Civil War: How infighting took Labour and Britain to the brink

The period from 1979 to 1983 represented an electoral nadir for the Labour Party. After being brought down by the winter of discontent, a period of bitter infighting remained etched on the minds of the electorate for the next 20 years. Will history repeat itself?

In the months following the 1979 general election defeat, a period of intense infighting and backstabbing took hold of the Labour party. It subsequently led to the creation of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and Labour’s biggest electoral drubbing since the 1930s, at the 1983 election. To the left, the right of the party represented a failed establishment who had betrayed the Labour movement for their own political ends. To the right, the left represented a militant lynch mob who had no interest in governing, and had no capacity to make the relevant sacrifices needed to achieve power. Almost 40 years have passed and those competing factions have sharpened once again.

In the early 1980s, the party was divided on the key issues, at a time of great national and political upheaval. Issues such as nationalisation, NATO, the common market, electing the leader, the NEC influence over policy, the mixed economy, parliamentary democracy, class warfare, Keynesian-ism and the House of Lords split the party down the middle. Yet whilst Labour debated the ‘purity’ of its democracy,  the Tories pushed on with the most savage cuts to public expenditure the country had ever seen. Unemployment rose at the fastest rate in history and Thatcher became the most unpopular leader in history. But as her own MPs asked her to u-turn, she decided to push even harder. Riots broke out in the inner cities, unemployment topped 3 million, yet by the end of 1981 it was Labour who had declined in the opinion polls.

As Britain edges closer to the brink in 2017, why would either side of the Labour party want to go back to it?

Part One: Betrayal


The period 1979 to 1981 would see a number of changes made to the organisational structure of the Labour party. They included the introduction of mandatory re-selection of MPs, handing control of the manifesto to Labour’s NEC and changes in the electoral college for leadership election. The intention was to constrain the leader. shadow cabinet and the PLP. As Tony Blair noted this in his interview with Peter Hennessey this week, if you were on the left in the late 1970s, Harold Wilson and James Callaghan were the ultimate traitors to the movement, and they could never be trusted to wield power again.

The left was able to pinpoint the exact moment that Labour betrayed the movement. In 1976, against the backdrop of rising inflation and unemployment, Jim Callaghan took to the party conference stage and admitted that they had got it wrong in the past. It marked the end of the Keynesian consensus. He lectured the delegates in the hall;

“‘We used to think that you could spend your way out of a recession and increase employment by cutting taxes and boosting government spending. I tell you, in all candour, that the option no longer exists, and that insofar as it did exist, it only worked by injecting a bigger dose of inflation into the economy followed by higher levels of unemployment as the next step.”

In an attempt to arrest Britain’s economic decline, Callaghan had signed up to huge public spending cuts, dependent on the terms of an IMF loan that had saved Britain’s economy. For the left, Callaghan was the man who introduced monetarism to Britain through the backdoor and laid the foundations for Thatcherism. The left resented that Labour had not adopted a radical Industry Act whilst in government, to seize control of privatised companies. Callaghan and his chancellor Denis Healey were blamed for the ultimate sin for a Labour government – rising unemployment. If Labour couldn’t maintain full employment, then what was the point in them being in office?

By the time Labour had been rejected by the electorate, the Keynesian approach was as anathema to the party rank and file as Blairism, neo-liberalism and ‘third way’ politics is to Momentum today. At the 1979 conference, held just a few months into the uneasy birth of Thatcherism, the vitriol between delegates was no longer being disguised. As Austin Mitchell wrote in his account of the period, Four years in the death of the Labour Party “that conference, the tone, the bitterness and the hatred of MPs came as a shock to most.”


For Ron Hayward, the party’s general secretary, the NEC and conference had to take a greater role in determining the policy of a future Labour government. Coming just a few months after the historic defeat, Hayward gave the conference a speech they had longed to hear;

“Why was there a Winter of Discontent? The reason was that, for good or ill, the cabinet supported by the MPs ignored Congress and conference decisions. It was as simple as that, the Tories do it much better than we do. I wish our ministers or our prime ministers would sometimes act in our interests, like Tory prime ministers act in their interests.”

The ‘Campaign for Labour Party Democracy’ group (CLPD) had been established in 1973 for the purpose of introducing more accountability to the PLP.  The chief proponents of the CLPD believed, and still do, that power should be handed down to the activists – who after proposing their policy resolutions to conference – could elect ‘pure’ delegates to Labour’s NEC to ensure that their policies were fully implemented.

