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Then, Now, and Forever: Labour in Perpetual Crisis (Part One)

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Authored by Sean Waite
Published on 16th January, 2023 19 min read

Then, Now, and Forever: Labour in Perpetual Crisis (Part One)

From its earliest beginnings, the Labour Party has always been a “broad church”, encompassing a range of opinions from across the political spectrum. The party was born from the growing trade union movement in 1900 and initially encompassed a variety of shades of red, including democratic socialists and social democrats. The ideological demographic of the party underwent a seismic shift in the 1990s under Tony Blair, when the party uprooted its commitment to public ownership of the means of production and embraced the “Third Way”. This was a centrist political ideology that “purportedly [aimed to resist] both the laissez-faire orthodoxy of the right and the rigid statism of the left, particularly after the collapse of the Soviet Union”1. As such, Blair and his followers believed they could simultaneously harness the economic power of neo-liberalism and achieve forms of social justice.

This plurality of political views within the Labour Party has lent itself to often fierce debates about the direction of the party, with many factions vying for control of the highly centralised and powerful party apparatus. During periods of stability one or more of these competing factions has been quashed by the party hive mind. For example, after close to two decades out of power and Neil Kinnock’s efforts to steer the ship away from leftist waters, Blair managed to unite the party under his modernising “cool Britannia” image.

Politics can often feel like we are repeating the same historic cycles, over and over, doomed never to learn from the past and always to repeat its mistakes. This has never felt more true than in the Labour Party right now. There has been no shortage of articles comparing the current left-right divisions in the Labour Party with the acute and furious divisions in Labour in the 1980s. This article seeks to build on this body of work, but with unique and exclusive reference to primary source documents that demonstrate exactly how the old divisions unfolded week by week. As such, the minutes of the Parliamentary Labour Party, accessed through our collection British Labour Party Papers 1968-1994, will form the bulk of the evidence and files used here. Todo this, I will assess the fallout from a range of key events in the 1980s and will draw parallels to Labour under the premierships of Jeremy Corbyn and Keir Starmer. What we will see is an almost exact replica of the factional arguments in the discourse of both eras.

 A Left Turn

The point of departure for this essay is the two watershed moments in which the Labour Party elected a staunchly left-wing leader. They were Michael Foot and Jeremy Corbyn, in 1979 and 2015, respectively. This was hugely unexpected in 2015 when Jeremy Corbyn, a long-time backbench MP - who was a 100-1 outsider according to the bookies - swept to power with a massive majority. The words of Corbyn’s victory speech were still ringing around the hall when calculations about in-fighting and factional battles were already being calculated2.

In victory, both Michael Foot and Jeremy Corbyn struck conciliatory tones about the need to be inclusive and unite the Party. On the 10th November 1980, shortly after his election victory, Foot spoke to his Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) and stated that “the Party could only be successful in the future if it was bound together in its aims”. Corbyn mirrored this by calling for unity and promising inclusivity for groups from across Labour’s broad spectrum. The “broad church” of the Party means that almost all leaders are guaranteed to face some lukewarm, or even openly hostile, elements within the PLP. This has been compounded by virtue of the fact that not only do left-wing leaders  face belligerents from within the PLP, but also from a media and business establishment that is more than willing to elevate the voices of internal critics. Corbyn bore the brunt of this, having to face another leadership contest in 2016 just one year after his initial landslide election victory.  

 Fractures and Splits: the Social Democratic Party and Change UK

One of the major flashpoints in the tenures of both Foot and Corbyn were parliamentary mutinies which resulted in some MPs splintering from the Labour Party and establishing new political parties. On the 25th January 1981, just a few months after Foot became leader, the so-called “gang of four", consisting of Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Bill Rodgers, and Shirley Williams, split from the Labour Party and formed the Social Democratic Party. This was generally triggered by the left turn that had happened after Foot became leader. More specifically, the “gang of four” were angered by the introduction of the electoral college, a system of leadership elections that was perceived to reduce the influence of MPs and strengthen the power of the left-wing unions and Labour members in selecting future Labour Party leaders. Before Foot introduced the electoral college, the Labour leader was elected exclusively by members of the PLP. Ironically, the proposed reintroduction of the electoral college by Starmer in 2021 caused a stir for inverse reasons, an episode discussed later in this text.

PLP minutes from the Labour Party Papers, 1968-1994 offer a revealing look at factionalism within the party.

A few days after news broke of the split, in late January 1981, Foot held emergency meetings with the PLP to discuss the fall out from the internal crisis. The minutes from these meetings demonstrate how all sides weighed in on the debate. Eric Heffer MP, a former Communist and staunchly left-wing member, warned of the electoral cost of a divided party, rather prophetically reminding his colleagues of a similar split in the Australian Labor Party that had kept it out of power for twenty years. On the other side of the aisle, Iona Evans MP claimed that backbench Labour MPs were “being treated with contempt by the leadership.” Foot tried to assert his authority by insisting that all members of the Labour Party should “work together for the return of a Labour Government committed to its traditional socialist principles and to parliamentary democracy.” This rhetorical appeal demonstrated his unfaltering commitment to the radical socialist ideals that had alienated many of the Party’s right-wing MPs. This call for unity largely fell on deaf ears, with another twenty-eight Labour MPs defecting to the Social Democratic Party by the end of 1981.

