the activists utterly loathed him. To Benn, he was a Tory.

Benn’s appeal was very different. Having launched his challenge at the unconventional hour of 3.30 in the morning, he toured the land in an atmosphere of religious fervour. Never before had a candidate for the leadership, let alone the deputy leadership, taken his cause directly to the people. Yet for week after week, Benn addressed three, sometimes four meetings a day.

Thames Television filmed him in Wolverhampton, a preacher surrounded by his worshippers, his voice trembling with passion, his eyes blazing with enthusiasm. “What we are seeing is the rebirth of hope,” he told a rally on the steps of St Peter’s Church. “It is a march for human dignity, and against those forces which still try to persuade us that men and women should be crucified on a cross of gold in the name of monetarism and profit and loss.” Afterwards, as he sang along with the Spinners, a radical folk group, his eyes shone with tears.

Perhaps never in Labour’s history had there yawned a greater gulf between ideals and reality. In the country, the inner cities were ablaze, unemployment was soaring and industry was in a state of collapse. Yet for Benn and his supporters, including the young Jeremy Corbyn, the Promised Land seemed tantalising close. A manifesto published by his former special advisers laid out his plans. Britain, they explained, had become a “subject nation, unaware of its own subjection” to the forces of global capital. So the Bennites’ first step would be to “impose emergency controls on the City and banking system”, followed by massive nationalisations, the abolition of private schools and private healthcare, unilateral disarmament, withdrawal from the EEC, the abolition of the House of Lords, the “social ownership of concentrations of wealth” and a statutory maximum wage set at ÂŁ28,000 a year. Heaven on earth!

Neither side made the slightest concession to party unity. Healey kicked off by denouncing his rival’s “sour and intolerant sectarianism”, accusing the Bennites of telling “barefaced lies”, consorting with “Communists and Trotskyists” and pandering to the IRA. Meanwhile, Bennite activists trailed Healey wherever he went, interrupting his speeches with howls of “IMF!” and “Tory!” The former Chancellor was even barracked by a group called the Posadists, who believed that the revolution would be brought to Earth by Communist aliens in flying saucers. And all the time, the Conservative press revelled in the chaos. “Mr Benn – Is He Mad Or A Killer?” wondered the Sun. But the Guardian’s star columnist Jill Tweedie thought Benn was being grossly mistreated. “No one has been so misrepresented,” she insisted, “since Robert Mugabe.”

With Labour’s unerring instinct for suicidal spectacle, the climax came at the autumn’s party conference in Blackpool. As was usual in the early 1980s, the MPs were corralled like defendants at a show trial, surrounded by jeering activists. As the chief teller stepped to the microphone, somebody handed Benn a note telling him he had won. In fact the result could hardly have been closer. “Tony Benn … forty-nine point five seven four!” said the teller. ‘Denis Healey… fifty point four two six!” The camera cut to Benn, scribbling intently, his face caught between a smirk and a grimace. It was, he told the press afterwards, “an enormous victory for us, because we have won the argument”.

Ever since, most neutral observers have agreed that Labour had had a lucky escape. Had Benn won, he would probably have moved to take the leadership from Foot, triggering an even bloodier bout of factional infighting. In that case, there would undoubtedly have been more losses to the SDP, with MPs, councillors, party members and probably some trade unions defecting en masse. And had Benn been leader in time for the 1983 election, then Labour would almost certainly have come third in the popular vote, behind the SDP-Liberal Alliance.

But perhaps there’s another way of looking at that story. By provoking a much greater and more enduring split, a Benn victory would have ensured a clear, unarguable divide between utopian socialists and pragmatic social democrats, their unhappy marriage brought to a richly deserved end. The SDP would have been left stronger, more plausible, a Centre-Left party of government. Today Sir Keir Starmer would be safe in the embrace of his fellow pragmatists, untroubled by stubborn working-class women from the north of England. Glancing along the SDP front bench, he might share a friendly nod with his party leader, a chaotic, mop-haired fellow who won the Oxford Union presidency as an SDP supporter, and never dreamed of abandoning his youthful faith. You know the man I mean.

By contrast, the Labour holdouts would have been left to luxuriate in the delights of socialist purity. Since they would never have had a hope of wielding power, there would be no risk of betrayal, no danger of dirtying their hands with the compromises of government. While the SDP went from strength to strength, Benn could have stayed as Labour leader for the next twenty years, preaching to an ever smaller and more exclusive flock. When the time came, he could have yielded the pulpit to his chief disciple, a true believer, a man whose faith burned as brightly as his own. And even now, untroubled by traitors, coups and centrist dads, Jeremy Corbyn might still be leading the Labour Party, with Angela Rayner as his loyal deputy…

Oh well. We can but dream.


Dominic Sandbrook is an author, historian and UnHerd columnist. His latest book is: Who Dares Wins: Britain, 1979-1982

dcsandbrook

Join the discussion


Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber


To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Subscribe
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

126 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Vikram Sharma
Vikram Sharma
3 years ago

Love the quote from Guardian about Mugabe.
Guardian, never knowingly right.

David Brown
David Brown
3 years ago
Reply to  Vikram Sharma

Yes, when I read that he’d been misrepresented, I wondered if someone had claimed that he was a decent sort of chap…

alex bachel
alex bachel
3 years ago
Reply to  Vikram Sharma

That was a good one. Did she mean that he had been misrepresented as a good honest person?