For the left, the Labour MPs and ministers had lost their right to control policy through a series of miscalculations in the 1970s. There were to be more secret meetings with Fleet Street editors, bankers from the IMF and right-wing trade union leaders. Under the new structure, as Ken Livingstone perfectly surmised “There should be no compromise with the electorate.”

This quest for constitutional change stemmed from Tony Benn’s bitter election defeat in 1976 after Wilson’s resignation. Benn could lay claim to being the most popular MP amongst the grassroots, but due to his unpopularity amongst the PLP he finished fourth. On the night that James Callaghan was elected leader, Benn told his comrades that the only way the left could now win would be through constitutional change.

The next battle would be fought from within. Benn would become the standard-bearer for the movement, and the focal figure in the ensuing civil war. Benn laid virtue to having been a cabinet insider who had been purified by his experience of power. Just as in 2017, Donald Trump claimed he could “drain the swamp” because he had once influenced its leaders, Benn claimed he could do the same now that he had seen corruption at first hand.

The first big test for the CLPD was to remove the ‘Red Tory’ MPs. This would be done through a campaign for mandatory re-selection. In July 1979, the NEC agreed to debate the principle of reselection at conference. For the current MPs, it was felt that it would undermine their independence and there was a fear of becoming more accountable to a small band of activists over their constituents. But the policy now enjoyed considerable traction, as key supporters on the NEC Tony Benn, Eric Heffer, Dennis Skinner, and Frank Allaun endorsed the move.

The policy had the support of the trade union members and Labour members who had shifted decisively to the left as the party grappled with the trappings of power. As Crewe and King note in their seminal text on the SDP – SDP: The Birth, Life and Death of the Social Democratic Party;

“The typical Labour member gradually ceased to be a lorry driver, bricklayer or miner concerned with day to day well being of working men and women and became instead a much more ideologically minded teacher, local government officer or social worker’

This was linked to wider issues which Eric Hobsbawm touched on in ‘The Forward March of Labour Halted’ , in which he discussed the shrinking decline in Labour’s vote share and the increasing lack of class consciousness amongst the new working class. In the years since 1964 when Labour first returned to power, the grassroots had been infiltrated by a militant left-wing, aligned to the SWP, the International Marxist group and Militant Tendency ( previously known as the Revolutionary Communist League).

Whilst it was only a small minority, their appearance alarmed left wingers such as Micheal Foot who warned that “MPs need to be on guard to those who seek to subvert the party for quite undemocratic purposes.” For the issue that united the hard left was a contempt for traditional power structures – specifically parliamentary democracy.


Emboldened, at the 1979 conference, the CLPD brought their three big issues to the table: NEC Manifesto control, compulsory re-selection and new rules for electing the party leader. The first two were carried but they would have to wait until 1981 to change the leadership rules. Control of the manifesto was vital, after Callaghan had vetoed the nationalisation of the 25 major companies – even though it had been endorsed by both the conference and the NEC. In addition to this, the conference passed resolutions to “reconsider” Britain’s position in the common market and called for the restoration of all of Thatcher’s privatisation reforms “without compensation”.

For the future ‘Gang of Four’  and their associates, the writing was clearly on the wall. In 1975, the party had been locked into a battle over the re-selection of Dave Prentice who ultimately provided ammunition for the left by crossing the floor to join the Conservatives. Pundits predicted battles in every Labour constituency party, and for the left it would give the party the shake up from the establishment order it so desperately needed.

The right was totally unprepared for the battles ahead and had been paralysed by the speed of the change within the party. After many years in government, their ideas looked outdated and their organisation could not match the CLPD. While the left could unite around specific policy and constitutional goals, the right had been pre-occupied with governing, and exhausted by the need to keep a minority government rolling day by day. If they asserted their commitment to Labour values, their deemed failure in performance as ministers was thrown back at them.

Watching on from the sidelines in Brussels was Roy Jenkins. Jenkins was the epitome of the Labour establishment and was nearing the end of his time as President of the EU commission. He returned to the British political scene in November 1979 to address the ‘Dimbleby Lecture’, but at the time the Labour right saw his speech as empty political posturing. However, it created a debate within the media, and a vision for a new party had been outlined.

