Healey saw off Benn in 1981. What are the similarities with today?

Luke Akehurst


The death of Denis Healey would have been a huge moment of sadness and reflection whatever the timing of his passing. There are very few figures beyond the sadly short list of six Labour Prime Ministers who have had as much impact on the party as him. But the timing of his death has the added poignancy of coming just after the election of a party leader from an avowedly Bennite tradition.

Healey’s narrow victory over Tony Benn in the 1981 Deputy Leadership contest was the turning point that signaled the beginning of the end of the previous Bennite insurgency. Healey’s last political intervention had been to endorse Yvette Cooper against Corbyn this summer, while in a bizarre twist of fate former Healey advisor Richard Heller ended up writing bits of Corbyn’s conference leader’s speech.

I thought it was worth looking at whether there are really many similarities between the Healey vs. Benn clash in 1981 and the Corbyn victory this summer.

First the similarities:

  • The atmosphere was basically the same. A deeply depressing General Election defeat. A Tory government responding to a global downturn with cuts and austerity. A party elite with a governmental rather than oppositional mindset facing a grassroots insurgency which felt Labour in power had sold out and that a purer socialist approach would inspire the voters more.
  • The politics hasn’t changed. The key demands of the people around the Corbyn campaign – an alternative economic strategy based on reflation, scrapping nuclear weapons, renationalisation, greater control over policy for party conference, and easier deselection of Labour MPs who don’t follow their agenda – are identical to those of the Benn era.
  • That’s because some of the actual individuals in the Corbyn insurgency are the same people, 35 years older, that powered the Benn campaign. Corbyn himself, Diane Abbott, John McDonnell, Michael Meacher, Ken Livingstone, were all active during Benn’s campaign. Jon Lansman, the co-director of Corbyn’s campaign, had played a significant role in Benn’s one and been incorrectly named by Healey as the person orchestrating disruption of his campaign rallies. (Jon had the cast-iron alibi of being abroad on holiday at the point Denis had claimed to see him in the audience.) It’s testament to the youthfulness of the 1980 insurgency that many of its leading figures are still politically active, while its establishment counterparts have mainly left the stage.
  • Whilst on Lansman’s involvement Healey was wrong, there was an undercurrent of intimidation and uncomradeliness then that has echoes now. The difference is then it was in the flesh at meetings and this summer it involved online abuse. Like Corbyn, Benn was a rather gentlemanly character who didn’t incite his supporters to do this, but wasn’t able to stop the bullying once the genie was out of the bottle.

Now the differences:

  • Benn and Healey were far more significant political figures – both in terms of their ministerial CVs and their public name recognition – than any of the four candidates running this summer. If this summer was a case of “who?” that was certainly not the case in 1981 when Benn and Healey were household names. Healey had 11 years in the Cabinet and 39 as an MP under his belt, Benn had the same length of Cabinet service and 38 years as an MP, interrupted by his three year battle to renounce his hereditary peerage.
  • There was a pivotal Soft Left candidate – John Silkin. Silkin’s presence in the race enabled MPs who identified as on the left but feared Benn would destroy the party, such as Neil Kinnock, to vote Silkin in the first round then abstain in the second to let Healey win. A notable feature in Corbyn’s victory was that there wasn’t really a Soft Left candidate, as Burnham, Cooper and Kendall were all in some way identified with the right of the party, so homeless Soft Left votes ended up with Corbyn.
  • The voting system was new in both cases, and its potential impact much speculated on, but radically different. The 1980 version of the Electoral College was a lot different from the final version used in 2010, as it did not require any element of One Member One Vote. The unions held 40% of the vote. There were many more, smaller unions, as the big process of mergers that created Unite and Unison had not started. But each union decided its own method of how it would cast its vote, which was done on a block vote, winner takes all basis. In most cases this was down to the Union Executive deciding how to cast it, often following a lead from the General Secretary. The leftwing NUPE (now part of Unison) experimented with balloting its members and found to its surprise they wanted Healey not Benn. The politics of the union section was mixed, with large moderate as well as left unions, and some that were finely balanced. 30% of the vote was held by MPs, who whilst leaning Healey included a larger number of leftwingers than the 20 or so votes Corbyn got this time, not least because of pressure on MPs from their CLPs to vote for Benn. 30% was cast by CLPs but this didn’t, except in a minority of experimental cases, involve balloting ordinary members. Each CLP’s vote was cast on a winner takes all basis usually after a vote taken at a General Committee meeting only by elected delegates.
  • This voting system also meant that whilst visually there were similarities between Corbyn-mania and Benn-mania – large numbers of young new enthusiasts at mass meetings – in practice only activists who had been around long enough to get elected to their CLP GC could vote in 1981.
  • Benn’s campaign was the culmination of a long process of takeover of the party that had started during the grassroots disillusionment over the 1966-1970 Wilson government, with Benn coming on board after the 1970 election as a figurehead, and the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (CLPD) providing both a policy and constitutional reform agenda, a network in the CLPs, and organising know-how. The wider RFMC (Rank and File Mobilising Committee) brought into a broad Benn coalition every strand of the left from Militant and Socialist Organiser through to the Soft Left Labour Co-ordinating Committee. By 1981 this coalition had already captured a very large number of CLPs, a big number of conference delegates, a slice of opinion in the PLP, and was running a number of big city councils where it was pushing policies radical enough to get the Daily Mail hot under the collar. This time round, whilst the left has advanced through the unions for over a decade, there are no leftwing flagship councils, conference is pretty moderate hence its rejection of a debate on Trident in the priority ballot last week, CLPs are a mixed bag, and the PLP includes only about 20 Corbyn supporters. Thus if 1981 was the failed culmination of a process, 2015 is the start of one – an unexpected victory facilitated by recruiting large numbers of new voters during the process, that the left will then need to capitalise on to win control of other structures and bodies lower down the party. Nor is there an RFMC – Corbyn’s campaign was run wholly out of the Hard Left tradition and organisations in the party, without the Soft Left tradition playing much of a role.
  • The two contests were for different positions. The disaster had already happened for Labour’s right before 1981, when the previous year Foot had beaten Healey 139-129 in the final round of the leadership election among MPs alone. The PLP judging that the unelectable Foot, from the Soft Left Tribunite tradition, would be better at holding the party together than the publicly popular but pugnacious Healey. Some MPs who defected to the SDP later claimed they had cynically voted Foot to hasten Labour’s demise. By the time the Healey-Benn fight happened the SDP had already split off. This wasn’t a battle for control of the party like 2015, it was a battle for a consolation prize and to ensure that the moderate wing of the party could stay in existence – it unintentionally marked the point at which a slow recovery started which culminated in the 1997, 2001 and 2005 General Election victories.
  • The margin of victory was wildly different. Healey won by a nip-and-tuck 1%. Corbyn won by a whopping 18%.

Perhaps rather than looking at the specific parallels between the Benn insurgency and Corbyn-mania now, we should see a broader pattern of left vs. right conflict within the Labour Party around similar issues such as defence and economic policy dating right back to the party’s foundation. As Healey told Annual Conference in 1959, in a speech unearthed by Stephen Bush of the New Statesman this weekend,  “We shall never get power unless we close the gap between our active workers and the average voter in the country.”

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