Magazine article The Spectator

Labour's Forgotten Army

Magazine article The Spectator

Labour's Forgotten Army

Article excerpt

Labour's forgotten army HAMMER OF THE LEFT: DEFEATING TONY BENN, ERIC HEFFER AND THE MILITANT IN THE BATTLE FOR THE LABOUR PARTY by John Golding Politico's, £25, pp. 404, ISBN 1842750798

If Slim's 14th was the 'Forgotten Army' of the second world war, then the trade union Right and its sponsored MPs are surely the 'Forgotten Army' of Labour's civil war of the 1970s and 1980s. They were 'old Labour', but not in the sense which the term has taken on in recent years to mean the hard Left: indeed, this largely working-class group constituted the Bennites' staunchest opponents. The old Labour Right tended to be patriotic and conservative on social issues, whilst remaining firmly wedded to the welfare state. This wing of Labour was allied to (but culturally had little in common with) those middleclass 'revisionist' intellectuals who are the true spiritual forebears of Blairism. Yet were it not for their holding action during the hard Left's surge after Labour lost office in 1979, the party would have been irretrievably damaged. To mix military metaphors, this beleaguered band held the fort till the Kinnockite and Blairite cavalry arrived.

Left-wing historians such as Lewis Minkin are inevitably hostile to the old Labour Right. But the old Labour Right has also received too little credit in Blairite accounts of the salvation of the party. These obviously accord pride of place to the Prime Minister, with Neil Kinnock receiving a very honourable mention for starting the party's modernisation (though he was unable to complete it). Nor, for that matter, has the old Labour Right received much credit in the Jenkinsite narrative of the past two decades. According to this interpretation, Labour was largely brought back to sanity by the creation of the SDP/Liberal Alliance and the consequent haemorrhaging of moderate voters in the 1983 and 1987 elections.

So who were the members of the Forgotten Army? They have been dying at quite a rate recently. Their ranks included men such as Don Concannon (MP for Mansfield), Jack Dormand (Easington) and Peter Hardy (Wentworth). Their trade union allies were stalwarts like Terry Duffy of the engineers and Frank Chapple of the electricians, often working through such brilliant grassroots organisers as Roger Godsiff (now MP for the Small Heath division of Birmingham) and John Spellar (now MP for Warley). Finally, they have found their voice in the form of this posthumous memoir by John Golding, MP for Newcastle-under-Lyme and a leading fixer on Labour's National Executive Committee (edited with great skill by his successor but one in that constituency, Paul Farrelly). Golding delineates in amazing detail the brutal hand-to-hand combat that took place from 1979 to 1983 as the old Right began the process of winkling the hard Left out of the chairmanships of the NEC's subcommittees. …

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