“A Watershed Conference”: Why the Left still Revere the 1980 Labour Conference

“It has been a watershed of a conference of that there is no doubt and unlike any other conference it will continue to cast its influence over the PLP, over the leadership and over the future of British politics”

Tony Benn – 3rd October 1980

38 years ago, it was Labour conference voting to leave the Common Market – without a referendum – that set the moderates on the path to a split. This year it is the left who could force Corbyn’s hand on Brexit and, ironically, keep the moderates onside. 

Its twelve months since Jeremy Corbyn cheered his “result which has put the Tories on notice and Labour on the threshold of power.” At the 2017 Brighton conference, key supporters urged the mainstream media to start taking Corbyn seriously.

For Paul Mason it was “a breath of fresh air and reminds me of 1980”. But it is the events in Liverpool this week that have greater parallels with 1980. Mason has declared “In it’s own way @Keir_Starmer speech was as startling as Tony Benn in 1980

1980 was the year that the left finally broke free from the shackles of government, winning key votes; on reselection, leaving the Common Market and the election of the party leader. The events proved to be the catalyst for the creation of the SDP and – despite its romanticism for Mason – the beginning of another 17 years in the electoral wilderness for Labour.

Irresponsible, Opportunistic and Short-Sighted

Breakaway: The Gang of Three became the focus of intense media speculation

Labour’s first year in opposition, after the election of Margaret Thatcher, was fraught with bitterness and internal wrangling. At the 1979 conference, the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (CLPD) had organised themselves sufficiently to bring three big issues to debate: NEC manifesto control, compulsory re-selection of MPs and an electoral college to elect the leader. It was at this conference that Tony Benn emerged as the alternative Labour leader.

For Benn, control of the manifesto was vital. The narrative of betrayal had fostered itself on the left, with the failings pinned on Jim Callaghan who, as Prime Minister, had vetoed the nationalisation of Britain’s top 25 major companies and House of Lords abolition. Benn also identified the Common Market as another obstacle to a new  ‘industrial democracy’.

For the ‘Gang of Three’ – David Owen, Bill Rodgers and Shirley Williams – the issue of Europe would be the defining issue. After the NEC discussed complete withdrawal from the EEC, the three released a joint statement:

“For the Labour party to decide now on a manifesto commitment to leave the Community in 1983 or 1984 would be irresponsible, opportunistic and short-sighted. We could have no part in it.”

It set both factions on course for collision at the 1980 conference – which promised to be the most divisive since the war. Just a few days before the delegates met in Blackpool, the Labour NEC agreed to propose a radical agenda to conference: £10bn spending on social services; withdrawal from the Common Market; unilateral disarmament; removal of all nuclear bases from the U.K; abortion ‘on demand’;  the right for police and armed forces to strike and re-nationalisation, without compensation, of major transport and drug companies. Labour leader Jim Callaghan won on just two issues; defeating withdrawal from NATO and rejecting a demand that right-to-buy tenants sell their homes back to the council at the price they had paid.

Despite holding the balance of power on the NEC, the left were expected to meet difficulty with the trade union block vote on constitutional issues. Benn promised to raise the issues of reform at every conference until they were passed. He urged the unions to back the reforms:

“unless we can achieve real accountability to the members of the Labour Party, we could degenerate into a fan club for parliamentarians who once safely elected, could then ignore, reverse, amend or reject the policies on which they were elected.”

With Callaghan expected to step down once the new leadership rules were in place, eyes turned to the movements of Labour’s two big hitters: Tony Benn and Denis Healey.

In Tony Benn, the left had their first unifying figure since the days of Nye Bevan. On the first day of conference, Benn promised that the next Labour government would enact three radical pieces of legislation on day one in office; An Industry Act – to requisite the essential utility services into public ownership; A Repeal Bill – to restore all the powers that had been transferred to Brussels since 1973 and the immediate abolition of the House of Lords – and selection of 1000 delegates instead – to ensure Labour’s plan could not be rejected.

Shirley Williams – who was on Labour’s NEC but increasingly outcast within the party sarcastically questioned:

“Why he was so unambitious? It only took God six days to create the world.”

The importance of the 1980 conference was not lost on Benn. Appealing to the growing number of left-wing activists, Benn took to the stage with a list of all the betrayals that the Labour government – of which he was a member – had made since 1974. It included the reflation of public sector pay, a substantial cut in arms expenditure, a wealth tax and import controls. The same evening he dictated that:

“it was the best speech I have ever made at conference, probably the best speech I have ever made in my life at a public meeting”.

Roy Hattersley – then viewed as a future leader of the centre-right – claimed that of the twelve policies Benn renounced, “four of them we kept and eight of them had been made up”. Callaghan declared the speech “despicable”. The speech added to a febrile atmosphere at Blackpool, one in which Ron Haywood, the party’s General Secretary, added: “I wish our ministers and prime minister would act in our interests like a Tory prime minister acts in theres”.

Denis Healey meanwhile struck a muted and consensual tone. Calling for unity within the party, he urged delegates not to give “the Tory Press a field day” by in-fighting over the constitution. Accusing Mrs Thatcher of “turning the clock back 50 years” on British industry, he challenged the party to prove it could govern again: “we will not be forgiven if we fail.” Supporting him was Joe Ashton – who had once been PPS to Benn – who likened it to letting a Trojan horse into the party. Ashton asked the delegates the question: “who outside of the Labour party wants mandatory reselection?”

The ‘Gang of Three’ – now organising as the Campaign for Labour Victory – launched their biggest personal attack on the Bennett left. Shirley Williams told a fringe meeting that Benn “lived in a dream world” and urged him to be realistic about what the party could do in power: “are we going to stick by the truth and tell it sometimes?” In a rallying call to the moderates, she urged them to “stick your heads up and come over the parapet.” David Owen supported her:

“the time to fight has started…it will require guts and backbone to work. It cannot be done by a few. It must be done by the many.”

When it finally came to Callaghan’s leader speech, he called for unity: “for pity’s sake stop arguing…you can only win if you unite.” Urging the party to turn fire on the Tories, he lamented defence proposals as saying “stop the world, we want to get off.” Yet when it came to the ovation, left-wing members of the NEC refused to stand. Opponents remarked that the speech was of a “man whose course has ran”.

When the conference voted on withdrawal of the Common Market by five million to two million, Benn declared the result a “sensational…a fantastic victory.” David Owen urged Labour to hold a referendum if they were too leave the EEC, citing “constitutional outrage” if Labour did so without a mandate. Hattersley described the results as “part tragedy but mostly farce.” There was a further victory for the Bennite wing when conference voted in favour of mandatory reselection and an electoral college for the election of leader. It meant that a special conference would be convened in January 1981 to work out the composition of the electoral college.

At a Miners dinner, Callaghan finally turned fire on Benn, declaring his speech “a gross travesty of the truth”. He dismissed Benn and “those who aspire to the leadership of the party by playing to the audience will be found out”.

Two weeks after the conference, Callaghan finally stepped down as Labour leader, triggering twelve months of bitter infighting over constitutional affairs. As we approach another period of uncertainty within the party, it remains to be seen whether anyone outside of the conference hall really cares about constitutional reform.












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