Russell Hamilton
Russell Hamilton
3 years ago

Thanks to Dominic Sandbrook for a beautifully written and most entertaining article.

Angus J
Angus J
3 years ago

Yes, he does have a very entertaining turn of phrase.

Pierre Brute
Pierre Brute
3 years ago

Extraordinary – I started reading this article not having looked at the author and Dominic Sandbrook’s name accompanied me the whole way. Stunning historian, excellent columnist. Thanks for your erudition.

Last edited 3 years ago by Pierre Brute
Caroline Galwey
Caroline Galwey
3 years ago

Brilliant! Be it noted, however, that Michael Foot was a patriot and an intellectual giant compared to Jeremy Corbyn. Even Benn believed in the sovereignty of Parliament … after a fashion. However loony that crew were, they didn’t come close to the curdled hatred for Britain past and present and for Western civilisation itself that motivates the present bunch.

William Harvey
William Harvey
3 years ago

F you read Oleg Gordievski he will tell you that Michael Foot was spying/passing info (rather badly) for the KGB..he wasn a patriot, he was a mad old communist

Jonathan Marshall
Jonathan Marshall
3 years ago
Reply to  William Harvey

To be fair to Caroline, she did say that Foot was a patriot and intellectual giant when compared to Corbyn – as I read it she wasn’t claiming he was either of those things in reality!

Last edited 3 years ago by Jonathan Marshall
James Chater
James Chater
3 years ago

A

Last edited 3 years ago by James Chater
dgp.inman
dgp.inman
3 years ago

Well they are quite a rare combination: patriotism and intellect are not the most comfortable bedfellows, no matter what so many “patriots” might try to tell us.

Sean L
Sean L
3 years ago
Reply to  dgp.inman

Enoch Powell was a dunce.

Sean L
Sean L
3 years ago
Reply to  William Harvey

Relative to Labour today Michael Foot was a patriot of the ‘far right’.

Walter Lantz
Walter Lantz
3 years ago

Just to add to your second point I think it’s easy now to spew ‘progressive’ nonsense about the past and the ‘evils’ of imperialist wars and nationalism because there are very few that have experienced the terrors at the sharp end and the people that did the fighting are pretty much all gone now. Forty years ago it would have been a bit awkward, not to mention physically risky, to trash people that were likely sitting at your own dinner table or from whom you were soliciting votes. As the article mentions, Healy was a veteran himself.

dgp.inman
dgp.inman
3 years ago
Reply to  Walter Lantz

There is a huge spectrum between invading and colonising other places with other people in them (imperialism) and defending your home country. But those who have experienced abuse or violence are more likely to practise it.

Sean MacSweeney
Sean MacSweeney
3 years ago
Reply to  dgp.inman

The British Empire was much like any other, throughout history weak nations succumb to strong ones, it’s always been like that and will ever continue to be

dgp.inman
dgp.inman
3 years ago

What you refer to as “the present bunch” isn’t charge anymore: the problem is that nobody seems to know what the Labour party actually stands for at the moment.

Andrew McDonald
Andrew McDonald
3 years ago

And Ben’s ‘Five tests’ are still valid questions for today’s unelected NGO and ‘think tank’ apparatchiks…

Robin Lambert
Robin Lambert
3 years ago

Foot only saving grace in 1983 he was far Looking He would take Britain out of EEC …however his donkey Jacket did for him..

Sean L
Sean L
3 years ago

Demographic change explains a lot, not least why Leave or Out was ‘left’ in 1975 when ‘British workers’ / ‘Capitalism’ was the animating principle, and ‘right’ in 2016 by which time race and culture had assumed primacy over economic class, ‘Capitalism’ displaced by ‘Racism’ as the scapegoat legitimising ‘struggle’.

Protecting ‘British workers’ which was ‘far left’ in 1975 by 2016 was ‘far right’ and ‘racist’. The leaders of all major parties, of course, were pro ‘Europe’. It was Labour members voting against the leadership for a referendum that heralded Enoch Powell’s defection from the Conservatives to canvass for Labour against Mrs Thatcher. Powell was actually a personal friend of Benn’s. They often dined with their wives at each other’s homes. And Benn got a lot of stick from the media for attending ‘racist’ Powell’s funeral.

Powell’s argument against non-white settlement wasn’t founded on any theory of race as such but simply on the fact that given sufficient numbers and density shared appearance was bound to act as a potent source of political identity. His logic was no different to the ban on political uniforms or even on away fans in pubs on match days.

Naturally he’s been thoroughly vindicated. It couldn’t be otherwise: ‘multi-racial society’ is practically a contradiction in terms. ‘Practically’ in that proximity between rival identities always creates strife even where they share the same appearance as In Ireland or Lebanon, never mind Africans / Europeans. Just because people are charming as individuals doesn’t mean they don’t desire your collective demise.