Then, in January 1980. the NEC decided to suppress a report by Reg Underhill about the increasing influence of militant tendency within the party.  Tony Benn refused to condemn any ‘good socialists’ and said that they were “an integral part of the Labour party rooted in its finest traditions.” Eric Heffer meanwhile admitted there was entryism in the party – from the right wingers who refused to sign up to the new socialist platform.

Of the Labour right, David Owen emerged as the most vocal critic of the movement leftward. He began touring the country with the ‘Campaign for Labour Victory’ urging the right to stand up for themselves. Owen can be seen as the David Miliband of his generation, and their was mutual antipathy between him and the left. For Owen represented the worst kind of traitor to the movement, a career politician who had no roots within the party and had been seen as being ‘arrogant’ with power when foreign secretary at the age of just 38. Seen as a protegé of both Crosland and Callaghan, he represented the next generation of the old guard, and just as David Miliband was rejected  after Labour’s election defeat of 2010, David Owen was pushed to the edges.

In early 1980 however, David Owen remained committed to the party; “The most foolish course now…would be to abandon the struggle within the Labour party, to talk of new parties”. While Shirley Williams warned that “a centre party would have no roots, no principles, no philosophy and no values.” In response to the CPLD constitutional reforms, Owen proposed the introduction of ‘one member, one vote’ to apply to all levels of the party – for the manifesto, re-selection and for electing the party leader. The left saw this as opportunism and refused to compromise. Tempers began to fray in May of 1980 when David Owen came under attack at the ‘Peace, Jobs Freedom’ conference, for his record in government. A week later he heard of Labour’s plan to re-open the common market debate and push for a withdrawal without a referendum.

gang of 3

In June of 1980, David Owen, Bill Rodgers and Shirley Williams began to meet on a regular basis. Williams had already lost her seat in the 1979 election, but remained on Labour’s NEC. They drafted a statement on the issue of Europe that was seen as a call to arms;

“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.”

The media now dubbed Owen, Williams and Rogers ‘the gang of three’. By the time of 1980 party conference, relations had hit a new low. Benn told the hall that the next Labour government would need to 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 immediate abolition of the house of lords to ensure both of the previous policies can be enacted. Tony Benn had reached the point of no return.

Swiping at Benn, Shirley Williams told a fringe meeting that he “lived in a dream world”. Heckled throughout, she could no longer hide her disdain for his idealistic and simplistic view of the world;

“And all this, would be done in a couple of weeks! I wonder why Tony was so unambitious. After all it took God only six days to make the world…

She finished by claiming that “Too many good men and women in this party have remained silent..the time has come to stick your heads up and come over the parapet.”

The first victim of the shake up would be Jim Callaghan, who resigned as leader in November 1980. Callaghan had made one last attempt to bridge the gap between the NEC and the PLP at Bishops Stortford, where the new constitutional rules were being discussed. He had been embarrassed when his proposals to keep the PLP as the sole electors of party leader were rejected. Cannily he decided to quit before new leadership rules could be put in place.

The left saw this as another act of treachery and vowed to enact their revenge when the leadership rules were changed. Tony Benn telephoned his colleagues who advised him not to stand in the ‘illegitimate’ election. The priority would be to stop Denis Healey, and hope that a caretaker could be put in place. It wasn’t just the left who wanted to stop Healey. According to the Labour MP Neville Sandelson, who knew he was going to be de-selected,

“There was a collective move by (future) SDP MPs to wreck the Labour party by voting for the more extreme characters…they were sufficient to tip the balance Foot’s way. He was the man most likely to lead the crumbling of the Labour party”

It was Denis Healey who had been the strongest candidate for the leadership. He was the most popular Labour politician in the country and could match Thatcher in terms of presentation style. As chancellor, he had somewhat revived Britain’s economic fortunes over a tortuous five-year period. Yet amongst the PLP he had serious baggage. He’d served as defence secretary in the 1960s and advocated for nuclear weapons at a time when CND had become a growing influence on the party. Of all the traitors who had overseen the IMF bailout in the 1970s, Healey was most associated with the cuts, falling wages and unemployment that followed as he pushed through tough economic reforms.

