Dirty deeds

Fightback! Labour's traditional right in the 1970s and 1980s

Dianne Hayter <em>Manchester Universi

Those of us who were there never tire of reading books about Labour's wilderness after 1979. We think we saw enough dirty deeds to last a lifetime, but there is always another dark plot in some smoke-filled room, another Bennite now ensconced in a cosy nook at Tony Blair's court. One of my small joys on reading this book was finding a reference to a respectable new-Labour-think-tankish person called Sue Goss. Could this be the grim, sectarian, ultra-politically correct chairperson of the Peckham Labour Party women's committee who, when I was press officer for the 1982 Peckham by-election at which Harriet Harman entered parliament, insisted on being at all my meetings lest I said anything sexist? I made inquiries. It can. It is. Hey ho.

Dianne Hayter is one of the most attractive and thoughtful people who attached themselves to the right wing of the Labour Party in those years, and she has written what will probably be its definitive history. She knows where most of the bodies are buried, and has disinterred them lovingly, though seemingly without realising how badly many of them now smell. Those wishing to understand how Labour was turned from Michael Foot's party into Tony Blair's party should read this book.

Hayter's heroes are the praetorian guard of right-wing trade union leaders who organised and plotted for years, counting votes on Labour's National Executive Committee (NEC), whipping their supporters into line and creating a political party fit for Blair to lead. I have no problem, now as then, in identifying the shrill, self-righteous Bennites, with their litmus tests for ideological purity, as the villains, but I find it hard to see heroic qualities in the likes of Bryan Stanley, the grim leader of the Post Office Engineering Union, or Sid Weighell, the railwaymen's leader whose main contribution to the cause was to vote in the opposite way to how his union had instructed him to vote, for which he was quite properly forced out of office.

Nor can I see any good qualities in the great fixer John Golding, who emerges as the real hero of this book. I never heard Golding laugh except at someone else's expense, and I knew something of the methods he used to control his own constituency Labour Party in Newcastle under Lyme. I saw much of him during the 1983 general election, but I did not know until I read Hayter's book that he "was content to allow the party to fight the 1983 general election on as left-wing a manifesto as Benn wanted, so that blame for the ensuing defeat could be comfortably hung around the left's neck".

Hayter points out that the methods of the Bennites were no more scrupulous. But to me this is not the point. The consequence of people such as Golding and Benn's egregious lieutenant Jon Lansman enjoying their power struggles in smoke-filled rooms was that, when the smoke cleared, power had disappeared. They had abandoned those they were supposed to protect to years of Thatcherism.

As Hayter reminds us, the battle in those days was not just for the soul of the Labour Party, but for that of the trade unions, too. Right-wing union bosses saw themselves as latter-day Ernest Bevins, tough-talking power-brokers determined to keep the whole labour movement (which meant the unions and the Labour Party) out of the hands of the wild men, and they were at least as interested - probably more interested - in the power balance on the TUC general council as in the power balance on Labour's NEC. They were the fixers for the right, just as Lansman and his friends were the fixers for the left. Hayter worked with them, knew them, understood them and - what is more surprising - liked them. They could not have found a better, more thorough or more sympathetic historian.

Francis Beckett's most recent book is Olivier (Haus Publishing)