Foot’s (1981) plea for unity (pictured above) in the face of the “Gang of Four” leaving the Labour Party, largely fell on deaf ears. 

The fact that so many of those in the PLP were ready to walk out after only a few months of Foot’s leadership hints at the fact that many of these opposition MPs had no time for Foot and his left-wing agenda. This would later be reflected under Corbyn, when MPs opposed to his leadership waited fewer than twelve months before triggering a leadership challenge, despite his landslide victory among the party membership the previous year. Again, this demonstrates just how ideologically divided the “broad church” of the Labour Party is, with rival factions often unwilling to even contemplate winning on the other’s terms.

Somewhat less successful but no less disruptive was the breakaway party Change UK, which was formed in February 2019 after becoming dismayed by Corbyn’s leadership and advocating a second referendum on the controversial Brexit result. Initially, seven Labour MPs defected to the party; with three MPs from the Conservative Party joining them shortly after. Although Change UK was ultimately doomed, with every MP losing their seat at the subsequent 2019 election, the blow it landed on Corbyn’s leadership functioned much like the split that Foot had faced in 1981. The defections reinforced the idea that the Labour Party was divided and that its “incompetent” leadership could not be trusted to keep its own party together, never mind the country.

For both Foot and Corbyn, this idea of incompetence became a self-fulfilling prophecy fuelled by the actions of a hostile PLP.  An unruly PLP is often regarded as a symptom effect of poor leadership, rather than being a cause that hampers effective leadership. Hence, hostile MPs fulfil their own accusations of incompetence through overamplified public criticisms of respective leaderships. This overlooks the fact that much of the time disruptive MPs are inherently hostile and, as mentioned above, are totally unwilling to give the leadership a chance. The cemented power of the PLP becomes evident in both episodes, and played a major role in the downfall of both Foot and Corbyn.

In reality, the leader has few political tools to use against an ideologically hostile PLP, meaning that disruptive MPs can largely be as obstructive as they want. One of the key levers of control that was much discussed during the Corbyn era was a review of re-selection, a form of democratic control in which local constituency parties choose the candidate they put forward for election to the UK Parliament. However, those Labour MPs who might have been subject to this process framed it as authoritarian. For example, Joan Ryan MP, upon losing a vote of no confidence held by her constituency Labour Party, labelled those who voted against her as “Trots, Stalinists, and communists”. Moderate starlet Chuka Umunna told Corbyn to “call off the dogs” that he alleged were trying to hound moderate MPs out of the party through de-selection4. Here we see another paradox that constrains action by leadership. On the one hand, a leader must appear strong and tough to appeal to the electorate. However, if they take strong action against disruptive elements, they are accused of tyrannical authoritarianism. 

 Defeat and Knives Out

Both the projects of Foot and Corbyn ultimately ended in an enormous defeat for the Labour Party. On June 9th 1983, Labour were routed at the ballot box, gaining just twenty-seven percent of the vote, having hemorrhaged votes to the newly established Liberal Alliance. The Liberal Alliance was composed of the long-standing Liberal Party and the newly formed breakaway Social Democratic Party (discussed above). Similarly, on December 12th 2019, Labour earned just over thirty-two percent of the vote and surpassed the 1983 defeat in terms of parliamentary seats, winning just 202 seats. Unlike in 1983, the splinter party Change UK did not have any electoral success and every sitting MP who had defected, including moderate favourite Chuka Umunna, lost their seat. 

Both defeats gave the right-wing elements of the PLP the chance to openly attack the left-wing leadership. An investigation into the PLP minutes following the 1983 defeat illuminates the ways in which the Right attacked the leadership after the election defeat, as well as how left-wing MPs countered these claims. Notably, these primary source documents show a distinct and precise reflection in terms of rhetoric and discourse to that which frequently populated Corbyn’s era.

Foot’s resignation speech to the PLP (pictured above) is a useful document in examining factional warfare within the Labour Party. In this brief speech, Foot laments the “lack of political intelligence” within the PLP to unite around his leadership. This mirrors the left-wing prognosis of the 2019 loss, claiming that the PLP’s deliberate divisiveness led to the humiliating defeat. This accusation is not without foundation, as a leaked cache of files showed that high level Labour staff had deliberately attempted to sabotage Labour’s election chances in 2017 in order to oust Corbyn5. It was only recently that the long-awaited Forde Report, which investigated these allegations, verified this claim. It found that Labour HQ, a bureaucratic branch of the party hostile to the new leadership, had secretly diverted funds away from Corbynite candidates and towards those it supported, instead6. More broadly, it outlined “debilitating inertia, factionalism, and infighting which then distracted from… electoral success”7. The chaos discussed here is a testament to just how deeply divisions run within the Labour factions. They paint an image of the “broad church” encompassing two differing, and actively hostile, religions under one roof.

