Sunday, 22 January 2012

Labour - The Wilderness Years

This is a series of BBC documentaries on the history of the Labour Party from 1979 to the coming of Tony Blair.  It was originally broadcast in 1995 (when I remember watching it the first time around).  Most of it consists of narrative, interspersed with numerous interviews with characters including a silver-haired Tony Benn, a younger (and considerably more coherent) John Prescott and a supporting cast of various party grandees, MPs and union leaders, from Peter Mandelson to Peter Shore and from Tony Banks to Tony Blair.

The series starts with Labour's 1979 election defeat and Jim Callaghan singing The Red Flag at Labour's old HQ in Transport House.  At this point, the Labour Party was in serious trouble.  Following five years of Labour government which had culminated in the Winter of Discontent, the voters had given Margaret Thatcher's Conservatives a comfortable majority of 44.  Half of all trade unionists had voted against the Labour Party in the election.  The party's response to this challenge from changing times and a changing electorate was to proceed to tear itself to pieces.

Some believed that what the electorate really wanted was more socialism.  The leader of the party's insurgent left wing was Tony Benn - a man of extreme and somewhat eccentric views, but the first truly charismatic and able leader of the Labour left since Nye Bevan.  He appears in the series - repeatedly - to explain silkily how Labour has been getting too capitalist since as long ago as 1974.  The Labour MP Joe Ashton complains in a thick Yorkshire accent that Benn, a wealthy hereditary peer from a political dynasty, never really understood the working classes, whom he regarded as "noble savages".  Roy Hattersley says more candidly that Benn's ideas and behaviour were "crazy" and "deplorable".

Benn backed the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy, a pressure group which sought to change Labour's constitution so as to put more power into the hands of party activists, who were considerably to the left of ordinary Labour voters - indeed, it was rightly feared that Trotskyists had infiltrated the party.  Matters were brought to a head at the unusually nasty 1980 party conference by hard-left activists, egged on by Benn.  The union barons, who could usually be relied on to vote down the crazier proposals from the conference floor, were still smarting from their battles with the Callaghan government and backed the Bennites.  The Labour Party constitution was accordingly shifted to the left.  Callaghan resigned soon afterwards, hoping that his ally Denis Healey would succeed him, but the arrogant and abrasive Healey was narrowly defeated by the left-winger Michael Foot.  Roy Jenkins and other leading figures on the Labour right decided that they had had enough and left the party to form the SDP.  Not long afterwards, Healey, who had became Foot's deputy, was challenged by Tony Benn for the deputy leadership - a grossly self-indulgent act that led to a fratricidal internal battle which Healey won only by the skin of his teeth.  And so it was that the Conservatives, then deeply unpopular for their harsh economic policies, were handed the next general election on a plate.

The disastrous 1983 election campaign delivered Labour's worst result since the 1930s.  By a kind of poetic justice, Tony Benn lost his seat.  Neil Kinnock, a man from the left of the party, took over as leader.  A Welshman from the mining community, Kinnock was undisciplined in the way that he presented himself in public and was determined to remove the albatross of Bennite leftism from around the party's neck.  This did not go down well in every quarter of the party.  He clumsily attempted to sit on the fence during the miners' strike, and his famous condemnation of Derek Hatton and the Militant Tendency at the 1985 party conference drew accusations of treachery.  Meanwhile, the Conservatives strolled to another landslide election victory.

Things were changing, however.  Labour may have lost the 1987 election, but they lost slightly less heavily than they had in 1983.  Kinnock was making some headway in changing his party.  The Militant Tendency were expelled.  There was no more talk of withdrawing from the EEC.  The red flag was replaced as the party's symbol with the red rose - and a young television executive named Peter Mandelson became the party's director of communications.

The pace of change accelerated after the 1987 election, and Kinnock showed a Thatcherite ruthlessness in overruling his colleagues.  There was a major policy review, and the commitment to unilateral nuclear disarmament went.  Two young protégés of Neil Kinnock, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, took up their first senior positions.  Yet all was still not well.  There were early sightings of the phenomenon of hostile Mandelsonian press briefings, victims of which included John Prescott and Michael Meacher.  There was dissatisfaction with Kinnock's leadership, and some in the party were already coming round to the view that it was time for John Smith to take over (as it happens, these included Smith himself).  The 1992 election campaign was disorganised, producing such episodes as the "war of Jennifer's ear" and the ill-fated Sheffield rally, and Neil Kinnock made the mistake of insisting that Labour's tax plans were published before the election.

The Conservatives won again in 1992 - but by a much smaller margin than in the three previous elections.  Labour was starting to recover.  John Smith took over the party leadership and was able to briefly sideline Peter Mandelson and to loosen trade union influence on the party through the introduction of One Member One Vote before he died suddenly on 11 May 1994.  Now came the generational change.  Smith had accepted that Blair was his probable successor, and Blair was backed for the leadership by Denis Healey and Roy Hattersley.  Famously, Gordon Brown stood aside to allow him a clear run (Mandelson refuses to talk about any aspect of this in his interview).  The road lay open to New Labour and Blairism.

The series provides a few endearing vignettes - Michael Foot's donkey jacket at armistice day 1981, Peter Tatchell putting on a faux-proletarian accent for the 1983 Bermondsey by-election, the Shadow Cabinet singing along to Queen's We Are the Champions.  It is also revealed that the right-wing Labour MP John Golding was the moving spirit behind the infamous 1983 election manifesto.  He claims that he was hoping to discredit the Bennite agenda by deliberately hanging it around the party's neck in an unwinnable election.

The interviewees settle various old, long-forgotten scores.  Tony Banks snipes at Gerald Kaufman.  Bryan Gould snipes at Denis Healey and Neil Kinnock.  Tom Sawyer snipes at Tony Benn and Dennis Skinner.  Tony Benn insists that he was right about everything all along, and sings, not particular well, a parody version of The Red Flag.

It is difficult to disagree with Tony Blair's diagnosis of Labour's ills as put forward in his interview: "society changed and the party didn't".  As Tom Sawyer puts it, you can't say that the electorate are wrong.