Opinion polling from November 1980 shows that 71% of the electorate saw Healey as the best candidate, in comparison to 16% for Foot, 9% for Silkin and 4% for Shore. A Gallup poll showed that 64% felt Healey would make a good leader to 30% for Foot. Yet anti-establishment feeling was in the air. The Tories had taken their own gamble by electing Thatcher in 1975, when most of the opinion polling pointed to Willie Whitelaw. I have written about this in greater detail in “Precisely the sort of candidate who ought to be able to stand, and lose harmlessly’ – Is Corbyn the modern day Thatcher?


Healey lost out to Foot by 10 votes. For the left, Foot was now the unifying candidate who could be manipulated until the new leadership rules could be put in place. Upon his election, Foot promised to take the fight to the country;

“We shall organise the biggest protest campaign that this country has seen since the 1930s. We shall have a campaign from one end of the country to the other. We shall fight the government here in the house and outside”

Shackled from government responsibility at last, the party would look to win through a sustained period of street campaigning. No longer did they need the press to do their bidding for them. Foot finished with a warning to the Thatcher:

“We give due notice to this Conservative Party.” 

Part Two: The Battle For Labour’s Soul


Initially it looked like Michael Foot could unite the various factions within the party. In the shadow cabinet elections, rising star on the right Roy Hattersley topped the poll and was awarded the Home Secretary brief. Denis Healey was brought in as deputy while Peter Shore was appointed shadow chancellor with left-wing firebrand Neil Kinnock occupying the education brief. For Benn, who had finished 13th in the shadow cabinet election, there would be no role in the top team.

However things would come to a head at the 1981 Wembley Conference when voting began on a new electoral college. The right compromised on a proposal of 50% PLP, 25% trade unions and 25% CLP, and this was the method endorsed by the leader Michael Foot, the majority of the PLP and the moderate trade unions.

However they would be out maneuvered by a well organised left, who proposed a 30% PLP, 30% CLP and 40% TU split. The ‘USDAW resolution’ was passed, and the unions now held the biggest influence in electing the leader and deputy. For the moderates, electing one of their leader’s would now be impossible. After the vote, Michael Foot called for unity:

“I cannot pretend to you that absolutely all the results this afternoon were the ones I wanted… I accept the vote and I hope that the whole party, without regard to left, right or centre will accept that vote as well.”

The press heralded the reforms as a huge victory for Benn. Outcast from the shadow cabinet just as year ago, he was now seen as the kingmaker. The following day, David Owen, Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams and Bill Rodgers announced the formation of the ‘Council for Social Democracy’ – an alternative party being created within the Labour Party. A few weeks later the SDP was formed.


The public would now be treated to the spectacle of a party tearing itself apart over its record in government, while the Tories pushed through the most savage of recession inducing budgets.  Nowadays, key Corbyn supporters such as Paul Mason have argued that Thatcherism was somewhat inevitable. He claimed in his piece The parallels between Jeremy Corbyn and Michael Foot are almost all false

“All the momentum, in ideas, in broader society and among the elite, was towards the free-market, authoritarian project we now call Thatcherism.”

Yet in 1981, the Tories were not the insurmountable economic force they would go on to become. Thatcherism was still dogged by high inflation, whilst unemployment doubled from 6% to 12% in the first two years in office. They couldn’t even meet their own tax cutting and money supply targets.  When the chancellor Geoffrey Howe brought his budget to the House in March,  his own MPs walked out, declaring it “dead end” and “very depressing”. Sipping on a gin and tonic, Howe warned his party of further rises in unemployment

“Years of high inflation, low productivity and delayed change have made our economy especially vulnerable, and reduced its ability to compete in both home and overseas markets. And so we are suffering more than others…In 1981–82 output is expected to be lower, and unemployment higher, than envisaged a year ago.”

howe budget

Immediately the CBI and the London Chamber of Commerce lamented Howe’s measures, which offered little to curb unemployment and save small business’. The press labelled it a “bitter medicine’ and the most savage budget since the 1930s. Michael Foot declared it a “no hope budget by a no-hope chancellor.” He predicted that it would be a “budget to produce three million unemployed.” He would be proven right. But being right doesn’t always lead you to power.

The same month, Tony Benn had met with his ‘Sunday Group’ which would include a young Jeremy Corbyn, to discuss a deputy leadership bid. Benn waited for the SDP to defect to announce the candidature. Coming on the back of a grueling five-year hung parliament, party defections and constitution changes, there was little appetite for a fight within the party. All except for Tony Benn and his army of supporters. Benn’s ally Joe Ashton urged him not to stand, as did Micheal Foot, Joe Gormley of the NUM and various other key players in the Labour movement.

