by Michael Meadowcroft
Perceptions of how a party copes with the years of opposition usually rely on statements, interviews and its efforts to present a favourable and united front, illuminated from time to time by leaks and lobbying by dissidents. The value of an examination of the Opposition through a specific parliament is that, if rigorous, it draws aside the curtain and exposes the factions and tensions. Patrick Bell has done a very thorough job of trawling through all the available committee papers and interviewing key individuals. The result is that the reader gets vivid picture of the deep left-right split at all levels of the party and the great skill of Harold Wilson as leader in keeping the whole show on the road. Bell also shows how senior staff at Labour headquarters were themselves partisan and on occasion resorted to somewhat underhand tactics in the preparation and timing of documents in order to pursue their views.
The roots of the struggle within the Labour party between social democracy and hegemonic socialism were planted during its time in opposition. The balance of power within the party shifted significantly from the parliamentary party to the membership and, often separately, to the major trade unions. Patrick Bell painstakingly traces the movement in policy via papers prepared for the National Executive committees and, finally, to the party conference. The accession of Jack Jones to the leadership of the Transport & General Workers' Union - the largest in the country - and with Hugh Scanlon heading up the engineering workers union, there were powerful figures on the left of the party who were ready and able to demonstrate their clout by going direct to the party conference with their block votes rather than participate in the deliberative committee process.
Tony Benn's skilful manoeuvring as de facto leader of the left is traced through his attention to committee detail and his ability to produce the apposite excoriating phrase as when Heath abandoned his antipathy to "lame ducks" by, in effect, nationalising Rolls Royce within five months of taking office. Benn later enjoyed describing the Labour Party programme of 1972 as "The most radical and comprehensive programme ever produced by the Labour Party," which guaranteed a great embarrassment to the then Deputy-Leader, Roy Jenkins. According to Harold Wilson, Jenkins held the "lead position" as the putative leader of the party to follow Wilson until his resignation from the deputy leadership and from the Shadow Cabinet in April 1972. There is long detail on the on the events leading up to his resignation, with Wilson undermining him by changing his mind over a referendum on the Common Market.
Not all those on the right of the party were followers of Jenkins; there were some who hankered after Antony Crosland but he never stirred himself to follow up his seminal book, "The future of Socialism" and thus disappointed his acolytes. Bill Rodgers - later the most effective operator of the SDP's "Gang of Four" - applied his organisational and "fixing" skills to the Campaign for Democratic Socialism in an attempt to make Jenkins' role more effective.
It is interesting that the Liberals do not rate even a footnote in this narrative. In different circumstances, such as during the Lib-Lab Pact of 1977-78, the Liberals might have had influence as a second opposition party making life more difficult for Edward Heath. However, the Liberals had polled just 7.5% at the 1970 general election, electing only six MPs. They hardly figured on the electoral scene, slowly clambering up to 10% in the polls by April 1972 but dropping back to 8% in October 1972. Less than eighteen months later, at the February 1974 the Liberals polled 19.3% - equivalent to some 23% if all the seats had been contested. What transformed the party into such an influential force? It was simply a run of by-election successes starting with Cyril Smith winning Rochdale in late October 1972, almost doubling the party's poll rating overnight. This was followed by gains in Sutton and Cheam, Ripon, the Isle of Ely and Berwick. These pushed the poll rating up to 28% but with the lack of winnable seats thereafter it slipped back to 20% immediately before the February 1974 general election. On such electoral vagaries do the Liberal party's fortunes depend!
The Labour Party in Opposition 1970-1974 by Patrick Bell, published Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, paperback 2016, ISBN 978-1-138-86776-5, 269p, £32.99