May 11, 2021

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”.

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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 £28,000 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.