The Wilderness Years: Documentaries for a New Decade

Don’t mourne! Organise! is what Tribune said in 1983 as Labour faced up to a long period in Opposition. Thursdays defeat was much worse than 1983, with nine years already behind us, and a likely ten more ahead of us.

To help us navigate this new Wilderness, I’ve put together a list of essential documentaries covering the period from 1979 to 2010

I owe a great debt to people such as David Boothroyd who have uploaded their extensive archives on to YouTube. Follow his channel here

Labour in Opposition

‘Labour: The Wilderness Years’ (1995, BBC)

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The essential watch for anyone who wants to understand the debates of the 1980s. An epic four-part documentary following the history of the Labour Party from 1979 to 1995 when it was on the cusp of a return to power.

Beginning with its bitter fallout and ‘betrayal’ in Government, the documentary features a stellar cast – Foot, Healey, Williams, Benn, Shore, Kinnock, Lansman, Corbyn, Mandelson, Blair, Brown, Cook, Blunkett, Prescott and many more.

Part 1 Cast Into the Wilderness

Part 2: Comrades at War

Part 3: Enter the Rose

Part 4: The Pursuit of Power

Labour and the Left in the 1980s

Labour’s decade began with a discombobulating defeat to Mrs Thatcher’s Conservative Party.

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Firing Line: Tony Benn with William F. Buckley Jr – The Crisis in Labour (1980)

Benn in a serious intellectual exchange with the great US interviewer William F Buckley on the future of the left in Britain.

The Crisis in Labour

Thames TV: The Future of the Labour Party Debate (1980)

The debate between Neil Kinnock and Stephen Hasler of the SDP on the future of the Labour Party – debating the motion ‘The Labour Party has served its purpose. It is time for a new party’

It is time for a new party’

TV Eye: Labour Party Report 1980

A TV EYE preview of the left versus right clash ahead of the Labour Conference in 1980.

A good insight into Labour’s grassroots politics of the early 1980s in Sheffield and elsewhere. Lots of analysis of the mood of Labour’s government betrayal and interviews with Labour giants such as Eric Heffer and Tony Benn

Labour Party Report 1980

TV Eye: Labour Party Report 1981

A TV EYE report on the Civil War that had developed between the Bennite wing of the party and the leadership.

Insight into the Deputy Leadership contest of 1980 and the adulation that the members bestowed on Benn. Features a young Jeremy Corbyn watching Benn in action and an angry Denis Healey taking on the ‘trots’ in Blackpool.

Labour Party Report 1981

TV Interview: Tony Benn (January 1982)

A broad-ranging interview with Tony Benn: covering press smears, the ‘truce’ in Labour, an early response to Mr’s Thatcher’s economic policies, the abolition of the House of Lords, the monarchy and the future role of the trade unions.

You can see the roots of Corbynite rhetoric on shorter working weeks, adult education and the SDP being more right-wing than the Tories

Tony Benn (January 1982)

TV Eye: Labour Party Report 1984

A TV EYE report on the party during the Miners’ Strike. John Smith and Michael Meacher discuss what can be done to turn Labour’s fortunes around

Drama: The Campaign (1983)

In 1983 the BBC produced a series of hour-long docu-dramas based on politics. ‘The Campaign’ centred on the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy and its aim to de-select Labour MPs.

Channel 4: The Red and The Blue (1983)

A Ken Loach collaboration with Channel 4 which looks at the 1982 party conferences through the eyes of the delegates. A stark contrast between the two parties approach.

A good insight into the conference styles of both parties in the 1980s.

Loach focusses on the ‘ordinary’ people at Labour’s compared to the slick businessmen who dominate the Tories.

Go to 1 hour 13 mins for a classic exchange between Dennis Skinner and Neil Kinnock on the future direction of the party.

TV Eye: Militant Labour 1981

Documentary on Militant in Liverpool Labour in the early 1980s. Derek Hatton features as does a young Frank Field who opposes them

Cutting Edge – Comrades (1992)

Channel 4 documentary on Militant at its decline, featuring Terry Fields effort to win the Liverpool Wavertree seat.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zFwwFsq6siU&t=1717s

The Politics of Tony Benn

Against the Tide: Tony Benn on 1970-1976

Westminster Behind Closed Doors with Tony Benn (90s)

Tony Benn – Will and Testament (2014)
Shot over two years, across the UK, following Tony Benn as he crisscrossed the country continuing a long tradition of radical socialism.

Local Politics in the 1980s

Some niche documentaries on Labour council politics in the 1980s.