Michael Foot told the press that “a six month campaign can only detract from the main purpose, which is to defeat the Tories.” Nevertheless, Benn persisted with the challenge, much to the chagrin of many of his fellow  MPs. When Labour tried to seize some momentum during the summer, by organising a series of demonstrations regarding the record unemployment figures, they were hijacked. In Birmingham and Cardiff, Trotskyists, anarchists and IRA supporters jeered the Labour leadership. Allied to Tony Benn, he was urged to condemn the abuse by Foot and Healey. Benn refused to condemn and years later he admitted;

“I’m not in favour of breaking up public meetings, and i think its a ludicrous idea to expect someone to denounce somebody who i have no control over, from another party”

The Labour establishment retaliated with a smear campaign against Benn and the media billed it as “the battle for Labour’s soul” The internal battle went on for the whole summer. By June, Foot made one last attempt to stop Benn’s candidacy. In cabinet, he read out a 24 page statement urging him to “put up or shut up” and challenge him instead of Healey. Not for the first time, Benn was humiliated in front of his cabinet colleagues. He muttered to himself “this is not fair.” Healey’s supporters briefed that it had been a political masterstroke from Foot. A few days later, Roy Jenkins plunged the knife in deeper, by announcing he was standing in the Labour heartland of Warrington for the SDP. From March until the autumn the SDP enjoyed a remarkable period of positive momentum, enjoying an opinion poll lead over Labour and by October they even had a poll lead over the Conservatives.

Part Three: Summer of Discontent

The summer of 1981 would be the most tumultuous in living memory.  Britain was ablaze through riots in Moss Side, Toxteth, Brixton and various other cities.  In a  dramatic July cabinet meeting the Conservative party put more pressure on Thatcher to relent. She would later call it the most “depressing cabinet meeting of my life”. Her sworn enemy, Ted Heath called the 3 million unemployed a scandal, warning of further riots if she carried on down her economic path. But she refused to give in, demanding the government support her to inflict more spending cuts. After admitting that unemployment would rise further before the job would be complete, she told the CBI that the country must stand firm otherwise it would have been a wasted year.

As the riots continued on Moss Side, Thatcher’s broadcast to the nation asked that parents discipline their children properly to prevent further aggravation. But by the 10th day of rioting, she visited Liverpool, only to be pelted by rotten tomatoes. Tough action would be required, and Willy Whitelaw unveiled plans for the use of water cannons on mainland Britain for the first time. Cracking under the strain, Thatcher finally admitted that it had been “the most worrying 10 days” of her premiership. Michael Heseltine was sent to Liverpool to try to survey the wreckage on the same day that the Red Cross were drafted into Maze Prison to manage the hunger strike. Britain was on the brink.

Yet Labour could not capitalise, and some media outlets attempted to blame militants for provoking the riots.  The Warrington by-election showed that political change was indeed in the air. In the Labour heartland an early opinion poll had pointed to a Labour landslide and the consensual opinion was that Roy Jenkins ‘grandeur’ would be off-putting to the people of Warrington. But the SDP brought a sense of freshness and excitement to the campaign. Labour shed 10,274 votes and only held on by a whisker. The BBC declared it “the most sensational by-election result” of the century. The Guardian praised the new realignment:

“There have been false dawns before, but there has been no time when fundamental change in the pattern of British politics looked more likely to come than it does this morning.” 

Labour were locked in an internal struggle. Whilst the riots continued, Neil Kinnock announced that the next Labour government would seek to abolish all private schools. Foot and Healey were then humiliated by the Labour NEC over the issue of nuclear bases. Then as the end of July approached, the press ran stories on the ‘economic suicide’ of Labour’s plan to leave the common market. As the public looked for some escapism in the form of a Royal Wedding, Healey and Benn toured trade union halls and TV studios tearing apart the previous Labour government’s record.

By September, the heat had cooled and the riots were beginning to fade. Thatcher had survived the inferno, and emerged stronger as a result. Labour still hadn’t settled on a deputy leader. On the 15th of September, Margret Thatcher finally began to turn a corner. She axed the wets and brought in true believers to her cause. Nigel Lawson came in as chancellor and Norman Tebbit came in at employment. Dissenters were axed, and Jim Prior was exiled to Northern Ireland.

