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The Wilderness Years

If you haven’t seen The Wilderness Years, a BBC series of four hour-long documentaries broadcast in 1995,  it’s well worth watching – and you can by following the links below. Documenting the period of Labour’s history from losing the 1979 election to the election of Blair as Labour’s Leader, it relies entirely on archive footage alongside in-depth interviews with those most closely involved in the events, a format which really does allow the viewer to draw their own conclusions.

It’s by no means the whole story. The tale of shifting factional alliances which is well presented is not linked to economic developments in the 1970’s, namely the collapse of Keynesian demand management and the associated cross-party consensus known as Butskellism. The degree to which the Labour Right had simply run out of ideas does not come through, and yet it was the old Right not the New Labour Blatcherites that actually beat the Bennite Left — which essentially failed to maintain the support of the middle ground in the CLPs and was outmanoeuvred in the trade unions.

Nor does it focus on the ideological split which emerged within the Left in the 1980s — exemplified by the debate around Eric Hobsbawm’s essay, The Forward March of Labour Halted — which was referenced by the leading players in the Soft Left/Hard Left contest but really operated as a separate parallel contest with, probably, more lasting but less clear cut significance.

And then, of course, for us on the Left, the Wilderness Years lasted until 2008, when the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers heralded the collapse of neoliberalism.

Still, whether it’s a reminder of something you lived through or merely a summary of things you’ve read about, it is worth the investment of four hours of your time. Click on the first 10 minute part of each episode – you can then click on the next part in the top left hand corner of the Youtube

The Wilderness Years Episode 1 – Cast into the Wilderness
Callaghan loses the election; the Left campaign for democracy in the party, Foot wins the leadership and the SDP-in-waiting prepares to leave.

The Wilderness Years Episode 2 – Comrades at War
Benn v Healey for the deputy-leadership, Foot is pilloried by the press and goes down fighting with “the longest suicide note in history”.

The Wilderness Years Episode 3 – Enter the Rose
Kinnock wins the prize for his campaign against the Bennites, ushers in the age of spin, hammers the left and goes down almost as badly in 1987.

The Wilderness Years Episode 4 – The Pursuit of Power
The continuing rise of Mandelson: Kinnock abandons everything he ever believes in and prepares the ground for New Labour.


  1. John P Reid says:

    regarding Eric,s book that becuase laobur had a large percentage of the vote in 1966 we should swing to the left as laoburs vote fell since then, he overlooked the fact that Ted heath was new and that If the public had wanted a hard left party Laobur wouldn’t have seen its vote collpase in 70/74

    reagarding hte 87 election two words were responsbile for Labour doing worse in London in 87 Loony left) with the likes OF bernie grant having 10% swings agaisnt them yet Bryan gould not so and labour losing seats like thurrock that they’d kept in 83.

    the SDP also left after many were deselected by trots,

    One thing from that documentary was Chirs Mullin criticising the 85 Conference speech, as”it may have got good headlines that day, but 2 years alter that didn’t matter, Well if He’d listened to Kinnocks speech he;d have heard Kinnock say that election were won 2 years before election day, and David woen said it was all up for the SDp, the day Kinnock bravely took on militant,
    Kinnock may have abandoned alot of what he believed in, but aspointedout in his 85 speech alot of waht laobur stood for was unrealsitic to the real world and locked in a rigged dogma of a code

  2. Chris says:

    The entire history of the Labour Party since 1983 is one long catastrophe. The party elected in 1997 was unworthy of the name and now it’s even worse. I’ll never forgive the betrayers – those who were Labour once but New Labour now. I guess what they did helped their careers… I hope they’re happy with their 30 pieces of silver.

  3. john Reid says:

    Chris alot of peopel who took those 14 years to make laobur electabel gave up their time for free to wi in 97, it wasn’t selling out it was a sacrifice, When I was homeless in Carboard city and couldn’t get teh NHS operation I needed 20 year ago, and Tony Benn was in his Mansion he was telling me that his influence in 83,87 and 92 resulting in us losing was A moral victory, Well he didn’t know waht it was like to suffer having no nhs or being homeless, but he was more interested in anti racist mathematics, the Potato famine, scrapping the police and saving the whale and Lesbian positive descrimination did he really care about real working calss people.

    Did it occure to you it may have been your fault that the Tories won 4 terms on the trot, how can labours vote having been even in 2010 more than 1983 be a catastrophe,

  4. john P Reid says:

    Labours vote fell by 5 million between 1997 and 2010 but it increased by 5.2 million between 1983 and 97 and it fell 5.6 million between 1951 and 1983
    labour were 26% ahead in 1990 and 16% ahead in 1986 ,yet the tories came back and won landslide and the polls are innacurate Labour was 2% ahead on the eve of the 1992 election and the tories won by 8%,

  5. Robert says:

    Which means John Labour may well be back in the wilderness, especially if you take your voting as a sign that people trust the Tories more then labour.

  6. Tom says:

    Thank-you for taking the time to find and post this. It’s been very helpful with uni work!

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