The Decline of the GLC (1998)

BBC made this documentary covering the final term of the Greater London Council from 1981 to 1986

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FDV69i7mTWw

Islington Council Documentary, 15th April 1983

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RRWvcdyQITs&t=1430s

Politics in Action: Election ’83 (1983)

BBC Scotland documentary looks at the battle for the Edinburgh East constituency in the 1983 general election.

https://youtu.be/C3xJobIttPQ

Kinnock and Modernisation

Below are a series of interviews with Neil Kinnock at various stages in Labour’s Policy Review process.

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This Week (ITV 1988)

After another crushing defeat, Neil Kinnock outlines the issues for Labour as they face up to another four years in opposition.

This Week (ITV 1990)

A documentary looking at Labour in 1990 as they hold a substantial poll lead over the Tories. Focusses on whether he can become the next Prime Minister as many suggest.

Pursuit of Power (Channel 4: 1991)

Interview with Kinnock as he approaches the 1992 election. A more personal interview and reflective on the self rather than Labour’s policy changes

Aftermath of 1992

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1992 came as a great shock to the Labour Party. In the aftermath, Labour politicians reflected on why Labour had lost four defeats in a row. Clips below feature Dennis Skinner, Jeremy Corbyn. Tony Blair was one of the first to come out and push for greater modernisation of the party in the aftermath.

Dennis Skinner on PR, Europe and ‘class politics’

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ogt6njXU9Cg

TV AM election Results with Cecil Parkinson and Tony Blair

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GdWEqxriCWo&t=253s

The debate between Ken Livingstone, Tony Blair, David Mellor and Shirley Williams on Labour’s fourth failure in a row.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MW9YQf6rRE8&t=228s

Roy Hattersley and Dennis Skinner on ITV News

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UtGlx4gfWc8&t=254s

Jeremy Corbyn and Ken Livingstone on the morning of Labour’s fourth consecutive defeat

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZtJ_Qj-rA-A

Steve Richards The Prime Ministers We Never Had (BBC:2019)

Unscripted Reflections by Steve Richards looks at the leadership of Kinnock from a 2019 perspective.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gAAE0srHyg4&t=61s

The Smith Years

CSPAN: The Blair and Brown Interview (1993)

Blair and Brown visited the US to observe the Bill Clinton transition first hand. Both featured on CSPAN. At the time it is clear that Brown is still the senior partner in the relationship. A good insight into the ethos of the key modernisers during the Smith premiership as they increasingly grew detached from Smith’s ‘One More Heave’ approach.

Newsnight: John Smith’s Britain (1994)

A brilliant fifteen-minute feature on John Smith’s premiership. Offers a counter-narrative to the idea that Smith was well supported in the party. Lots of criticism of his leadership with Labour accused of being complacent with its poll lead and failing to offer a grand vision to the country.

Includes an interview with young activists in Blackpool, Billy Bragg, who essentially accuses Smith’s team of being Tory-lite and Tony Blair who outlines an early vision for New Labour.

Smith died just a few weeks later.

https://vimeo.com/165880554

Turning Points: Unscripted Reflections (BBC2017)

Steve Richards on the Death of John Smith

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L92ySN4M8vM&t=714s

Blair in Opposition

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Panorama: Blair’s Britain (1994)

An interesting Panorama documentary which encapsualtes the mood in the country as Blair became Labour leader.

Features the views of ‘middle england’ that the party hoped to capture.

Clause IV Reaction (1994)

In October 1994, Blair used his first conference speech to announce his plan to revise of Clause IV.

Below features the speech and the reaction from politicans on the left and right to the symbolic change.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eVPzrZfT42s

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OyfrwCrJNKc

Newsnight https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pyLVEcbPxi0&t=1215s

The Big Story: Tony’s Troublemakers (1994)

An analysis of some of the resistance Blair faced from the left in Arthur Scargill, Tony Benn and Dennis Skinner

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XXtbIM2AyPQ

Defining New Labour

Below are a collection of interviews and speeches as Blair further defined New Labour in the run-up to 1997.