David K. Warner
David K. Warner
3 years ago

And yet, Healey and Benn were substantial figures who had held cabinet office in three Labour administrations, had ‘hinterlands’, to use Healey’s phrase, and offered clear, alternative political visions.
Now compare the current Labour leadership. Starmer may be as inconsequential and fleeting a Labour leader as Foot, and Rayner is an intellectual and political pygmy in contrast to Healey and Benn, while Dodds, Reeves, Nandy, and Nick Thomas-Symonds, whatever academic distinction they might have achieved, are nobodies, being more akin to political advisers than the Cabinet ministers they seek to be.
This weakness of talent is not unique to Labour, as it clearly applies to the Governnent – Williamson in no Keith Joseph or Kenneth Baker, while Grant Shapps, I assume, was appointed solely for purposes of public entertainment.
And that is the real problem, shown up particularly by the Covid/lockdowns crisis. We have a political class made up of minnows for whom the seeking and retention of ministerial office is sufficient in itself, who, often with little justification or experience, regard themselves as equipped to act as technocratic managers of burgeoning bureaucratic systems, and who, with little real world experience and narrow adviser to MP career paths, lack the self-confidence and true intellectual ability to question the advice of civil servants or develop practicable policies that will actually benefit those who put them into office.
In 1981, politics in Britain was infused with ideas, ideology, and competing visions not only between but also within the major political parties. Today it is a parlour game for the middle class, with the differences between a Rachel Reeves and a Liz Truss being simply a matter of temperament and career choice.

Andy Yorks
Andy Yorks
3 years ago

I agree that Benn and Healey (who I met) were substantial figures and the current crop of MPs simply doesn’t compare. You are also right to point out that the dearth of talent is across the board, but that is probably down to the fact that candidates are selected by ‘committee’ and you have to have an unblemished life to get selected, which rather means you’ve done nothing. But perhaps we are to blame. We expect too much of our politicians and don’t reward them enough. We be an MP when you can make zillions in business or the media.

Jonathan Marshall
Jonathan Marshall
3 years ago
Reply to  Andy Yorks

I was in total agreement with you up to the latter part of your post.
I’d say we expect too little of our politicians and reward them too much. Indeed I don’t think MPs should be paid at all, other than legitimate expenses. They should all have real jobs outside of politics and would therefore be able to meet as a Parliament less frequently. That way they would pass fewer Bills and therefore do much less harm.
And, as the vile Blair (amongst many others) has shown, if you play your cards right you can indeed make zillions in business or the media after you have left politics.

Sean MacSweeney
Sean MacSweeney
3 years ago

Lol, can you imagine someone like Corbyn in the private sector, he wouldn’t last 5 minutes

Jonathan Marshall
Jonathan Marshall
3 years ago

That was a stonking good post – excellent points well made. Our political class – Left, Right and especially Centre – really is made up of utter pygmies compared with the politicians of the past.

Mark Gourley
Mark Gourley
3 years ago

Thank you – very well put indeed. I would be 150% in agreement were it possible. Denis Healey was one of my great political heroes, despite my being broadly a Conservative.

Robin Lambert
Robin Lambert
3 years ago

Shapps or Dodgy Michael Green’ nom de plume,Thinks escooters are ‘The Wave of the future” In Leicestershire, Last week A 3 year old girl had her Collarbone broken by one of these hideous contraptions…

Peter Turner
Peter Turner
3 years ago

Grant Shapps, I assume, was appointed solely for purposes of public entertainment.”
Another glaring appointment failure, then.

Jonathan Ellman
Jonathan Ellman
3 years ago

It’s often said that political discussion has become angrier, more divisive, more tribal in recent years. Perhaps it’s always been like that, or even worse, nowadays it just happens everywhere, on every hand held device, rather than in old church halls and community centres.

Dominic S
Dominic S
3 years ago

Those campaigning to be MPs used to be stoned, run out of town, tarred and feathered, and on and on. Today’s ‘anger’ is confected, because today’s politicians have no hard and fast principles.

Jonathan Ellman
Jonathan Ellman
3 years ago
Reply to  Dominic S

It’s hard to know what’s real in today’s pantomime politics. The violence of BLM and those who died in their riots was real. But the anger does indeed seem confected.

Walter Lantz
Walter Lantz
3 years ago

I think Douglas Murray has made the point that helpful discussion and argument have disintegrated because they are now often based on opposing truths rather than shared facts. (I’m sure Mr. Murray said it better)
The point is when we can both see that it’s raining we can still have a spirited argument: how hard it’s raining, do we need a good rain right now?how long do we think it will rain?
Agreement, persuasion, concession, unresolved – are all possible outcomes.
But if one of us says it’s not raining – the sun is actually shining – when it’s clear to the other that it is not – how can you get anywhere with that?
“You’re an idiot- it’s raining” “No it’s not- you’re the idiot”

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
3 years ago
Reply to  Walter Lantz

Because beforehand the media operated as a junket where in between political shades and tastes there was a broad collusion with the government towards a shared universe that everyone saw. Now, for better or worse, people can get the information themselves.
It does make me wonder how something like WW2 could be done again when deliberate manipulation of the press and stories was a key party of keeping moral up at points where a loss of moral could have been fatal such as the months after the Battle of France.

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
3 years ago

I think the difference is that back then only a certain type of fanatic actually became regularly involved, whereas now every part of life involves stepping into a political statement and everyone seems to have an opinion on everything constantly.

Jeremy Poynton
Jeremy Poynton
3 years ago

“the wrong Miliband”.

Well. Hmmm. Worth remembering just how useless Miliband Major was.

  1. DEFRA – refused ÂŁ55k upgrade to waste disposal system at a DEFRA lab that then leaked F & M in through its … you got it … waste disposal system – result. Massive hit on the agricultural community. Not as if Labour don’t hold rural folk in contempt as it is, without dumping on them
  2. FCO. Lordy. Serially pissed off – Russia – Their foreign minister believed to have sworn at M Major down the phone. India – riled them with his arrogance, and indeed, sent him straight back home. Mendelson was sent out to soothe things over. Indians made the plane refuel and sent him straight back home. And Israel, as well, of course.

