I was recently recommended the excellent four-part BBC documentary series “Labour – The Wilderness Years”, which offers an analysis of the causes underlying the decline of the British Labour Party, beginning with the catastrophic 1979 general election, and following events up until the sudden and tragic loss of party leader John Smith in 1994, and a little beyond.
The series, first broadcast in December 1995, is a example of just how good television really can be . Without the need for repeating video loops, and endless recaps on what’s just gone. Without eye-candy graphics, emotive music and an overbearing narrative commentary. Just relevant archive footage, alongside in-depth interviews with those most closely involved in the events.
Although suspicious of much that purports to be politically neutral, on this occasion there is also a sense of genuine impartiality. The film-makers allowing arguments from all sides to be voiced, and thus leaving the viewer free to draw their own conclusions.
All four episodes have been uploaded (sliced into six 10 minute segments for each) on youtube and so I provide links for the complete lists of the parts that make up each of the episodes. Alongside those links, you can also read my own rather less neutral précis.
The four parts were named and aired as below:
1. Cast Into The Wilderness (3rd December 1995)
The fierce war between the left and the right wings of the party begins at the 1980 party conference. Tony Benn, who is already expressing concerns that Britain may be sliding into a police state, sets out to democratise the party. He is roundly condemned by those on the right, but thanks to union retaliation against the hopeless and recently defeated Jim Callaghan, leads the left to a bitter victory at the party conference.
To heal the developing schism between left and right, the party then elects the erudite and compassionate Michael Foot over the more bruising but worldly “old flamethrower” Denis Healey. But Foot’s efforts to pour oil on troubled waters is quickly undone as the treacherous “Gang of Four”, led by former Home Secretary and then-President of the European Commission, Roy Jenkins, with Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers and the ever-so-dashing David Owen in tow, all running off to form their own shambolic party, the quickly defunct SDP. The longer-term consequence being that the Labour vote is split for many years to come.
Click here to watch on youtube.
2. Comrades At War (10th December 1995)
Tony Benn vs. Denis Healey in the race for deputy leader and a fight for the soul of the party, as support for Thatcher’s new Tory government wanes and as riots break out across the country. With Michael Foot still trying to steady the ship, Benn’s battle for democracy and socialism comes to blows against the ‘establishment left’ and their popular heavyweight Denis Healey. Meanwhile, the ambitious Neil Kinnock also begins to push his weight around, and very publicly withdraws his own support from Tony Benn’s campaign by abstaining from the vote. Healey narrowly wins by virtue of Kinnock’s abstention.
Michael Foot is then hauled over the coals by the right-wing press for turning up in an inappropriate coat on Remembrance Day. Whilst Foot, in turn, fails to support prospective Labour candidate Peter Tatchell, as he is grilled by the same right-wing media, and ridiculed principally on the grounds that he is candid about his own homosexuality. Finally, and on the basis that they are facing almost certain defeat in the forthcoming general election, the right-wing of the party decide to put together an extreme Bennite-style manifesto purely in order to discredit the policies of the left once and for all.
With the nation still rallying around the flag after victory in the Falklands, Michael Foot misjudges the mood again, placing his main emphasis on promoting the manifesto promise of unilateral nuclear disarmament. Rupert Murdoch’s press, Kenny Everett and Satan’s little helpers, Saatchi & Saatchi, also work tirelessly to secure Thatcher’s second term in office. Aside from ensuring an election disaster, the manifesto, which becomes popularly known as “the longest suicide note in history”, also effectively sets the seal on the Labour Party’s steady march towards the right.
Click here to watch on youtube.
3. Enter The Rose (17th December 1995)
The ambitious Neil Kinnock becomes leader and immediately shows his true colours by choosing to sit on the fence as the Thatcher government crushes the miners’ strike. He then begins “modernising” the party, by, most significantly, expunging the Trotskyist parasite ‘Militant tendency’.
During the years of 1985 and 1986, Labour’s National Executive Committee sit through hours of McCarthyite hearings: Kinnock’s inquisition leading to the expulsion of more than 200 members, including, most justifiably, the egotistical popinjay Derek Hatton. But corrupt as ‘Militant tendency’ were, many good and previously loyal party members are also forced out during this protracted witch hunt.
