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The ‘constraint of unity’ fatally weakened the Bennite left

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Issue 2515
Figures from Labours right and left - including Tony Benn - joining hands at its 1985 conference
Figures from Labour’s right and left – including Tony Benn – joining hands at its 1985 conference (Pic: John Sturrock)
This article is part of an ongoing series

This article is part of an ongoing series:

Jeremy Corbyn is under pressure to compromise with the right of the Labour Party. The right and many on the left claim this party “unity” can make Labour electable.

Yet compromises with the right bring disaster.

There was a left resurgence in Labour in the late 1970s.

The 1974-79 Labour government had overseen the biggest fall in workers’ living standards for a century. Unemployment doubled. Workers struck over Labour’s pay limits in 1978-79.

Many Labour members vowed to change the party to try and constrain the right. Sections of the union leaderships backed them.

The Tories won the 1979 general election. But Labour’s left was getting stronger. It won constitutional changes in 1981 to make the party more democratic and got left policies through party conferences.

The culmination of the left’s resurgence came when Tony Benn stood for deputy leader in September that year. Against all odds he very nearly won—getting 49.57 percent to right winger Denis Healey’s 50.43 percent.

Benn called it “a staggering result with all the media against us, violent attacks by the Shadow Cabinet, the full intervention of Michael [Foot, Labour leader], the abstention of a group of Tribune Group MPs”.

He added, “It has been far more successful than I could possibly have dreamed.”

The result showed that someone with explicitly socialist ideas had huge support. Yet within months the left surrendered.

The right argued that the party needed unity to fight the 1983 general election. Some hoped to win back those who had split to form the Social Democratic Party (SDP) the year before.


Because Labour is focused on winning elections, the left was susceptible to these arguments. Focus on party structures, rather than mass struggle, left it weaker.

Labour leaders and senior union figures met in January 1982 and agreed what became known as the Peace of Bishop’s Stortford.

The left agreed not to push for any more constitutional changes or challenge for leadership positions. The right pledged not to expel left wing supporters of the Militant newspaper, and to keep left policies.

Constant attacks on the left fed a pessimism that encouraged the compromise.

Benn described Jon Lansman—now founder of Labour left group Momentum—remarking that month, “The left was at a low ebb and we wouldn’t lose by a truce.” But the left did lose by making a “truce”.

With the left neutralised the right went on the offensive. It kept left policies on paper in the short term, then ditched them. It began a witch hunt against Militant.

At the party conference in September 1982 Benn wrote, “Compared to last year, when the left was riding high, this year the left is very much tail-between-legs. We are caught by the constraint of unity.”

The Tories increased their majority in the 1983 election and Neil Kinnock became Labour leader. Workers lost key struggles, particularly the miners in 1985.

All of this gave ammunition to the claims that Thatcherism was triumphant. The right showed its commitment to unity by stepping up expulsions of the left.

The left focused on taking control of local councils. Some Labour councils vowed not to implement Tory cuts, but eventually gave up.

Compromises with the right allow the right to smash the left. But a party fixated on parliament will always be under pressure to make them.

As Benn wrote in 1989, “Looking back on it, the Labour Party has never been a socialist party, it has never wanted social transformation. It is only when circumstances require a change that the pressure comes from underneath for a transformation.”

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