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10 August 2016updated 28 Jul 2021 10:38am

How Tony Benn’s deputy leadership campaign was defeated

There are notable parallels between the Labour party elections of 1981, and those of 2016.

By Ann Carlton

“Book a room off Westminster Hall. I’ll let you know who’ll be coming later.”

John Silkin MP, who had organised Michael Foot’s bid for the Labour leadership following Harold Wilson’s 1976 Prime Ministerial resignation, was on the phone.

After Labour’s October 1974 election victory, I served as one of the first government special advisers (or Spads as they are now called) and following the 1979 defeat stayed on as John Silkin’s adviser in opposition until 1987. That early-morning phone call and what happened over the following months gave me an insight into the self-harm a warring Labour party can cause itself.

It was 1981 and Labour was in a mess. Trotskyist infiltration and changes to the party’s constitution meant many MPs feared deselection as Labour candidates. Personal nastiness against people who had served the party loyally for decades was the hallmark of many political meetings.

The Trots and fellow travellers had huge amounts of energy and were organised by experts, as they are today. They enjoyed being nasty while pointing out alleged deficiencies of sitting party office holders, councillors and MPs, and did not mind staying at meetings until one in the morning,

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Personal smears were rife. Anything that could be used against somebody they wanted to replace was used against them. An MP who had been part of a Labour government that had brought in IMF cuts? They should be deselected. An MP who believed in nuclear deterrence? They should be deselected.

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Anti-Semitism was also present – particularly in London where much of the nastiness emanated from County Hall. Among the Jews targeted was my boss, John Silkin. The case against him included the allegation he was a rich solicitor.

Reg Freeson (the MP for Willesden East), who grew up in a Jewish orphanage, was another London target. He was eventually deselected in 1987 when Ken Livingstone replaced him as MP for the renamed seat of Brent East.

Outside London, others with Jewish connections were also targeted. Mike Cocks, MP for Bristol South, whose work as Chief Whip between 1976 to 1979 was a key factor in keeping the Labour government in power, was eventually deselected. Mike believed Labour owed more to Methodism than to Marx. His wife Valerie was a key figure in Labour Friends of Israel.

What really upset Mike was the way long-standing party workers were reviled and sneered at. Tears came to his eyes as he described the verbal abuse suffered by a particularly loyal elderly, but uneducated, woman member of his constituency party.

Unlike today when the Corbynistas rely on it, there was no social media in the 1980s. Then the weekly newspaper, Tribune, and a newsletter called Briefing were key means of communication for the infiltrators.

Jennie Lee, Nye Bevan’s widow and the minister for the arts who founded the Open University, became extremely upset by unpleasant articles in Tribune. She regarded that paper as part of Nye’s legacy to the party and was determined to fight for a return to tolerance. The result was a lengthy legal battle and, for her, lots of tears.

Constitutional change had enabled the deselection threats. Another constitutional change meant the choice of party leader and deputy would no longer be confined to MPs. When, at 3.30am on 3 April 1981, Tony Benn declared his challenge to Denis Healey for the deputy leadership, that constitutional change had just come into force.

Benn knew that, as with Jeremy Corbyn, he did not have the support of his fellow Labour MPs, but did not feel that mattered. Rank and file members and trade unionists now had a say and many would support him.

Benn’s fellow MPs knew his supporters were behind the personal abuse and deselection threats; but he portrayed himself as a slightly idiosyncratic principled idealist, in touch with the common people and above all that sort of nastiness. Many naive Labour members believed that public image.

Knowing the reality of Benn and his supporters, the MPs invited to that meeting I was asked to arrange were desperate to save the Labour party from Benn and his infiltrators. However, while they did not want to support Benn, they did not want to vote for Denis Healey either; he was too right-wing and could be personally abrasive.

A third deputy leadership candidate was therefore sought: a left-winger who might satisfy those constituency activists and trade unionists who were not Trots or fellow travellers, but had been duped by Benn’s innocent public image. The Machiavellian plan was to vote for the third candidate on the first ballot, then abstain in the run-off between Healey and Benn.

To the relief of many present at that first meeting, the Merseyside MP Eric Heffer, enthusiastically volunteered his services as third man. However, before an announcement could be made, he felt it only polite to tell his constituency party what he planned. We would meet again next week and then announce his candidature.

Next week we again gathered in the committee room off Westminster Hall, but Eric had changed his mind. He would not be standing after all. His agent had told him not to. She was a large lady, and he was scared of her. If we met her, we would be scared of her too.

There was a brief silence, then Robert Kilroy-Silk MP suggested Neil Kinnock should stand. That did not go down well. Albert Booth and Stan Orme, who had both been cabinet ministers, argued a Kinnock candidature would not attract enough votes to be credible. He was not a Privy Counsellor and had not even been a government minister. The proposal fizzled out. After a short while, Neil left the meeting.

A week later John Silkin, a former Cabinet minister himself, reluctantly agreed to stand as third candidate. He knew he was onto a loser, but fought hard. That summer the pressure put on MPs by Trots and fellow travellers was enormous. A few brave souls volunteered to help John’s campaign and spoke at meetings; but most, scared of deselection and abuse, kept their heads down. Managing the campaign was a very isolating experience.

Some who today claim to have been strongly for Silkin throughout only surfaced to show their support after Alex Kitson, the deputy general secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union, had secured that union’s considerable first round block vote for him.

On the Saturday morning of the conference weekend when the vote was to take place, an MP’s wife phoned me. She implored me to have a word with her husband and persuade him to abstain and not vote for Benn on the second ballot. It was likely to be so close, she felt just one vote could make all the difference.

That was unnecessary. After Silkin was knocked out on the first ballot, enough MPs who had voted for him abstained on the vote between Healey and Benn. Healey remained Deputy Leader, but there was less than 1 per cent between him and Benn.

If there had not been a credible left-wing third candidate enabling some MPs to abstain rather than vote for Benn on the second ballot, and if a few courageous MPs and Alex Kitson had not worked hard that summer to bring in Silkin’s first round vote, things would have been very different. Benn and his entourage of Trots and fellow travellers would have won.