by Paul Richards
Labour’s last double-decade in opposition started with a winter of discontent, and this one starts with a summer of seppuku. What could have been the start of a process of healing after a disastrous election result, is instead descending into viciousness not seen since the early 1980s. There will be those old enough to remember what it was like back then. For those who don’t, it was no tea party.
The Bennites’ strategy was simple: to set up a series of positions on everything – Nato, the EEC, Trident, the monarchy, the civil service, the Lords, the banks, the media, and businesses – and then denounce anyone who deviated from this position as ‘a Tory’. This epithet didn’t include the actual Tories, but instead any Labour party member, MP or trade unionist who didn’t agree with state control of Marks & Spencer, kicking out the Americans, and support for Sinn Fein. Denis Healey? Tory. Barbara Castle? Tory. Harold Wilson? Tory.
A booklet was circulated amongst local activists called How to deselect your MP, which explained how to use the new rulebook to get rid of any Labour MP who failed to meet the same ideological tests. It was waved under the nose of any MP who dared to support non-Bennites for the national executive or vote for non-Bennite motions at the GC. These were times of fear and loathing, when Labour Party meetings were unpleasant places to be, characterised as small groups of activists firing resolutions at each other from across the room.
The greatest opprobrium was reserved for anyone who had served in the treacherous Wilson and Callaghan governments. Ministers were traitors, and should be treated with contempt. In his memoir, Denis Healey recalls Jim Callaghan being subject to a “barrage of the most offensive personal abuse both in public speeches, and perhaps even more wounding, in the private meetings of the National Executive Committee.” This was a former Labour home secretary, chancellor of the exchequer, foreign secretary, prime minister and leader of the Labour party: being bawled at by nonentities, paper-sellers and placemen.