Man’s a menace, and an incompetent one. And what sort of Leftie soaks a charity for $1 million per annum?

Linda Brown
Linda Brown
3 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy Poynton

Just the usual sort of leftie/Marxist soaking a charity for $1million per year.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

I remember all this, but wasn’t aware that it was quite so bitter. I do remember my father, who never really commented on political matters, saying circa 1974 that Benn was a lunatic.
Anyway, you can’t have too many ‘death of Labour’ articles so life is good right now. But when they say Labour ‘chose the wrong’ brother they are, in my opinion, referring to the wrong set of siblings. The brother they should have chosen is Piers Corbyn, who has been a truly brave and inspiring presence over the last year or so.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Piers Corbyn is the modern version Thomas Paine, and is similarly the proverbial pain in the backside of the Government.

At the age of 74 he has been arrested more than a dozen times in the past year for violations of Covid Directives. A notable opponent of the disgraceful Iraq War, unlike far too many wretched members of both the Labour and Tory parties, he is perhaps the last of that great group of English political eccentrics or ‘ nutters’*(as some would have it).

Like Thomas Paine he is/will be vilified, deserted and ultimately air brushed from History, such is the sick society we now have the misfortune to live in.

(* vernacular for Mad, US readers take note).

James Chater
James Chater
3 years ago

W

Last edited 3 years ago by James Chater
CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
3 years ago
Reply to  James Chater

Is he a folk-hero?
I would have thought he is just a more vociferous version of Lord Jonathan Sumption KS.
Since when is ‘barracking’ a Criminal Offence? It’s only shouting after all.

James Chater
James Chater
3 years ago

B

Last edited 3 years ago by James Chater
CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
3 years ago
Reply to  James Chater

That doesn’t make it a Criminal Offence. In fact it is just a difference of opinion. Odd, even nuts, but that is what a free society is supposed to be about, or would prefer something more Draconian?
It certainly looks like it.

James Chater
James Chater
3 years ago

I

Last edited 3 years ago by James Chater
mike otter
mike otter
3 years ago
Reply to  James Chater

Lets not forget that the powers that be – govt, cops, NHS leaders etc used this illness to leverage power and financial gain. They used a potentially lethal illness to advance a political cause when they had both the knowledge and resources to play an honest hand. The Geneva Protocol of 1925 and BWC of 1972 are pretty clear on the subject. Those of us that lost people due to either SARS-CoV2 or the withdrawal of treatment for cancer, heart disease etc have a right of redress. I would add that protesting and getting arrested does not help this redress. In the absence of redress through the rule of law its up the wronged to get it any other way they can.

Dominic S
Dominic S
3 years ago
Reply to  mike otter

And all the opposition parties would have done the same harder, earlier, and more often.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
3 years ago

Tom Paine had some insights to offer. Anyone called Corbyn is just some sort of crank.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
3 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

That’s precisely what happened to Tom Paine in the end.

Robin Lambert
Robin Lambert
3 years ago

I met piers Corbyn 2008-10 he Is one of Few Left Wing Who calls out 1) Climate change Fake science 2) He is An Astrophysicist 3) he dislikes inc EU .I dont share his Anti-Vax position, but give the Guy a break, he Also A mate of Dr David Bellamy,who was sacked by BBC in 2005 because UNlike David Attenborough he said ”Climate change,global warming IS Unscientific tosh”

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
3 years ago
Reply to  Robin Lambert

I totally agree, it is intellectually lazy to dismiss him as a nutter, tarred with the same brush as his brother.

He is certainly intelligent and perceptive enough to challenge some of the ‘Big Lies’ floating around, whist most of his peers are just too supine to challenge the current orthodoxy.

As you say he may not be correct on everything, but who the hell is, or for that matter ever was!

The late Dr David Bellamy was a great heretic, as is off course was the once ‘sainted’ James Lovelock, (now 101) who saw through most of this Green miasma twenty or more years ago.

As for Attenborough he knows the problem but is just so ‘institutionalised’ that he can’t help but remain mute. I gather he has made some controversial remarks about the reduction of the world’s population, so perhaps there is yet some hope!

Robin Lambert
Robin Lambert
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

on EU ,EC,EEC,Common Market Tony Benn was Spot on…..

Matt M
Matt M
3 years ago

Great article. Interesting parallels and worth noting how the wheel turns – hopefully today’s woke lunatics will soon be as out of fashion as these militants were by the mid 80s.

Jonathan Marshall
Jonathan Marshall
3 years ago
Reply to  Matt M

It would be nice to think so, but I’m not holding my breath.

Hal Lives
Hal Lives
3 years ago

“…Neil Kinnock, made a more dramatic cameo appearance, having a physical fight with a Benn supporter in the toilets in Blackpool’s Grand Hotel. As the future Labour leader put it: “I beat the shit out of him
 there was blood and vomit all over the place.” His party was a kinder, gentler place in those days.”
Funniest thing I’ve read in quite some time!

Jonathan Marshall
Jonathan Marshall
3 years ago
Reply to  Hal Lives

Me too! I’ve heard of “muscular Christianity”, but this is in different league altogether.

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
3 years ago
Reply to  Hal Lives

It puts a new spin on the believability of Chris Morris’s spoof to the Sun editor with a fake tape of Kinnock verbally abusing a waiter.

