Barry Rodin, Orpington CLP, looks back to 1980 and winning key reforms in the Labour Party.
It is 1980 and Blondie is top of the Charts with ‘The Tide Is High’. However, the political tide had turned against Labour, after six tumultuous years of high inflation, rising unemployment and wage restraint. This culminated in the so-called 1979 ‘winter of discontent’ and election of the right-wing Tory Government.
The break with the post war political and economic consensus in the late 1970s sowed the seeds for the disastrous Thatcherite years of monetarism and even higher unemployment.
Labour’s actions in government in the 1970s also triggered rank and file demands, led by the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy, for both making MPs accountable to their local CLPs and also greater involvement in policy creation and constitutional reforms through Annual Conference.
The events that unfolded during 1980 and early 1981 resulted in the biggest change in governance in any UK major political party for over 50 years.
The Campaign had a major success the year before when Annual conference voted for mandatory reselection of MPs. Unfortunately, it was later ruled out because of a ‘drafting error’!
The CLPD, being committed to a long term and focused struggle, just ‘rolled up its sleeves’ and redrafted the constitutional amendment. Sensing the time had come for radical change the Campaign also promoted for good measure model resolutions on the election of Labour Leader (to widen the voting franchise) and greater involvement by CLPs in formulating the Election Manifesto.
However, an emerging challenge, partly due to a lack of direction in opposing a radical Tory government, was the fragmentation of the Labour Party Left into an assortment of leftist groups such as the Labour Co-ordinating Committee, the Socialist Campaign for Labour Victory, C4 and the Militant tendency.
In order to effectively campaign in the party and trade unions the CLPD encouraged the formation of an umbrella organisation co-ordinating these groups. The Rank and File Mobilising Committee proved to be an important ‘vehicle’ in building support for constitutional change among the membership and labour movement.
At the 1980 Annual Conference ‘Mandatory Reselection’ was at last successful with no hitches this time, despite the opposition of The Amalgamated Engineering Union (AEU), which had the second largest union block vote at Annual Conference. It had moved to the Right and strongly opposed radical change.
Options tabled for the ‘Election of Labour Leader’ ranged from an electoral college to one member one vote (OMOV).
Supporters of this reform took the wise tactical and successful approach of moving initially just the general principle of widening the franchise, to include, in addition to MPs, individual members and affiliated trade unions.
Unfortunately, the conference could not then reach agreement on a specific voting procedure. It was decided to convene a special conference the following January.
The problem was there was no guarantee of majority support for any of the options submitted. This was partly due to certain ‘moderate’ trade unions arguing for MPs to have a lion share of an electoral college vote. For example, the AEU specified 75%, thus effectively maintaining the status quo.
However, the CLPD executive made an inspired decision to support the motion put forward by the shopworkers union USDAW. It called for an electoral college giving the largest weight to the unions (40%) and 30% each to the CLPs and MPs.
USDAW had a block vote of 429000 votes, sufficiently large to be pivotal in a close contest. If other unions and CLP delegates swung behind this motion there could be a majority for this radical reform.
After some debate the Rank and File Mobilising Committee agreed that the USDAW motion, although not ‘perfect’, had the best chance of a majority.
An intense campaign then ensued with phoning and lobbying of union contacts and LP delegates. The USDAW motion was successful on the day; the AEU was politically isolated and abstained from voting.
Superior tactics and hard work prevailed!
However, the Labour Party left reached its ‘high-water mark’ in 1981 and subsequently lost momentum and influence through factionalism and reduced grassroots activism.
Nonetheless, these events demonstrated how left unity allied with a disciplined and focused strategy can be a winning formula, even after an electoral defeat. This is just as relevant today. Recent gains in internal democracy and radical policy developments in tune with the needs of the 21st century must be protected and built on.
A long-term objective is to develop the spirit of grassroots activism and diversity, and become a political movement focused on transforming Britain with a progressive and electorally popular programme.