In late 1985, Kinnock appoints Peter Mandelson, a former television producer, to work as Director of Communications. At first, Mandelson’s “Red Rose Revolution” means mainly that message plays second fiddle to the party image. New logo, new sets, new emphasis on style over substance… the conception, if not yet the birth, of New Labour. Yet in spite of all the razzamatazz, which includes some surprisingly nifty swing dancing with wife Glenys, “the Welsh windbag” still fails to impress the electorate.
Click here to watch on youtube.
4. The Pursuit Of Power (18th December 1995)
Kinnock decides to sell-out absolutely, surrendering many more of his and the party’s remaining leftist principles in deliberate efforts to fall into line with the prevailing Thatcherite neoliberal hegemony. As his ‘revolution’ progresses, Kinnock ruthlessly puts down any dissent coming from within the shadow cabinet, whilst meanwhile instituting a nationwide “Labour Listens” polling campaign, the results of which will provide convenient populist cover for justifying the party’s ideological U-turn.
Peter Mandelson, now Labour’s spin doctor, helps Kinnock to promote the ‘policy review’ and to limit the damage caused by those who still oppose the changes. This includes briefing the media against other high-ranking Labour politicians. Michael Meacher, who was one of the victims of Mandelson’s many smear campaigns, is replaced by Tony Blair as Employment Spokesman, and, as they say… the rest is history!
Kinnock’s suits are sharpened up, and we have the debacle of the “Jennifer’s Ear” party political broadcast; a mere prelude to the jaw-dropping Hollywood-style Sheffield Rally that marks the eve of the general election. Watch it and weep:
Click here to see the remaining episodes on youtube.
Following John Smith’s untimely death, the party comes more directly under the centralised control of ‘modernisers’ like Mandelson, Blair and Brown, although the first prominent party member to publicly endorse Tony Blair as the next leader is actually Denis Healey. Whilst Blair’s closest rival, Gordon Brown, conveniently steps aside. With “the Prince of Darkness” Mandelson finally ruling the roost, Labour now drop all remaining pretence to socialism, and also betray their commitments to human rights and the rule of international law.
Margaret Thatcher once asked: “If they would abandon their most cherished policies in opposition, what will they do with their promises in government”.
A decade of New Labour rule provided us with a very sorry answer. In its wake, we live in a country riven by greater disparities in wealth than ever, and indebted thanks chiefly to market deregulation which Blair and Brown had very much permitted and encouraged. We also have a national health service made ready for privatisation, along with the prisons and our schools. And capping everything, we are mired in an unwinnable war (having already abandoned a second war, fought at the cost of countless lives, and entirely without legal or other justification). So the short answer to Thatcher’s albeit rhetorical question: that in the pursuit of power, Blair, Brown, Mandelson and the rest of the New Labour crew would happily sell their own grandmothers.
This is an appropriate juncture to also mention two very intelligent and well produced dramas that tackle similar issues from around the same period.
A Very British Coup (Channel 4, 1988) offers a glimpse of how a left-wing Labour government might have tackled the problems facing Britain back in the 1980s. Ray McAnally is wonderful as the down-to-earth leader and MP for Sheffield Central, Harry Perkins, who takes on the ruling establishment, attempts to break the newspaper monopolies, and more generally to bring to heel the military-industrial complex. Hardly surprisingly, Perkins is met with stiff resistance and dirty tricks of every kind. The three-part television series, first screened on Channel 4, won Bafta and Emmy awards. It was based on a 1982 novel by British politician Chris Mullin, who also gives interviews throughout in “Labour – the wilderness years”. The novel was adapted for television, with a screenplay by Alan Plater, and directed by Mick Jackson.
Click here to watch on 4OD.
GBH (Channel 4, 1991) is a gritty seven-part drama written by Alan Bleasdale, starring Robert Lindsay as Michael Murray, the Militant tendency Labour leader of an unspecified British northern city. The parallels with Derek Hatton are obvious enough. Michael Palin co-stars as the principled school teacher, Jim Nelson, who inadvertently finds himself fighting against corruption and intimidation. As the plots steadily build, we discover that all is not quite as it first appears. The series was produced by David W. Jones.
Click here to watch on 4OD.