Charlie Ray15
Charlie Ray15
3 years ago

It should be remembered that Tony Benn left about ÂŁ5 million to his family in his estate – and had taken a great deal of care to reduce his inheritance tax liability.

Andy Yorks
Andy Yorks
3 years ago
Reply to  Charlie Ray15

Ah yes but you can only be a Socialist if you are rich. Benn didn’t want the title, but he did want the Wonga.

Dominic S
Dominic S
3 years ago

“This mess has nothing on the screaming mobs and punch-ups of the Battle of Benn-Healey”
At least, back then, they had deeply held political principles, and were passionate about what they believed to be right. Today’s bunch, all of them in all parties, are mere power-seeking shysters, and they hold no principle longer than the public (focus groups) appear to like it. They jettison their politics more often than Boris jettisons his trousers.

Pauline Ivison
Pauline Ivison
3 years ago
Reply to  Dominic S

Boris trousers love it.

Richard Heller
Richard Heller
3 years ago

A point of detail: the 1981 Labour Party conference was in Brighton, not Blackpool. It is important for modern readers to note that the contest was held before one-person-one-vote. A major factor in the campaign (and the narrowness of the result) was the determination of Bennites to prevent rank and file members of trade unions and local parties from voting: when they did they almost invariably delivered a majority for Healey. Most critically of all, the delegation of the largest affiliated union, the TGWU, delivered its vote for Benn on the second ballot against the known wishes of its members. In fairness, the essay might have mentioned the third candidate, John Silkin, whose intervention had a crucial impact on the soft Left of the party who could not abide Benn. I was Denis Healey’s chief of staff in 1981. By my personal calculation, I lost Denis 1 per cent of his vote for each week I worked for him in the contest. If I had been given just one more, I might have swung it for Benn, with the delightful consequences suggested by Dominic Sandbrook. (Irony alert.)

Andrew Hall
Andrew Hall
3 years ago
Reply to  Richard Heller

Very interesting to hear your insider view. I remember the reform of block voting really cut the union bosses down to size, which allowed a breath of fresh air into the otherwise airless debates. The vote ceased to be a complete stitch up and became a partial stitch up ie politics as normal, which is progress. It’s pretty clear on the far left politics is a form of ecstatic religion – and Wedgie Benn (aka Lord Stansgate – the left loves a mad lord) was high on both. The rabid proselytising millenarian left will always be with us…

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Hall

Yes although the election of Ed Miliband showed that it hadn’t really gone far enough in rooting out the corrupt union influence over the internal party voting, although the long Blair-Brown domination of the party hid it for a long time.

Last edited 3 years ago by Ferrusian Gambit
Robin Lambert
Robin Lambert
3 years ago
Reply to  Richard Heller

Heller in ”Pink tights”?…

David Uzzaman
David Uzzaman
3 years ago

My personal view is that Labour choose the wrong Blair. Lionel was much lighter on his feet and would have been unlikely to take us into a war.

Andrew McDonald
Andrew McDonald
3 years ago
Reply to  David Uzzaman

Excellent, thank you for lightening our evening here in Suffolk.

D Ward
D Ward
3 years ago
Reply to  David Uzzaman

Lionel Blair came to my school in Wolverhampton c. 1985.

Simon Baggley
Simon Baggley
3 years ago

Brilliant – took me back to the chaotic 80’s – I too was a Socialist Worker buying Bennite – no fan of Starmer though or Rayner , light weights the pair of em

Jonathan Marshall
Jonathan Marshall
3 years ago
Reply to  Simon Baggley

Happy days, Baggers (although I was on the other side!).

Last edited 3 years ago by Jonathan Marshall
mike otter
mike otter
3 years ago

Classic piece – Perhaps thats’s why so many “comedians” love Labour, its the gift that keeps on giving material. For leftist Labour in the 60s thru 80s and possible even now supporting Mugabe might mark you out as a softy, possibly even an “enemy of the party” and class traitor. At the time of Benn’ apogee you could choose from the psychotic INLA/IRSP, the deranged Brigate Rossi or the man who could out-Corbyn Corbyn himself, the murderous Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge. Looking at their bedfellows from then its no surprise they support DAESH and Hamas now.

Simon Phillips
Simon Phillips
3 years ago

Amazing to think the Labour left used to be in favour of exiting the EEC. So many Corbo fans don’t seem to realise how Eurosceptic the old buzzard has always been.

Last edited 3 years ago by Simon Phillips
Robin Lambert
Robin Lambert
3 years ago
Reply to  Simon Phillips

He(Jeremy Corbyn) helped The ”no” to Nice in Ireland in 2008 ,see youtube…he correctly predicted ”They’ll make you vote again if you vote ”No”again…

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
3 years ago

Brilliant article. A Labour Party dominated by Non Conformist practical patriotic down to Earth and cheerful “John Bulls”,combining Attlee, Bevin, Callaghan and Healey rather than spiteful impractical middle class white collar Trots, Benn et al, would have won many elections. Churchill admired Bevin callng him the working class John Bull.

Dominic S
Dominic S
3 years ago
Reply to  Charles Hedges

Benn wouldn’t have won many elections. There’d have been no country left to go to the polls if he’d had one term…..

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
3 years ago
Reply to  Dominic S

I meant Attlee, Bevin, Healey and Callaghan .

