Labour and the Left in the 1980s: Every Dog has its Day

It was Tony Benn who said that there is no final victory or final defeat. But for the Labour left, the 1980s represented a definitive moment. What followed was a New Labour leader who argued Thatcherism was both right and inevitable. The left never subscribed to that view and, should they end up in government, will do everything within their power to reverse it. 

Book Review: Labour and the Left in the 1980s, Manchester University Press, Dec 2017

‘Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.’ George Orwell. 1984

The success and discipline of the Conservative Party throughout history has been a source of begrudging admiration for many on the left. The Tories ability to control the historical narrative of the nation’s collective memory has led to the belief that their economic decisions were both inevitable and irreversible. From the General Strike to the Winter of Discontent through the Miners Strike and right up to the Financial Crash, the party quickly take ownership in response to social unrest. It is what Naomi Klein would call The Shock Doctrine.

Yet it is now the Labour left that have carved a dominant political narrative. One of the early virtues of Jeremy Corbyn’s 2015 leadership campaign was that he had not moved an inch on policy since he was first elected to the commons in 1983. Much of that agenda was forged in the white heat of London politics in the 1980s, where the GLC and the ‘loony left’ offered the ‘real alternative’ to Thatcherism. Whilst the 1980s are now remembered for the empahtic Tory victories of 1983 and 1987 (with 1979 and 1992 added for good measure), those victories often hung in the balance.

The early 1980s are marked by Thatcherism’s slow birth, with many within the government expecting it to fail. The Summer of 1981 marked a decisive moment for Britain, a tipping point as Thatcher refused to u-turn (despite being the most unpopular PM in history) and Tony Benn failing to win Labour’s deputy leadership by a whisker. Had events slightly gone another way, the story of the 1980s would have been very different. As late as July 1984, The Economist warned Mrs Thatcher that ‘her government is stepping out to become the most inept since the war.’  Yet the memories of those past battles are hard to come by now. The Tory party of 2017 is united in only one thing – that Thatcherism was inevitable, and that the changes made to the state are irreversible.

The success of that narrative impressed deeply on the upper echelons of New Labour who often became the biggest champion of the changes. Even after Thatcher’s death in 2013, Tony Blair was resolute that the changes were irreversible;

“I always thought my job was to build on some of the things she had done rather than reverse them…Many of the things she said, even though they pained people like me on the left… had a certain creditability.”

Yet the current Labour leadership never subscribed to that view and it is those internal Labour battles of the 1980s that shaped not only Blair, Brown, Kinnock and Mandelson, but Corbyn, McDonnell, Abbott and Lansman. There were alternatives to Thatcherism and the new book Labour and The Left in the 1980s revisits them.

Labour and The Left in the 1980s, published by Manchester Press, consists of nine essays on the left-wing politics that defined the era and tackles the social conditions of the time – that massively influenced the key players at the top of the party today.  It assesses a movement that has been romanticised within our culture (think Pride, Brassed Off, Billy Elliot, This Is England) but was so vehemently denigrated at the time (think Tatchell, Militant, Loony Left, CND) that the next Labour government had to define themselves against it.  The book also explores the political leadership, economic alternatives and rise of identity politics that still define today’s left.


Little Victories

As Martin Farr points out in the book ‘Labour in opposition tends to be defined by its reaction to Labour in power.’ The battle was so intense after 1979, that the party literally split in two. By 1995, Labour still felt the need to address the perceived failings of the Callaghan administration. On the cusp on power, Blair remarked that;

“The new right had struck a chord. There was a perception that there was too much collective power, too much bureaucracy, too much state intervention and too many vested interests…our answer is not to turn the clock back …we seek not to dismantle but to build.”

Looking back at those words, its hard to see how Corbyn, McDonnell and Benn remained within New Labour. The left had lost control of the narrative, with Blair’s victory preceded by a decade of defeat, with the left losing heavily at the ballot box in 1983, and on the frontline during the Miners Strike in 1985.

