by Frederick Cowell
In late 1995 the BBC produced an incredible four-part documentary entitled Labour the Wilderness Years. All Labour party members should watch it, particularly if the party is contemplating electing Jeremy Corbyn as leader.
What makes it an astonishing documentary is that by 1995 the Tory government were exploding – in the summer of that year Major had infamously resigned and fought and leadership battle with John Redwood as the Conservative parliamentary party fell apart. Off the record briefings given to Hugo Young between 1995 and 1996 showed that top ministers knew that a Labour party led by Tony Blair was about to annihilate them. Yet this documentary was produced and it told in excruciating detail Labour’s long civil war after its 1979 defeat. What makes it wonderful is that is a documentary told without out the subsequent teleology of Blair and his victories. This makes it the most vital piece of political introspection ever produced.
Listen to Roy Hattersley’s doom laden assessment of the period after 1979 – “for a number of years the Labour party was in opposition to itself” – and you get a sense of just how disastrous things became. The divisions were so bitter during those years that the party ceased to be a meaningful force in British politics.
It is Peter Shore’s assessment at the start of the first episode, that the Labour party must take “responsibility for its own failure” and he was clear that Thatcher and Thatcherism, was a result of the Labour party being ridiculous. This is perhaps the most damning verdict. Shore was a veteran left-winger but even he could see that the endless internecine warfare had created a world where Thatcher was free to win election after election by essentially being the only meaningful political choice on offer. As Hattersley continued, “we must feel some guilt” about not coming to the assistance of the most disadvantaged in society.
As much as it is possible to loathe the SDP for splitting from the Labour party they were a symptom not a cause of Labour’s civil wars in the early 1980s. In 2013 at the time of Thatcher’s death I wrote a blog noting that two men – Geoffrey Howe and Tony Benn – were responsible for Thatcher surviving the first three years of her first term. Tony Benn’s decision to trigger a sixth month deputy leadership election in 1981 was a masterful piece of political solipsism, that achieved little except to make Labour look increasingly marginal as unemployment soared and riots tore cities apart.
In the second episode John Goulding makes it clear that the 1983 ‘longest-suicide -note-in-history’ manifesto was a collection of Benn’s policy shopping list. Even Michael Meacher, who is currently blogging for Jeremy Corbyn, lays the blame for the 1983 defeat squarely at the feet of Tony Benn.
The series has eerie echoes for today. The belief among Labour members that internal fights mattered more than defeating the Tory party and implementing progressive policies is growing among some on the left of the party.
“If Tony had been right,” Dennis Healy sardonically observed about Tony Benn “Thatcher would never have been elected”. Corbynites may wish to reflect on that – if George Osborne was so evidently evil and the electorate so evidently left wing, why is there now a Tory majority government? But equally the Labour right may wish to study Dennis Healy’s increasingly haughty, detached and condescending campaign for the leadership in 1980. It put MPs off as he told them “they didn’t matter”.
Kendallites may want to watch and re-watch episode one as the story of one of the greatest leaders that Labour never had is told. Healy sat back and let his obvious advantage and merits drift away, in a mixture of inaction and belligerence.
Every Labour member, every affiliate should be forced to watch this documentary before voting in the forthcoming elections. They should also read Edmund Dell’s wonderful book “A Strange Eventful History: Democratic Socialism in Britain” for an overview of socialist failure and complacency in the Labour party. Dell is highly critical and deeply cynical of the Labour party during the early 1980s and the obsessions that caused it to divide and turn in on itself. But he also notes that the hard left failed in the long run as more democracy actually helped the cause of those who wanted to advance Labour electability. Dell is keen to note the endless distractions that Labour sought to claim were important in the late 1970s and 1980s weren’t actually important to the electorate at large.
The Wilderness Years is painful watching not least because the last episode, which details the end of the 1992 campaign, details the pain of that era.
It is also worth noting that every columnist worth their salt in the summer of 1992 was banging out pieces speculating about permanent one party in the UK and endless Tory majorities – then black Wednesday happened.
The future is uncertain for Labour for now but it is worth just remembering Hattersley – someone who is anything but ‘Tory-lite’ –and his sombre warning that “my constituents … poor, underprivileged … needed a Labour government.” In 1995 – 16 years after the first tory victory in 1979 – he reflected on the failure of the party he was deputy leader of to provide that – it would be genuinely tragic if he was correct again in 2025.
Fred Cowell is Councillor for Thurlow Park Ward, Lambeth