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
3 years ago

Tony Benn was the beginning of the end of the Labour Party. Previously, Labour people had been sort-of middle class, always pretending a little to be one of the ‘lads’ but having to be able to speak and write as well. Harold Wilson was the funniest of the pretenders, with his pipe and his trans-Pennine accent – but a first from Oxford does not a working man make.
Tony Benn was a pretender but he wasn’t very good at pretending. He looked and sounded like a Lord pretending to be a commoner. He was a very hard worker but I think most of his work was in the perfection of his ‘acting’ career. Since then, the Labour leaders have become more and more like Tory leaders, indistinguishable now with a QC in charge.
I read all of Benn’s diaries and the thought which stays with me is the when he first became a government minister, Postmaster General, and he realised very quickly that he couldn’t actually change anything because of the foot-dragging of the mandarins. I believe this was the idea which started Yes Minister on its way to success.

cjhartnett1
cjhartnett1
3 years ago

Tony Benn was never less than personable, decent and largely coherent in his works view.
For example, he attended Enoch Powells funeral, despite some appalling hyperbole that equated Powell’s logic ending up at Belsen, by deduction.
Your article seems to avoid what has happened since 1981. Truth and integrity disappeared ,the media that hated him now has created exiles and political refugees of British citizens.
The Tory party of today has queues, rationing , ID surveillance , internal passports and censorship and unlimited nationalising funds that are not based on economic reality . But on the wish to remove guilt for the financial shambles from the corporate croney cartels that Benn warned us of.
Witness 2008/9 and the financial crash. Follow the money straight to trying to overturn Brexit and to steal Trump’s election victory( which seems successful. But watch)
In short, this is complacent and flabby . Benn used to quote a hymn that his mum taught him about ” Daring to be a Daniel, in standing alone”.
He lived by that,largely . And, don’t forget that those dopes who nearly gave us Corbyn turned out to be right. We got him in terms of policy. And they will overturn your world if you aren’t honest about it.
Healey was a Communist , then a big noise at Bildenberg etc. Benn was by far the more truthful.

Robin Lambert
Robin Lambert
3 years ago
Reply to  cjhartnett1

Yep Interestingly ”Fake Patriotism” of Tony bliar Was A Trotskyist at University ,as were the majority of his Cabinet…Tony was also known as ”Marianne” at Chambers I wonder why?..

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
3 years ago

This article reminds us that the hard left has always been completely barking mad. While we’re on counterfactuals, though, we should recall that Benn could not have led a Bennite Labour Party for the next 20 years – he lost his seat in the 1983 election.
I recall that leadership election mainly for Healey’s irritable insistence that it wasn’t a “battle” or a “fight”, it was an election. Of course, it was a battle, and the stakes were whether Marxists would control the Labour Parteh or not. He won his battle, but his faction lost the war.

Jonathan Marshall
Jonathan Marshall
3 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

“This article reminds us that the hard left has always been completely barking mad.”
Never a truer word spoken.

G Harris
G Harris
3 years ago

‘Firmly on the Right of the party, he had steered Britain through the disaster of a bailout from the International Monetary Fund.’

The 1976 Sterling Crisis that apparently desperately warranted emergency IMF intervention was likely more of a confected political move by Callaghan and Healey than an economic one

Records show, and Healey later admitted, that it was predicated in no small part on vastly overstated Treasury supplied figures concerning future public borrowing, and that only half of the requested amount was ever drawn, it was repaid by May 1979 and yet was used as the justification for the implementation of a severe austerity programme.

Needless to say, this political manoeuvring dressed up for public consumption as regrettable but vital economic prudence didn’t exactly play well with those in the know on the left of the party at the time.

Last edited 3 years ago by G Harris
Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  G Harris

Yes, never forget that the only govt that ever CUT spending on the NHS was the Callaghan govt of 1976-79. Spending on the NHS was cut by 4%.

G Harris
G Harris
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

This is why, much as I can appreciate the style of a piece like this from a master storyteller like Sandbrook, I urge people to be forever leery of the substance.

Things like this are entertainment. Nothing more.

mike otter
mike otter
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

And when the cuts worked through the system and began to bite by 82-3 the Labour party blaimed Thatcher, much as they blamed Gove for their Lord “Rent Boys” Browne tuition fee review in 2009 which led to the 9kpa fees.

Robin Lambert
Robin Lambert
3 years ago
Reply to  mike otter

Cleggy ,Nick of FB said lib-dems Would abolish student fees in 2010,won 57 mPs ,by 2017 that was around 17?. 11 now &rightfully dying a quick painful death..

G Harris
G Harris
3 years ago
Reply to  G Harris

Given the run of downvotes on this largely factual answer it’s rather disturbing how some people have seen fit to downvote it.

Presumably because it inconveniently contradicts their long held personal narrative of the events of that time?

Last edited 3 years ago by G Harris
Peter Jackson
Peter Jackson
3 years ago

Sadly the Bennites were sorely correct about “the City” which really has sullied this country with its filthy lucre. A Britain which prioritised making quality products rather than getting a cut of every trade would indeed be a better (if perhaps overall poorer) place…

Robin Lambert
Robin Lambert
3 years ago
Reply to  Peter Jackson

Yes Chinese,Arab, russian oligarchs have helped ruin London’s skyline with Too expensive flats in Vauxhall,Docklands,Clapham etc…courtesy GLA mayors

Adam Kennedy
Adam Kennedy
3 years ago

It’s amazing that people look back at Benn with such misty-eyed nostalgia. Basically just a posh Corbyn.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  Adam Kennedy

Well they were both right about the EU, and for some of the right reasons.

