YP 30 Years Ago Denis Healey Saved The Labour Party For Tony Blair
Published in the Yorkshire Post 24 September, although actual anniversary was 28 September
Thirty years ago I waited in Brighton Conference Centre for the result of the Labour Party’s Deputy Leadership election. The hall was overheated in every sense – physically stifling and boiling with rumours. The announcement began with a weird name: Bentoni… An Italian ice-cream? What had that to do with the future of the Labour Party?
Bentoni’s percentage votes were given, to three decimal places, in each of the three sections of Labour’s electoral college. I realized suddenly and deliriously that they totalled less than 50 per cent. Healeydenis had won by less than 1 per cent. The Labour party would stay alive.
In 1981 Tony Benn enlisted thousands of decent and principled people behind one of the trashiest campaigns in British political history. He achieved this by parasiting on their hopes for a radical, transformative Labour government. He identified loyalty to the Labour Party with loyalty to himself. The more we saw of this, the more it energized the Healey campaign. Defeating Benn became not only a practical necessity but a moral imperative.
In particular, Benn’s narrative of the 1974-79 Labour government exploited the perennial paranoia of Labour activists over betrayal by their leaders. His colleagues had been either flinching cowards or secret sneering traitors, and this explained every failure and disappointment. He offered a seductive fantasy: achieving socialism simply by amending the governance of the Labour party, to bring Labour ministers and MPs and councillors under the control of Labour activists.
Benn claimed that the Deputy Leadership contest was about “the issues”, which he pronounced like a long sneeze, but his position on every issue was tailored to please the groups supporting his bid for power. On foreign policy, he sought immediate withdrawal from the European Community and NATO and a neutralist agenda. At the time, Denis Healey described this programme as “deserting all of our allies and then preaching them a sermon.”
On the home front, Benn stood for the policies he had advocated in government, with very scant success: import controls, massive government intervention backed by enforceable planning agreements, support for workers’ co-operatives, and general acquiescence to any demand from any trade union. Indeed, Benn incorporated into his policy virtually all demands from any Left-wing pressure group, regardless of their cost, their practicality, their mutual compatibility or their popularity with the mass of voters.
Based on the infantile principle of “no enemies on the Left”, Benn’s campaign gave house-room to Hard Left, sectarian pressure groups. He defended the right of the anti-democratic Trotskyite Militant Tendency to use the name and the money of a Labour party they despised. I likened Tony Benn to a tube of Signal toothpaste: “anyone can pick him up and squeeze him, and out comes soft soap with a hard red stripe.” Famous for his kindly nature, Denis Healey never used this simile in the campaign, but I did.
Thirty years on, Benn has been given the status of “national treasure”. Many of his lieutenants have had honourable afterlives. Yet I still exult in his defeat, as much as I did in that stuffy Conference Hall. When I joined Denis Healey in 1981, a published survey suggested that he had a 25 per cent lead over Tony Benn in the Deputy Leadership contest. I calculated that for each week that I worked for him that summer, Denis Healey lost 1 per cent of the vote. If I had been given just one more week Tony Benn would have won.
If he had, the Labour Party would have imploded. The SDP-Liberal Alliance would have become the main opposition party. It would not have won the 1983 election but would have had a fighting chance in 1987 and almost certainly would have won the election after that. Ironically, that non-Labour government would have been considerably to the Left of the Labour one with a landslide majority in 1997. New Labour would have been unnecessary and uninvented, its creators undiscovered and now unremembered.
Instead, Tony Blair became the delayed spawn of Denis Healey and Tony Benn. The Healey victory kept Labour alive but the party remained in no condition to fight and win an election for many years to come. Blair exploited the trauma of three defeats to push through massive change in Labour’s governance, policy and basic values. He defined himself against the memories of 1981 and told his party that only his programme would prevent a return to extremism and civil war. On that basis Labour was forced to love markets and Murdochs.
Looking back, I realize how much Blair had in common with Tony Benn. Like Benn, he treated the past as an endless parade, with himself taking the salute. Like Benn, he attracted cronies and coteries. Like Benn, he proclaimed an agenda of party democracy but ignored party members when they voted the wrong way. Like Tony Benn, he could talk drivel and make it sound sincere and plausible.
Tony Blair was unimaginable thirty years ago to those of us celebrating the Healey victory. We thought we had saved our party.
Richard Heller was chief of staff to Denis Healey from 1981 to 1983