In Labour And The Left In The 1980s, Eric Shaw expands on previous work on New Labour’s communication strategy and how the ‘modernisers’ re-imagined this past through a series of narrative and framing devices. He notes that from 1987 onwards, the battle to ‘own’ the past began, arguing that after the general election defeat, party strategists focussed on the ‘clarity of its conceptions of society’. By the time Corbyn ran Benn’s leadership campaign in 1988, the left narrative – that the defeats were due to a lack of radicalism – had little traction within the party. Indeed, it would take another 27 years for that argument to resonate.

In Blair’s 1999 conference speech he argued that ‘our base, our appeal, our ideology was too narrow’ during the 1980s. This is an argument Blair repeats today when criticising Corbyn’s leadership. The depiction of the left as ‘obsessive’ over internal structures remains, whilst their championing of marginal interests is used to claim they are out of touch with the post-industrial working class ‘heartland’. The media for instance, swooned with faux outrage when Corbyn, as opposition leader, attended a Cuba Solidarity campaign event in 2016.


Whilst the Thatcherite’s won the economic argument, the Bennites would eventually win the culture war. In the book, Shaw highlights Phillip Gould’s influence on the party, who worked relentlessly to deconstruct the media stereotype of Labour as the party of  ‘welfare, gender and race’. Nowhere did that claim resonate more than in London, where figures such as Livingstone, Abbott, Grant, Corbyn and McDonnell became Labour’s bogeymen. Their championing of unpopular causes, as Paul Bloomfield notes, was always used ‘a political stick with which to beat Labour.’

The ‘loony left’ became a catch all media term to describe all types of equality measures. Unlike today, there was no grassroots outlet for a media campaign such as #MeToo. As the media obsessed over the Benn and Healey battle – covered in great detail here – the Labour left began to build a power base. In May 1981, under the stewardship of Ken Livingstone, Labour took control of the GLC and outed the moderate Andrew McIntosh. Livingstone represented a new left, understanding the power of image and communication in a way Michael Foot did not. At the GLC, Livingstone turned down an invite to the Royal Wedding, allowed unemployed protest marchers to sleep over at County Hall and alongside John McDonnell, put up a banner detailing the number of London’s unemployed (326,238)


Quickly becoming a media star, the press also attacked the GLC initiatives. In 1981, The Daily Mail hijacked a female GLC workers retreat, using a long lens camera to spy on their activity and report back on the ‘lunacy’ of the council paying for the use of a creche to allow the women to attend. In Islington, a furore developed over ‘lesbian self defence courses, grants for squatters & gays and the banning of the book ‘Little Black Sambo.‘ Even The Guardian mocked the GLC’s creation of a female body that would oversee all policy measures, to ensure women’s views were adequately represented. Yet it was this derided loony left, who ring-fenced money for minority causes, that refashioned our society. It was a bold move, considering on the opposite side, Thatcher felt confident enough to condemn the growing belief that children ‘were being brought up to believe they have an inalienable right to be gay.’

Bloomfield highlights how Lambeth Council received a barrage of abuse for offering AIDS victims priority council housing, noting that ‘Labour has always been at its most effective when it has challenged the accepted norms even when it seemed politically dangerous to do so.’ Indeed, these issues were central to the left’s values of socialism. At the same time Labour included in their manifesto a commitment to improving gay rights, the Tories introduced Section 28. In later life, Thatcher remarked that her greatest achievement was ‘New Labour’. Perhaps we can now say that the ‘loony left’s’ greatest achievement was David Cameron’s introduction of gay marriage in 2014.


The book highlights the political action within London, that coincided with a growing movement of protest. The rise of single issue campaigning, student radicalism and a an alternative ‘left’ counter-culture marked the 1980s as different from previous generations. The new left was built on graduates, art students, teachers, public sector and social workers – which remain the basis of the current membership. It was a period when being on the left became a lifestyle choice rather than a workers identity. Issues such as vegetarianism and environmentalism becoming prevalent within the movement. The student ‘armchair’ radicalism was satirised in The Young Ones by Rik Mayall, whilst musically The Smiths used their second album to declare the novel idea that Meat Is Murder. Fast forward 30 years and Jeremy Corbyn, a vegetarian since the 1980s, must delight in reading The Daily Mail and The Times encourage their readers to a adopt ‘Meat free Monday’ for environmental and health reasons. In a mark of the progress made, 35% of people in Britain now identify as ‘semi-vegetarian.’

