Andrew Old decided to post the following tweet a few weeks ago:
I started watching the first programme. The other half, having overheard the start, stopped me and said that maybe he should watch it too. Over the course of the next 5 evenings we watched, stopped the programme repeatedly, debated and eventually he converted due to what he saw and heard.
Labour: Cast Into The Wilderness
Tony Benn – who I had always admired as one of the old guard – embroiled the Labour Party in a protracted civil war in the early 1980s. They were too busy opposing each other within the party, to prove to be any kind of opposition to Thatcher. The similarities between Benn then and Corbyn now (who also features in the programme) are too glaring to ignore. These include:
- Belief that he could and was speaking for the ‘people’.
- Belief that there was a constituency of left wing voters out there who wanted the Labour Party to be more left wing in order to vote for them. (One can only shake one’s head at such naivety. Those who are inclined towards the left, do vote left wing).
- Nothing less than a new social order will do and the country, which has just returned a Conservative Government, really wanted this.
- Belief that the old order, who were on the right of the party and it’s leaders had betrayed the Labour Party.
- Belief that the ‘true left’ in the party needed to be govern the party.
- People who come to rallies represent the ‘real mood’ of the party and the electorate.
Giving Labour Party members and Trade Unions a greater say in the policies adopted by the PLP was not really about creating greater internal democracy. Had the left wing activists not been resurgent at the time, I can well imagine Benn having kept quieter on the issue. How can it be democratic for a small number of members to deselect an elected MP? It isn’t, but they had the power to do so thanks to Benn. This wasn’t democracy it was an attempt to drive the right of the party out, eventually leading to the split that created the SDP.
He did not contest the leadership of the party but Benn did insist on contesting the deputy leadership, which he eventually lost. The damage however had been done. He ensured that the Labour Party were burdened by policies that made them unelectable. The 1983 Labour Party Manifesto, aka The Longest Suicide Note in History, proved just so.
However, more than anything else in the programme I was struck by two quotes. Roy Hattersley states early in the programme:
“The tragedy has been for the people out there who needed a Labour Government. Certainly the years since 1979 have been a tragedy for my constituents – black, poor, unemployed, badly housed. The defeats, therefore our performance, have been a tragedy for the lowest paid ten, twenty percent of the population. Therefore we must feel some guilt about behaving in a way that prevented us from coming to their assistance.”
Compare this to Benn:
“I’ve seen so many failures based on the idea that give up everything you believe in and you’ll win. You give it up and you don’t win and then people say we didn’t give up enough so we’ve got to give up even more. And I think that is the tragedy of the Labour Party since 1974. It hasn’t appeared to stand for anything and people are not fools and see that. So they say better the devil we know.”
Except people do not vote for a government they don’t like because the opposition does not stand for anything. Those people tend not to vote at all. More to the point I can’t help but contrast the tragedy felt by Hattersley – that of his constituents – and that of Benn – that of the loss of socialist policies in the Party. Therein lies the difference between the Benn’s and Corbyn’s of the world and I. No idea, no ideal, no ideology is worth more than a human being. Principles are supposed to guide one to live a better life, not condemn the poorest and most vulnerable to live a worse one.
This post was originally published on the Labour Teachers website.