Warren’s Reflections: Life as a Labour Organiser in Thatcher’s Britain

By David Warren

It was the Winter of 1981. And with Margaret Thatcher’s premiership on the ropes, I arrived in the town of Newbury. I was seventeen, unemployed and eager to change the world around me.

So I joined the Labour Party and attended my first branch meeting in the Labour Club near the Railway Station (this was the last ever meeting to be held there due to its impending closure), and it soon became clear that this was a party in transition.

The CLP Chair Joan Ruddock, who would go on to be MP for Deptford, was stepping down. Secretary Geoff Peppiatt, who worked for the NUT, had moved to London to work for the TGWU while his wife Jane, the branch chair, was going with him. Martin Little, the branch secretary, was also on his way out. But with their departures came an opportunity. And a year later, I was both CLP Treasurer and Newbury Branch Secretary.

Forty years ago, in 1982, everything appeared to be in flux. 1982 was an eventful year, and this was a constituency firmly in the left’s grip. The moderates had either joined the SDP or stopped attending meetings altogether. As branch secretary, I tried to make the sessions interesting by inviting speakers from the list supplied by HQ. On one occasion, David Stoddart, the MP for Swindon, came down to speak to us.

This was the era of Michael Foot and Tony Benn’s dominance. Publicly we put ourselves squarely behind the cause of unilateral nuclear disarmament. In Newbury, it made us deeply, deeply unpopular. But we believed in changing the country. We marched to Greenham Common Peace Camp more than once, proudly displaying the banner.

Our new CLP Secretary was Richard Knight, who lived in Hungerford with his wife, Sylvia. Richard and I worked very closely together. He would go on to be the PPC with me as his agent. We passed motions on the Falklands, CND, and the proposed action against Militants at CLP meetings. We always favoured the standard left position.

That year, ended up at the party conference in Blackpool. Richard couldn’t go so he nominated me. The Militant supporters in the constituency nominated Alan Hardman, the Militant paper’s cartoonist who lived in the constituency but had never attended any of the meetings. This was my first experience of Militant sectarianism on the hard left. We attended the seaside resort and loved every minute of it. Newbury was part of the composite on unilateralism that was overwhelmingly carried. We were confident that we had the socialist policies to win the next election.

A year later, we were on the road to victory. 1983 saw Richard, who was now the PPC, switch to the role of CLP Chair with me taking over his previous position of secretary. Walter Turrell, already Newbury branch treasurer, a party stalwart, took on the CLP finance role. In May, local elections were due, so we busied ourselves seeking out candidates. This resulted in us finding a disappointing 14 candidates for the 45 seats on Newbury District Council. Unbowed, we threw ourselves into the campaign by printing leaflets and canvassing the two wards in the north of the town, which had large numbers of social housing.

I worked really hard with one of the candidates, Jim Turner, knocking on hundreds of doors, but when the results came in, they were horrendous. Tory gains across the district, third places for us everywhere. Even the wards we had prioritized and worked hard on, we lost. We lost our sole Labour councillor in Hungerford, who had been in place since 1964.

The Tories did well across the country, and Thatcher announced a General Election for June. We had no premises, a small team but plenty of spirit. Philippa Lloyd, a party activist, lent us her spare room. Her husband wasn’t best impressed, though. He was a huge Thatcherite.

We worked solidly for three weeks addressing envelopes, press conferences and making campaign stops. We did public meetings in Lambourn and Burghfield (where outgoing Wood Green MP Reg Race joined us as guest speaker) before the final three candidate debate in the Corn Exchange. Newbury was a Liberal target seat, and they had come within a thousand votes of winning in 1974. They had a sizeable council group, quickly turning the debate into a Tory/Liberal battle. Tactical voting was a real problem for us.

When the votes came in, we were shattered. We had come a miserable third with a miserly 3,027 votes. The party nationally were crushed, and, if I’m honest, we just didn’t see that coming. We had swallowed the Tony Benn line that all that was needed was a left-wing manifesto, and we would win handsomely. Instead, we had a Conservative commons majority of well over a hundred. The party needed to take a long hard look at itself. In reality, I spent the best part of my youth – another fourteen years – in opposition.

So what lessons can be learnt from that period. Well, as a teenager, I can claim the naivety of youth. I was seventeen and knew nothing about the world around me. But, the others, the Tony Benn’s of this world, we’re simply were too detached from the working-class voters they claimed to speak for.

I am afraid history repeated itself in 2019 with depressingly similar results. Going forward, the Labour movement has to grasp that the British people will not vote for a party that is seen as weak on defence. It will not vote for a foreign policy that sympathizes with regimes that don’t share our values.

Under Mr Starmer, the signs are that this message is getting through, and the benefits are being seen in opinion polling. Let’s hope that trend continues. We’ve had one decade on the sidelines. We can’t afford another one.

David Warren

David is a retired postal worker and a national honorary member of the Communication Workers Union.

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