Tony Blair 1995 Labour Party Conference Speech

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fVPcgUoGV6Y

Tony Blair 1996 Labour Party Conference Speech

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1n2lkgH0j7E

Tony Blair in the US in 1996

https://www.c-span.org/video/?71209-1/opposition-leader-interview

BBC: The Leader Interview: Tony Blair (1997)

The first of four Panorama specials in which David Dimbleby conducts live interviews with the leaders of the three main political parties. Tonight’s guest is Tony Blair.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OfG9220Wyao&t=485s

A New Dawn

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Out of the Shadows (1997)

New Labour engaged with new media like no Government before them. One decision was to allow the STV access to Shadow Chancellor Gordon Brown and his team, including Charlie Whelan and very young advisors Ed Balls and Ed Miliband as they put Labour on course for a landslide victory.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mCpBWmNqOAY&t=1536s

The Real Peter Mandelson (Channel 4: 1999)

Documentary on the life and times of Peter Mandelson as Labour approached two years in office. Good insight into his role in the modernisation process from the mid-80s onwards.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZxaQFpkBoNo&t=2345s

Tony Blair 1997 Labour Party Conference Speech

The first conference speech from a Labour Prime Minister for eighteen years

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KNgLhypStXk

Scrutiny: the Class of ’97 (BBC: 1998)

A documentary that followed five newly-elected MPs from the 1997 intake. Featuring, Clive Efford, Stephen Twigg and Oona King

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FGgzqKHnZ20

Now We Are One: Blair’s Year (Channel 4: 1998)

Documentary on Blair’s first 12 months in office

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v-PGPqpUz7s

Blair Biopics

What Makes Tony Tick? (BBC: 2000)

In January 2000, Tony Blair reached 1000 days in office and The BBC marked the occasion by giving Michael Cockerell an opportunity to profile him.

Features lots of clips from Blair’s rise (such as his first appearance on Question Time). Features Cabinet analysis from the likes of Derry Irvine, Sir Richard Wilson, and Peter Hennessy. Also features a reflective interview with the PM

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wur9xVhxk8I&t=2950s

In Search of Tony Blair (Channel 4: 2004)

RA raredocumentary by Anthony Seldon to accompany his book, in which he outlines the key characteristics of Blair and his relationship with Alastair Campbell.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qHptAaACtD8&t=5361s

Inside 10 Downing Street (BBC:2000)

A documentary that caused much tension within the Blair/Campbell dynamic. A look behind the scenes of Number 10 Downing Street ‘spin’ machine which was supposed to neutralise their reputation – but only gave rise to the legend of Campbell (which some suspect was his aim)

One of the best documentaries on the New Labour Era – to understand its obsession with media and agenda-setting

New Labour’s Fall

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Trust Me – I’m a Politician (BBC: 2003)

Michael Cockerell documentary was shown in early 2003 and deals with the decline in trust in politics during the Blair era

The Paxman Interviews from 2001 and 2005 elections

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j18_I5cV-a0

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-vbvvcnBcbw

The Rise and Fall Of Tony Blair (Channel 4: 2007) Part 1

Andrew Rawnsley looks at the trials and tribulations faced by Blair during his premiership from 1997 to Iraq and then his final struggles at home.

Features a good array of contributors such as Kinnock, Straw, Mandelson, and Blunkett reflecting on Blair’s tenure.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vmoNO9Bi8-Q&t=553s

The Rise and Fall Of Tony Blair (Channel 4: 2007) Part 2

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b7GUO10dLaE

The Last days of Tony Blair (BBC: 2007)

Journalist Will Hutton followed Tony Blair during his final three months as Prime Minister

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rsZ-GyWkrQw

Dispatches Gordon Brown What Went Wrong?

A candid account from Labour Ministers while Brown was enduring a shocking slide in his fortunes.

Andrew Rawnsley would later write a book ‘The End of the Party’ on the decline. A good account of the mood within the party as it edged towards the opposition.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A00f18HgKKI&t=1213s

Mandelson The Real PM (23 November 2010)

Documentary following Peter Mandelson in the run-up to the 2010 general election as he plays the role of ‘saviour’ to the Brown Premiership.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=39HSPifLzRg

Alastair Campbell vs Tony Blair: British GQ (2017)

In an interview from 2017, Campbell and Blair reflect on the New Labour pasts and on the future; for Brexit, Donald Trump and Jeremy Corbyn.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nu-J16VQho8&t=2071s

New Labour Drama

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The Deal (Channel 4: 2003)

Gordon Brown (David Morrissey), and Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) enact the ‘The Deal’ and New Labour’s rise to power. Two big hitters playing the two icons of Labour politics in the 1990s.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YFxwl3IP_Hk&t=1201s

The Project (BBC: 2002)

2002 BBC drama series about the rise of New Labour.

Episode One

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gzO5Re9nwlo

Episode Two

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LxWPCO-VrS8&t=6s

The Conservative Party

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Tory! Tory! Tory! was a 2006 documentary on the people and ideas that formed Thatcherism through the eyes of the right. A great insight into the rise of Thatcher and the conditions of British industry in the 1970s.