Andy Yorks
Andy Yorks
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Enoch Powell was right about the EU. Peter Shore was right about the EU. Starmer was wrong about the EU and wrong to basically say f*** you to the British People when we voted to Leave.

Jonathan Marshall
Jonathan Marshall
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

True. Credit where it’s due.

Jonathan Nash
Jonathan Nash
3 years ago

Counter-factuals are a bit of a game, but the sketch of what might have been if Benn had won the Deputy Leadership is genuinely intriguing. I think its likely that it would have broken Labour in two, with the SDP going on to a become the natural party of government for the 90’s, possibly even defeating Margaret Thatcher in the 1987 GE. If she had then gone, would she have been replaced by Heseltine, so that both main parties would have returned to a broadly interventionist domestic policy? And then….but it didn’t happen after all.

Simon Stephenson
Simon Stephenson
3 years ago

I think that the real problem for Labour is that all those who want to become officials and representatives for the Party are disgusted by the majority of the people who are going to vote for them. So disgusted, in fact, that they consider these Labour voters to be such despicable examples of humanity that they should count for nothing in contemporary society.
And of course the Conservative Party is in a very similar position vis a vis how its officials and representatives view the majority of their own Party’s supporters.

Last edited 3 years ago by Simon Stephenson
Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
3 years ago

Honestly during the New Labour years I assumed the old left were dead. I don’t remember people like Corby getting much attention, the soft-left pant-wetters like Claire Short or Robin Cook, sure but not the swivel-eyed old hard left. Even Benn himself seemed a fairly neutered character, a comforting nostalgic reminder of a more interesting political age when everything wasn’t so boring and drained of life by spin doctors. I thought Tony Blair had reorganised the party through the NEC and other organs of the party to effectively kill them stone dead and most of the old left had left out of boredom and mild disgust at Blair.
But it wasn’t so, they rose back like Japanese knotweed, just waiting for an idiot like Ed Miliband to give them half an inch.

Last edited 3 years ago by Ferrusian Gambit
Steve Hill
Steve Hill
3 years ago

I used to love the old style Labour Party conferences. Vicious, bloody, passionate and totally un stage managed with the fighting done in the open. And all on live daytime tv! I’m sure there must be some surviving footage on YouTube…

maxjalil
maxjalil
3 years ago

well written though the collapse of support for “plausible, Centre-Left parties” throughout the world makes me question how well the SDP would be fairing today. If only we had PR we could actually split and see how well each half would do.

Christopher Chantrill
Christopher Chantrill
3 years ago

If I were an alien from another planet I might ask why the working class had been voting for these ranters for over a century.
The answer, of course, is simple. In between rants, the ranters were offering the working class delicious loot and plunder.
Not any more.

Last edited 3 years ago by Christopher Chantrill
G Harris
G Harris
3 years ago

Simplistic, binary, overtly partisan pieces like this often make for an entertaining read, particularly in the expert hands of Dominic Sandbrook, but they should really only be seen and taken for what they are.

Just by way of example, it’s worth remembering that ‘utopian socialist’ Tony Benn as Minister for Technology under the Wilson government desperately tried to get the UK out of its hugely costly, ill-fated deal with the French to build Concorde, hoping to save UK taxpayers from bearing the burden of what turned out to be aviation”s greatest ever white elephant.

Concorde was deafeningly noisy, hideously expensive and impractical, hopelessly inefficient in terms of fuel and no airlines anywhere had committed to buy it and yet the UK government was forced, by dint of a legally binding agreement, to pursue it regardless.

Needless to say records show that this ‘utopian socialist’ ultimately failed and tried to make the best of a bad job, and the effectively publicly subsidised to the tune of billions Concorde ‘ironically’ went on to become the uber-polluting, uber expensive, exclusive plaything of the Transatlantic jet set.

Last edited 3 years ago by G Harris
Andrew Harvey
Andrew Harvey
3 years ago
Reply to  G Harris

So he was an ideological loon, AND ineffective.

Dominic S
Dominic S
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Harvey

No, not ineffective. Every time you put a stamp on an envelope with a picture on it as well as the Queens head, remember that it was Benn who got that through.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
3 years ago
Reply to  Dominic S

Didn’t he also cancel the TSR2, as it would have improved our chances too much in a war with Russia?

G Harris
G Harris
3 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Not conclusive, but apparently although it has never been proved, ironically the constantly bedeviled by technological, financial and political problems TSR-2’s fate was ultimately sealed by an unofficial deal between the above semi-lionised Healey and U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara where Britain would cancel the TSR-2 and buy the US F-111.

A deal which also ultimately faltered due to excessive costs, exceeding even the TSR-2’s, but which led to the co-development and adoption of the Tornado which went on to serve the UK armed forces extremely well for decades.

Last edited 3 years ago by G Harris
G Harris
G Harris
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Harvey

Nobody has a monopoly on wisdom, as I always say, any more than somebody might have a monopoly on supposed ‘ideological lunacy’.

Benn got a lot right and a lot wrong in my opinion.

David Brown
David Brown
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Harvey

And what Anthony Wedgwood Benn was like in the 1960s is not necessarily a good guide to Tony Benn in the 1980s. “Tony Benn is the only man I know who immatures with age, ” as Harold Wilson remarked.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
3 years ago
Reply to  G Harris

We had had some practice with aeronautical fiascos by the time of Concord. Remember the Brabazon, and the equally huge Princess Flying Boats? Also the early Comets were none to successfully at staying airborne as I recall.

