December 8, 2023

The 70s 80s 90s Blog

Three Decades of History with TV historian Tony McMahon

The turbulent Labour Party of the 1980s

5 min read
The Labour Party in the 1980s saw a stormy civil war that ended in purges as Tony McMahon remembers from a misspent youth
Labour Party 1980s

Let’s get in a time machine and go back forty years to the Labour Party of the 1980s and see how it compares with today’s infighting!

I joined the Labour Party in 1981. Like many teenagers I was on a quest to define myself. I grew up in what was then a very Conservative suburb of London. Woodford Green had been Winston Churchill’s constituency and we even had a statue on the green to prove it. Although, by a curious irony, his Labour opponent Clement Attlee lived in the same constituency. As did the communist suffragette, Sylvia Pankhurst.

Today, the London borough of Redbridge is a Labour council with two out of the three constituencies in Labour hands. But back in 1979, Maggie ruled the borough. So when I first decided I wasn’t a Tory, I opted for the Liberal Party. That was before it became the Lib Dems.

As a middle class boy with radical leanings, I needed to find a political home. On the one hand, I didn’t like Thatcher and on the other hand, Labour had been in power since 1974 and implemented a programme of austerity and cuts. The Liberals – especially the Young Liberals – had a progressive, radical veneer and that won me over for a while.

It didn’t make me long to realise I’d made a mistake. The Liberals in reality were a coalition of middle class Tories, who for various reasons couldn’t bring themselves to be in the Conservative party, and libertarian lefties who found the Labour Party too authoritarian. The latter faction expended vast amounts of ink and hot air trying to synthesise William Gladstone and the Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin. The Young Liberal publication, Liberator, seemed to be in the hands of ageing hippies – which offended my punk/New Wave sensibilities. I eventually decided they were talking bollocks.

DISCOVER: How the 1979 general election changed history

Starting the 80s by joining the Labour Party

Making the leap to Labour was quite a big deal for me back then as Thatcherite Toryism was very much in the ascendant. I was invited by a friend to attend the Epping Forest branch of the Labour Party Young Socialists (LPYS). What I didn’t realise was that the LPYS at that time was firmly under the control of the Militant – a Marxist group within the Labour Party. That wasn’t a problem. In fact, it made the transition easier. I was able to join the Labour Party while simultaneously hating the old guard in charge who’d been in government between 1974 and the general election defeat in 1979.

Like many people at the end of the 1970s, I wanted to find big answers. We’d been through a stormy decade. Oil crisis, balance of payments crisis, trade deficit crisis, labour relations crisis and a Labour Prime Minister who famously grumbled “crisis, what crisis”. 1979 completed the shit-fest with the country nosediving into a vicious recession. And everybody who thought deeply about politics realised the post-war political consensus was over. The only question was whether we would lurch to the left or the right.

So I gravitated quite rapidly in the direction of the Militant. They seemed serious about “the transformation of society” and more down to earth than some of the swivel-eyed ultra-left sects I’d encountered on demonstrations as a teenager. It didn’t take very long to notice that the Labour Party was sliding into an extremely stormy civil war. Before 1981, this centred on the election for the Deputy Leader of the party which pitted left-winger Tony Benn against the former Chancellor of the Exchequer Dennis Healey. This was truly a heavyweight contest.

FIND OUT MORE: When the Labour Party had two rival youth wings

The thrill of the 80s Labour Party

Being a teenager at the time, I wasn’t really up for being in a placid and docile Labour Party. And I wouldn’t be disappointed on that score.

The next five years were spent at conferences where the hatred between right and left in the Labour Party was on vitriolic display. The annual National Organisation of Labour Students conference was normally held at a university though a gladiatorial arena might have been more fitting. At one conference, the police stormed in to carry people out bodily. The proceedings at these combative gatherings would begin with the ritual bureaucratic attempt to exclude certain delegations on a technicality and moved onto debates where nobody really listened to the other side. We were far too busy seething with rage!

It’s in this fiery crucible that today’s Labour leadership was forged. The downside of this is that they still know what they hate (the left of the party) but I’m not sure they ever spent enough time working out what they like. So if you’ve ever wondered why the leadership of the Labour Party seems to lack an underlying philosophy and stirring vision, it’s because they spent their youth beating up the other half of the party. Not that they weren’t anti-Tory – but hammering the Trots was the primary mission objective.

Return of the 80s Labour Party?

The 1980s ended with a purge of the Marxist left and other groups from the Labour Party. We then had the rise of Blairism, which ran in tandem with a recovery of capitalism. The left made a Faustian pact with the City and Wall Street where we said: you make your super-profits, but we’ll skim the top to pay for better welfare and urban investment. But the 2008 recession brought that project to its knees and ten years later we had the Corbyn-led move to the left.

Corbynism was a revival of the kind of Leftism that dominated London Labour politics in the 1980s – centred on identity politics and radical international causes. But weak on bread-and-butter working class issues. Not that there has to be one without the other – as some seem to argue – but you need both.

The Labour Party has moved rightwards under Keir Starmer but there are dark clouds overhead that were absent in the 1980s. Labour no longer commands tribal working class loyalty in its heartlands – unthinkable over thirty years ago. Social democratic parties have been pummelled or even destroyed across Europe by new forces such as the Greens and populist movements. The trade unions no longer support the right wing of the party as they used to but they’re also a diminished force in British society. And young people are politically volatile in a way I’ve never seen.

Maybe the future of the Labour Party is to step out from its 1980s shadow.