If the new ‘London Left’ was marked by a vibrant counter-culture, Liverpool’s deep seated urban decay represented the Labour heartlands struggle for a new role. Neil Pye looks at the efforts to generate extra-parliamentary activity through Militant Tendency. The group thrived in a city that was quickly rocked by a rapid loss of jobs, as the docks closed and the manufacturing sector shrank. Tate & Lyle, which had employed several generations of Liverpudlians, became symbolic of its decline when it closed for business in 1981. Thatcher was urged to abandon the city to a fate of ‘managed decline’ following a heated summer of violence in Toxteth. A year later, in the autumn of 1982, Boys From The Blackstuff finally made it onto TV.

Related image

Originally written as a play during the final days of the 1979 Labour government, the show struck an immediate accord with a battle hardened public. The BBC took the unprecedented move of repeating the show just two months later, this time on BBC1. Each episode depicted the decline of an old order and the strong working class male struggle for a place in the new Britain. The topics still resonate today;  In ‘Jobs for the Boys’ foreign workers are brought onto a building site to undercut the workforce. ‘Moonlighter’ sees the lads work ‘cash in hand’ jobs to top up their meagre dole with even meagre wages. ‘Shop thy Neighbour’ focusses on the stress on married life as unemployment induces passivity and apathy. In the most iconic episode of the series, ‘Yosser’s Story’ shows a man driven to nervous breakdown as the angry working class male is finally driven to the brink. Finally, ‘George’s Last Ride’ charts the last days of elder statesman George, who looks back on his active, but inevitably futile impact on the world.

The Blackstuff portrayal of desperate men, fighting each other for ‘bullshit’ jobs, on undercut wages was linked to the loss of a role for the men within their community. That feeling of loss can be accounted for today through the Brexit vote and those insecure, irregular ‘bullshit’ jobs are now commonplace in every town across the land. In the 1980s however, Liverpool was seen as an outlier rather than a depiction of our future state. The two factions of London Left and Industrial Heartland would meet in the Miners Strike of 1984. However unlike the despair of the Blackstuff, the strike would see the two communities and cultures come together.

As Joannou argues in the book, what emerged from the strike was ‘a historic mobilisation of the mining areas in their own defence, coupled with humanitarian relief effort to beleaguered coalfields.’ In terms of community organising, the strike represented a high point for the left movement – with the strike becoming a symbol for every battle that had to be fought. As a result, the miners were able to draw on support from social groups across society. The perception of police brutality towards the miners could be understood by football fans, ethnic minorities and homosexuals, who had suffered the same bully-boy tactics. The Tories used every weapon within the armoury to starve the miners back to work. The welfare state that had been won by the miners forefathers was pulled away from them, as social security was withdrawn.


The miners wives had benefit reduced by £16 a week, meaning the average family had just £6.45 to live on. Joannou asserts that ‘women’s groups fed and clothed entire communities, acquiring expertise on all strike related matters’. The strike radicalised and mobilised women in their community like never before. The ‘alternative welfare state’ grew out of necessity and represented the working class’ final struggle to roll back the tides of Thatcherism. As a movement, the Labour party failed to capitalise on it. Yet the alternative welfare state still influences us today – we now have the same food banks in the same places that miners had the ”fill a bag and feed a family’ programme.

As the year 1985 progressed the miners went back to work and one by one the left leaning councils began to splinter. The GLC split, as Ken Livingstone opposed John McDonnell, and accused him of manipulating the budget figures. The tension was laid bare in a memo McDonnell sent to Livingstone in October 1984, in which he argued that: ‘The whole point of our administration is that we are a challenge to the central capitalist state … We will undermine the confidence shown in us by hundreds of thousands of socialists throughout the country if we are seen to be capitulating to a Thatcherite government.’ 