Tory! Tory! Tory! Episode 1: “Outsiders”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H7_3nt-GRqc&t=2736s

Tory! Tory! Tory! Episode 2: ”Path to Power”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TgSSoYCM00A&t=2208s

Tory! Tory! Tory! Episode 3: ”The Exercise of Power”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OaBjIq8LKOQ&t=1244s

William Hague’s Spin Dr Election Diary 2001

Interesting documentary on the Tories slide into the abyss under William Hague

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MaKDxVj_qLw

General Election Documentaries

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How to be Leader of the Opposition (BBC: 1999)

Michael Cockerell’s documentary focuses on William Hague’s troubles and has insight on some of the difficulties of being an Opposition leader

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VusdmOaNxcs

Election Unspun: How to Win Power Channel 4, (2005)

Looking at every election from 1979 to 2001 the film uses interviews with the key political strategists to chart the changes in electoral politics and campaigning.

Good insight into the ethos of the early 21st century and some of the ‘iron laws’ of politics, which have since been challenged.

Particularly good section on Labour’s 1983 defeat

The Worst Job in British Politics? Opposition Documentary (BBC: 2008)

Julia Hartley-Brewer examines the role of Leader of the Opposition and asks what lessons David Cameron can learn from history as he plots his path to power. Features Alastair Campbell and Neil Kinnock.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ykKUzlg2K9s

Rupert Murdoch Battle With Britain (2013)

Steve Hewlett tells the story of Rupert Murdoch’s role in the cultural, political and industrial changes that have transformed Britain throughout the last 45 years – with a strong section on New Labour’s relationship with the tabloid press

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4tUQufg6QGk&t=3016s

Brian Walden Box Set

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Walden began his career as a Labour politician, representing Birmingham Ladywood between 1964 and 1977. He would go on to become one of Britain’s best interviewers and Labour TV historians. Below are a few:

Walden on the Labour Party and socialism.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bOlXrqFWBj0

Walden on James Callaghan

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uvc7H8hrAg8&t=1129s

Walden on Hugh Gaitskell

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XK2DfWxymrg

Individual Biographies

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A collection of the best BBC documentaries on Labour figures from the Opposition years.

Tony Benn: Labour’s Lost Leader (BBC: 2014)

Hugh Edwards looks at Tony Benn’s life and politics following his death. Features Kinnock, Blair, Corbyn, Joe Ashton and lots of good footage

Roy Jenkins: A Very Social Democrat (BBC: 1996)

Roy Jenkins, UK Home Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer in the 1960s Labour Government, leader of the SDP, gets the Michael Cockerell treatment.

A good insight into his battles with the left in the 1970s.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iJC-fMzBzVs

Labour’s Old Romantic: A Film Portrait of Michael Foot (BBC:1997)

With Labour on the cusp of power, Michael Foot looks back on his life and times. Lots of good insight on Blair and New Labour.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gYgXS1GqKfs&t=2105s

Denis Healey: The Best Prime Minister Labour never had? (BBC:2015)

Michael Cockerell’s intimate portrait of Denis Healey following his death in 2015. Good insight into his role as Chancellor of the exchequer during the darkest moments of the economic crisis in the 1970s.

For much of his career, he was locked in a battle with Labour’s left-wing and this features prominently

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gudj2-vSueo

The Road to Brexit

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As Labour grapples with its Brexit dilemma, here are a few documentaries on Labour’s history with the European question:

Panorama: Roy Jenkins and Tony Benn debate (BBC: 1975)

David Dimbleby chairs an infamous debate between Labour Cabinet Ministers’s Roy Jenkins of the Yes campaign and Tony Benn of the No campaign.

How We Fell For Europe (BBC:2005)

Michael Cockerell looks at the politics of the 1975 European Referendum in an update to his 1970 documentary on the subject.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3wqAONXOxSk

Europe: Them or Us (BBC: 2016)

As the UK gears up to decide its future in the June referendum, Nick Robinson explores the troubled history of the UK’s relationship with Europe.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KPOQ02l4Egc

4 thoughts

  1. Thank you for this list. As someone who’s only 21 and only vaguely remembers Labour in power I’ve been able to learn a lot about Labour history and politics in general. Spent the entire Christmas holidays watching these.

    Like

    1. No problem Daniel – these are documentaries I’ve come across over the years as a student of Labour history. We are indebted to the great people who recorded them and uploaded them on to Youtube for our enjoyment.

      Like

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