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Benn’s Bandwagon – behind the scenes in 1981 deputy leadership campaign (video)

A really good documentary first shown on 28 April 1981, in the second month of the contest and at the point when it began to dawn on the pundits that Tony Benn was going to come close to winning. Frank Chapple, leader of the hard right electricians union says on camera that if Benn won the TGWU (which he did in the second round), he would “stand a better than evens chance”.

Presented by Llew Gardner, it features interviews with candidates Tony Benn, Denis Healey and John Silkin (the third candidate regarded – though not by himself – essentially as a spoiler to stop Benn), David Owen whose cynicism is the mark of someone who had already decided to leave Labour and union leaders Frank Chapple, Clive Jenkins of white collar union ASTMS (filmed not for the only time in imperial splendour alone in a swimming pool).

What the film reveals is how the decisions were taken in three major unions: the EETPU backed Healey without any consultation, ballot or even proper discussion, public sector manual workers union NUPE defeated an attempt to bind the union to back Healey (and call on Benn to stand down) without consultation or ballot but they went for a ballot (which confounded expectations by going to Healey), and ASTMS where general secretary Clive Jenkins sought a “consultation process” which actually left the decision to the executive but the large conference voted for Benn.

Please use the comments field to record any of your own memories or if you can identify  any of the people you see in passing.

The final results reveals how different the political balance was then. Almost 80% of CLPs backed Benn even in the first round – the spoiler candidate won little support there. The unions on the other hand were largely for Healey (62% in the first round) and even the left voted in the majority for Silkin in round one – entirely the result of top down manipulation in the TGWU and other unions. The parliamentary  party may have voted 2:1 for Healey in the end (with a significant abstention), but only just over half  backed Healey – so very different from the parliamentary party of today which shows the effect of twenty years of top down manipulation by the party machine.

First Round

Candidate Affiliated Constituency Parliamentary Total (%)
Denis Healey 24.696 5.367 15.306 45.369%
Tony Benn 6.410 23.482 6.735 36.627%
John Silkin 8.894 1.150 7.959 18.003%
John Silkin eliminated

Second Round

Candidate Affiliated Constituency Parliamentary Total (%)
Denis Healey 24.994 5.673 19.760 50.427%
Tony Benn 15.006 24.327 10.240 49.573%
Denis Healey re-elected

Hat-tip: DB (@futuresandpasts) and Phil BC

Video credit: TV Eye was produced by Thames Television


  1. John.P reid says:

    Owen who had already decided to leave…Er he had left a month earlier

    Any proof that the leadership manipulates who local parties ,endorse for their choice of candidates

  2. Robert says:

    Lived through it and can remember it all.

  3. James Martin says:

    That was lovely to watch, although as much with sadness as nostalgia. Oh to have so many actively involved in talking socialism and politics now, and oh to have the Party leadership and MPs now as in need of wider movement support (either from the CLPs or unions) as they were then.

    The irony of the situation was that the unions, now seen as such a threat by the Progress-right, were the organisations that saved the then right led by Healey. But it was a very different right-wing, and Healey with his distinguished war record fighting the fascists in the front line is a world away in stature from the likes of Adonis now.

    Clive Jenkins was always an odd one for sure, but the fact that what was lefty of his union’s membership after the Thatcher disaster years is now in Unite is something of a sweet irony.

    As for the actual contest, this is actually where I do see strong links between then and now. Healey was very much the public face of the atlanticist-NATO forces that had been infiltrating both the Party and the unions for years (it was startling to hear Healey himself on one of the platforms talk of the recent expulsion of two CIA members that was then being used against him). But of course that atlanticist tendency was very much at the heart of Blair and Mandelson’s ‘Project’ of attempting to destroy the last remains of both socialism and trade union labourism in the Party. They were only partially successful (we lost Clause 4, they ‘won’ on NATO expansionism and things like Iraq), not the NATO threats and US manipulation remain very real and just as powerful inside the Party today (from Trident to warmongering whipping up dangerous hysteria about Russia).

    And to me therefore the Benn challenge was always about far more than internal Party policy and procedure – the tragedy is that too many both then and now do not realise the hostile US-based forces that were coordinating his defeat and the disasters that followed.

  4. Alan Jones says:

    I was present at UPW conference (now CWU). Jackson had invited Healey to address conf but not Benn. Fringe meeting at Metropole for Benn. Had to be piped out of room as packed. Alan Johnson states he was there and refers to it in ‘Mr Postman’.

  5. Charlie Mansell says:

    Hard to compare as very different from now. Some wards of my CLP at the time part balloted all ward members in 1981 and fully balloted all CLP members in 1988 when this was still not fully accepted as it is now. In the first Benn and Healey were on 50%-50% and in the second it was 72%-28% to Kinnock. These were small samples but since I have a big track record of predicting elections over the last decade winning the pay to play version of the election game 4 times: this is what I think Benn of 1981 would have got in a 2010 electoral college system with OMOV in various sections. CLPs 50%, TUs 30% MPs 33% Overall 38% in the second ballot. In 1988 under the same system I would have expected him to have got around 20%. In other words I would have him lower in 1981 result but securing a better result than the actual 1988 result. Once we have done a London Mayoral primary I will re-extrapolate the 81 and 88 results for the Collins primary system too. John of course might still have more detailed data on CLP ballots from his own collected local intelligence from that era so may be able to suggest his own estimates from it. Nowadays we would of course also have quite a few YouGov polls of such an important contest to settle these things!

  6. David Pavett says:

    I watched the video. It has some interesting footage including Clive Jenkins being interviewed in a swimming bath – what an egotist he was!

    The thing which struck me most however was the following in a speech by Benn:

    A second point is this question of where this growth is to come, and the greatest area of growth in employment is in the public services. That’s where the work is needed. That’s where the jobs will come from. And just as rearmament financed itself because instead of getting the dole armament workers had a job, paid their taxes and that financed the welfare state. So the public services wll finance the development of our full employment policy.

    Rearmament financed itself! What an absurd notion.

    Is this not fantasy economics? According to its logic we can always get ourselves out of an economic hole by getting people to, well, dig holes then fill them in again. They would come off the dole, get wages and pay their taxes … Is it not a sad reflection on the lack of economic understanding on the left that such things can be said, let alone taken seriously?

    1. James Martin says:

      Yes, funnily enough that made me wince as the way he stated it made no sense. I’m guessing however that he was making the point that the massive state expenditures of the west (and particularly the US) in the decades after WWII acted as a Keynes-like stimulus to the wider economy and helped explain in part the boom years.

      So therefore if you take idle labour (the unemployed) and set them to work with government money it will stimulate the wider economy in turn and so in the round pay for itself (rather than pay for itself in isolation which would be nonsense, particularly when what they were likely to be doing would not involve creating commodities with any exchange value).

      And I do think that this is what he meant (as that would then fit in with his other economic ideas), and it is therefore pretty classical social democratic Keynesian thinking. Whether Keynes was right is another question entirely of course!

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