Incidentally were all the British Concords built at Fulton? And was Benn a Bristol MP at the time?

Last edited 3 years ago by CHARLES STANHOPE
G Harris
G Harris
3 years ago

Good points.

He was certainly a Bristol MP at one point, so seems likely.

Robin Lambert
Robin Lambert
3 years ago

”Bluestreak” Anyone..bloodhound Missiles in swaffham fields in 1961 ..

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
3 years ago
Reply to  Robin Lambert

Yes, well remembered I had completely forgotten about Blue Streak!

Wasn’t there also something on the Isle of Wight (of all places ) to do wth Britain’s Space Programme?

There was also the revolting churlishness of BA/HMG in refusing to sell our Concords to Branson just in case he made a go of it and embarrassed them.

The same attitude prevailed in the 50’s with the refusal to sell the Princess Flying Boats to ‘Aquila Airlines’ who were already successfully operating Flying Boats to Portugal & the Azores.

Still the Farnborough Air Show in the 50’s was an exhilarating experience indeed!

L Paw
L Paw
3 years ago

Filton, a suburb of Bristol.

Liz Jones
Liz Jones
3 years ago
Reply to  G Harris

But it was beautiful!

G Harris
G Harris
3 years ago
Reply to  Liz Jones

So’s a mushroom cloud.

James Chater
James Chater
3 years ago

(B

Last edited 3 years ago by James Chater
Adam Steiner
Adam Steiner
3 years ago

That was like watching a re-run of a particularly funny Monty Python episode.

100buffels
100buffels
3 years ago

….and if your uncle had tits and a box, he’d have been your auntie!

eugene power
eugene power
3 years ago

very good; but the Spinners? Did you lose the thread ??
And what about Hillary Benn : are they perchance related ?
Still campaigning for the EU ?

Ben Rich
Ben Rich
3 years ago

Of course the real irony is that Benn might actually have won. The Labour constitution was unclear about how abstentions should be treated in determining the value of each electoral college vote. In this case the abstentions amongst Labour MPs were, I believe ignored, and the MPs section divided between the two candidates. If they had been included this would have reduced Healey’s vote share just enough for Benn to sneak home. So your counterfactual was even closer to coming true, the effect of which would have been in mind opinion to speed the recovery of the Labour Party as the SDP mark2

J. Hale
J. Hale
3 years ago

“It is a march for human dignity.” Whenever liberals talk about dignity, what they really mean is “more money!”

Mike Michaels
Mike Michaels
2 years ago

Great piece. I love the gentle mickey taking tone that lets you know Dominic believes,probably correctly, that the left have been wrong on almost everything for the past 50 years.

philipfrancis00
philipfrancis00
3 years ago

Thank you for this thoughtful and well-written piece
Things would have been very different if the late Shirley Williams had led the SDP. She would have done so if she had been allowed to stand in the Carshalton by-election. But Bill Potts, the Liberal candidate, refused to stand down. He won the seat, but was never heard of again. Roy Jenkins won Hillhead, a solid Labour Glasgow working class seat, and so became leader. Shirley would have been a much better leader, and would have held onto Carshalton, and with and SDP-Liberal Alliance bounce, have gone on to become Prime Minister

Last edited 3 years ago by philipfrancis00
Robin Lambert
Robin Lambert
3 years ago

Doubt it, her destruction of Technical, Intermediate (Never mentioned) as well as Grammar Schools is still Annoying A lot of Voters , She Was also a fanatic,1987 Post Election fallout ,Rodgers,Woy jenkins,Williams were Europhiles, David Owen viewed David Steel, as ”controlling and fixated on all things European Community@’..SDP now is much more patriotic,Anti-EU,Anti Globalist, Pro-manufacture, pro-immigration controls..etc..

Last edited 3 years ago by Robin Lambert
James Chater
James Chater
3 years ago

F

Last edited 3 years ago by James Chater
Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  James Chater

I cannot, for the life of me, recall one instance of Labour learning from history. Politicians are, to a man and woman, entirely ignorant of history.

Last edited 3 years ago by Fraser Bailey
Louise Henson
Louise Henson
3 years ago

Benn was middle-aged when he caught Marxism and there’s no cure for that.

Andy White
Andy White
3 years ago

In which D. Sandbrook (and it seems a majority of those commenting BTL) just love wheeling that old ‘loony left’ narrative around the park one more time. In reality it was outrage at the outright incompetence of the Labour leadership that gave the Benn-Healey contest its particular flavour. Along with their strong sense of entitlement. And of course both themes are being echoed today, strongly.

We can make a better job of this than these arrogant, out-of-touch careerists, was the mood. And it may be hard for some to swallow, but ideology aside, when the Bennites got the opportunity to actually run something, in the form of the Livingstone-McDonnell era GLC, they did prove to be rather capable.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
3 years ago
Reply to  Andy White

Yes, that Fares Fair thing went so well, didn’t it? And the Tottenham riots. Real social cohesion there. I also felt so safe because London was a nuclear free zone. You just knew that they’d never fire their SS20s at us, because the GLC had forbidden it.

L Paw
L Paw
3 years ago
Reply to  Andy White

So which particular bits of the rampant overspending, nuclear free, Brixton & Tottenham riots, IRA terror loving GLC regime presided over by Livingstone was the capably run part…?