It was Tony King, the political scientist, who claimed Tony Blair said ‘education, education, education, but his subtext was reassurance, reassurance, reassurance.’ New Labour’s success was in constructing a narrative that the leftwing economic thought had stagnated in the decade after Keynesianism, and that his Labour party could be entrusted to adopt the Lawson reforms. Yet as Carr argues in the book, for much of the 1980s Kinnock’s Labour still sought to create a ‘development state’ based on state interventionism in the skills and training markets. Adding to this, figures on the left such as Ken Livingstone urged the party to invest in new technologies to revitalise its manufacturing base, as Germany did.

Throughout the decade, the left managed to maintain a commitment to a National Investment Bank, which has again returned to the centre of Labour’s economic plans. The idea of a NIB gathered momentum on the left as a response to the failure of  banks to provide capital to small businesses, and to invest in new skills in the workplace. However, Carr argues that the NIB failed to gain traction with the public, as it was linked to the failed state interventiosnism of the 1970s. Benn’s attempt to successfully establish the NEB and worker co-ops, (coining the media phrase ‘backing winners’) was the opposite of free market economics.

The ideas are now back within the party, as the left outsiders take control. In many ways their efforts shape the way we live now. Whether it is gender and sexual equality, banning racist books or community activism, the left were often on the right side of history. The book highlights how the left had a set of issues to organise around, so little victories accumulated to great inner belief and confidence. When political commentators could not fathom why Corbyn and McDonnell dug in so hard when challenged by Owen Smith, they assumed it was arrogance. Yet Corbyn and his band of mavericks have had to fight the conventional wisdom for 40 years. To them, their policies will be proven right in the end.

In taking a leaf out of the Blair playbook, Corbyn has framed himself against the Old New Labour and for now controls the past, present and future narrative. Nevertheless, as his hero Tony Benn said ‘Every generation must fight the same battles again and again. There’s no final victory and there’s no final defeat.’ If American politics is anything to go by, the attack on ‘cultural marxism’ will rise in prominence as Johnson, Mogg et al exert greater influence on the Tory party. It remains to be seen whether the Tory party can create an inevitability narrative around their Brexit programme and whether the left will splinter again.

Yet it is the second generation of New Labour politicians that are in the political equivalent of ‘no mans land’ once occupied by the left. The self-styled moderates in the party (Leslie, Kinnock, Smith, Streeting, Jarvis, Cooper, Powell, Umunna, Phillips, Kendall etc) are seemingly united in their opposition to Momentum style politics and in their defence of the Single Market. Beyond that it is difficult to find a shared narrative for their vision of Britain. Labour and the Left in the 1980s shows that the bulk of the ideas and methods on the left have been around for decades. Yet Corbyn, McDonnell, Abbott and Lansman had the stomach to stay in and fight on.

If the next battle within Labour is to be won by the moderates, it is difficult to see where they can boldly separate themselves from the new left narrative. Just defending neoliberalism will lead to electoral disaster. If the moderates want to own the future, they must take heed of this book, and learn from the stubbornness, tenacity and inventiveness of the 1980s left outsiders. They will have to make themselves unpopular with many within the party – but the question remains – are they up for the same 30 year dogfight?

Anthony Broxton

Book Contents

Foreword by Peter Tatchell
Introduction: new histories of Labour and the left in the 1980s – Jonathan Davis and Rohan McWilliam
PART I: The crisis of the Labour Party
1 Retrieving or re-Imagining the past? The case of ‘Old Labour’, 1979-94 – Eric Shaw
2 Leading the Labour Party in the 1980s – Martin Farr
3 Labour’s liberalism: gay rights and video nasties – Paul Bloomfield
4 Responsible capitalism: Labour’s industrial policy and the idea of a National Investment Bank during the long 1980s – Richard Carr
PART II: The British Left in a global context
5 Neil Kinnock’s perestroika: Labour and the Soviet influence – Jonathan Davis
6 The international context: end of an era – John Callaghan
PART III: Currents of the Wider Left
7 Militant’s laboratory: Liverpool City Council’s struggle with the Thatcher government – Neil Pye
8 ‘Fill a Bag and Feed a Family’: the miners’ strike and its supporters – Maroula Joannou
9 ‘Race Today cannot fail’: black radicalism in the long 1980s – Robin Bunce

Leave a Reply to Mark Catlin Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s