Peter Shore, Labour’s shadow chancellor,  warned of increasing unemployment, but no one was listening by now. Over the course of the most violent summer clashes in Britain’s history, Thatcher had survived. The opinion polls showed that Thatcher’s support had indeed declined, going from 33.5% satisfied in June to 29.3% by September. But over the same period Foot’s support had also declined and by the end of 1981 his satisfaction ratings hit just 18.6%, a decline from 26.5% when the Benn challenge began.

When the deputy election contest finally came around, sixteen left-wing MPs, lead by Neil Kinnock, abstained rather than vote for Benn. It was enough to secure Healey’s victory. Having split from the Bennite left, Kinnock became identified with the ‘soft’ left and he became the new traitor to the movement. Benn’s supporters, including a young Jeremy Corbyn saw it as a huge step forward.


On the night of Healey’s win, Ken Livingstone told a packed fringe meeting;

“Three years ago Healey was the next Labour Prime Minister – now he’s clearly a spent force. The transformation of the Labour Party into a socialist party is clearly irreversible now that process has begun”

It was, in the words of Benn

“a victory, because from the very beginning right to the end – and we are nowhere near the end – we have won the argument”

Healey’s may have won the battle, but where it mattered the left won the conference votes on policies relating to the economy, disarmament, Europe and education.

Part Four: Aftermath


Just a month after the most divisive and bitter leadership battle, Labour would be engulfed by another re-selection battle. For the Tories, Thatcher now had true believers in her cabinet and she immediately slapped down a 4% public sector pay demand. Then, after the retirement of Bob Mellish, Bermondsey selected their constituency secretary Peter Tatchell to contest their seat at the next election. The press immediately attacked Tatchell as a militant homosexual, and portrayed him as the embodiment of Labour’s problems. The fact that Tatchell had called for “extra parliamentary action” to defeat the Tories did not help the Labour cause.

Wanting to avert yet more controversy, Foot said that Tatchell would never be endorsed as “a member of the Labour party.” Unfortunately, Foot had misspoke and later claimed he meant “candidate” rather than “member”. It was not Foot’s decision to make. He had set the party up for humiliation, and when Tatchell was selected, Foot did a complete u-turn and posed for pictures with Tatchell outside the commons. It was a gift the newly formed SDP, who were able to portray the party as riddled by extremism. Labour lost the by-election on a 50% swing and they sleep walked into the nightmare election of 1983.

The divide certainly reached the public consciousness. The British election study of 1983 showed that 88% of the public felt that Labour were divided on the big issues, compared to only 29% who felt that the Tories were. Only 14% of the public agreed with Labour’s policy to withdraw from the common market and only 18% said that the party policy on defence aligned to their views. Only on welfare and unemployment did Labour outscore the Tories.

Now there is talk again of a Labour split . But for one of the original ‘Gang of Four’, David Owen, Jeremy Corbyn has been much more consensual than he has been given credit for:

“I draw a distinction between Corbyn and the hard left. He keeps bad company and he always has…as leader he has been more understanding of the dissenters than Michael Foot ever was…we begged (Foot) to make a few compromises and he never made any. (Corbyn) has accepted that he is in a minority over nuclear weapons..he has accepted quite a lot of policies that he didn’t agree with…he would have been a Brexiteer, open and outright”

But the biggest battles are still to come. As the prospect of constitutional reform and mandatory re-selection rears its head again, will the Labour moderates be pushed out of the party? At some point Corbyn will need to finesse his stance on Brexit, with his position of leaving the single market and maintaining a ‘jobs first’ Brexit incompatible to the reality of hard withdrawal.  This may lead him to a clash with his own supporters as well as the moderates within the PLP. As David Miliband today talks about the need for a second referendum on the deal, it is Corbyn and his allies who are most concerned about the ramifications of a split.

As Corbyn told Iain Watson for his book Five million conversations the experience of the 1980s “taught me that the formation of the SDP was catastrophic to the electoral chances of Labour.” For the left, It was the right within the party that cost Labour victory, and the same is being said today. Corbyn advocates such as Paul Mason and Owen Jones have blamed Labour HQ for the defeat of 2016 and their overtly defensive campaign. But as Britain approaches its most turbulent autumn since the summer of 1981, can the party hold together the two factions again? It will take great political skill from Corbyn to do it and concessions will be made, but at least this time David Owen will be on his side.

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