Foot foresaw the forthcoming fiery “argument(s) within the party” during his resignation speech. These arguments manifested in a series of fractious meetings in the summer of 1983, including the  “Future Strategy of the Party” meeting, where Labour MPs dissected the election results and sparred over who, or what, was to blame for the election defeat. In these highly revealing meetings, the discourse prophetically mirrors the discourse following the 2019 general election. 

The right-wing Labour MP and recently resigned deputy leader Denis Healey claimed that Labour had “paid the price for not paying attention” to the electorate. Meanwhile, Ken Weetch MP barbed that “not every section of the Party actually wanted us to be in government”. These sentiments tap into a common narrative device used by those MPs on the centre-right, which can be best described as an attempt to put the Labour left in an ideological straitjacket. Namely, aiming to restrict movement leftwards on the political spectrum by framing politics , not as a field in which to persuade people of your views, but as a race to capture the voters of “Middle England”. By this I mean the elusive “average” voter deemed essential to winning British general elections. This was an attitude forged during the 1980s when Labour drifted away from its traditional appeal to voters and led to figures like Tony Blair captaining Labour to the “Third Way” during the New Labour years. Blair believed that the only way for Labour to win power was through abandoning radicalism and embracing the “Third Way”, an ideological mix consisting of optimising market forces in pursuit of some redistribution of wealth.

This attitude and “common sense” approach was so entrenched that we can see the language of the 1980s mirrored during Corbyn’s years, when moderate MPs resented Corbyn’s ideological shift to a form of more radical, redistributive social democracy. Former leader and Prime Minister Tony Blair often sought to weigh in with barbed comments towards Corbyn. He echoed Ken Weetch by suggesting that the left-wing Labour leadership was more concerned with being a “party of protest” than actually assuming political power8. As noted above, this implies that anyone who is intent on shifting Labour ideologically to the Left cannot be serious about winning, as Blair’s “Third Way” is the only viable political project which those mysterious ”Middle England” voters will accept.

This line of attack has proved impregnable and one could find a mountain of evidence to reinforce its hegemony in British political discussion. Mirroring Corbyn’s treatment was the media construction of “Red Ed” Miliband, named due to his perceived radicalism drifting too far from the consensus of the “Third Way”9. The nickname was coined after Miliband promised to freeze energy prices, a form of market regulation deemed too radical for the right-wing Daily Mail. Much like in the early 1980s, attacks against Corbyn reached fever pitch during meetings of the PLP. Although we do not have access to official minutes from this era, the intimate relationship between MPs and journalists bore fruitful information about how these meetings were conducted. In the weeks before the 2017 election, media outlets reported shouting and a tirade of attacks on Corbyn’s leadership and personality10.

One word which cropped up again and again was “unelectable”. Owen Smith MP,  who challenged Corbyn during the 2016 leadership election, labelled him “unelectable” during the 2016 leadership contest11. This word demonstrates the repressive political logic of those hostile to Corbyn’s policies, as those oppositional elements reinforce the idea that anything beyond the “Third Way” will not appeal to voters in Britain and is thus “unelectable”. Although fearmongering like this has been effective over successive generations, polling shows that a large majority of voters are supportive of broadly left-wing economic policies. For example, polls conducted in 2019 found that fifty-nine percent of the public supported nationalising railways and sixty-four per cent supported increasing the top rate of tax. Even policies that were alleged to represent Corbyn’s worst excesses seemed to have high levels of support, with fifty-four per cent of people supporting giving workers a third of seats on company boards12.

Another way in which moderate and right-wing Labour MPs (and the moderate and right-wing press) have attempted to discredit left-wing policies in favour of the sensibilities of the “Third Way” has been through direct and pejorative comparisons of Labour’s failed radicalism of 1983 and the radicalism of the Corbyn era. The Labour manifesto of 1983 has been mockingly remembered in political circles as the “longest suicide note in history”, a phrase coined by Gerald Kaufman MP to indicate that socialist policies, such as nationalisation, disarmament of nuclear weapons, and the pledge to leave the European Economic Community, meant certain death for Labour at the ballot box. Large parts of the media and moderate Labour MPs have compared the 1983 manifesto with both the 2017 and 2019 manifestoes penned under Corbyn’s leadership. In an attempt to discredit Corbyn’s radical manifesto, right-wing media outlets like The Times even retrospectively praised Michael Foot’s moderation when compared with Labour’s 2019 manifesto13. By positioning these manifestos together, sections of the media and the Labour Right have sought to align Corbyn’s “unrealistic” politics with the cautionary tale of 1983, suggesting that any ideological move to the Left will be met with a deservedly heavy defeat.


Part one of this essay has examined the trials and tribulations of the leaderships of Michael Foot and Jeremy Corybn. Ultimately, both ended in failure at the ballot box. The transformation they offered was deemed too radical by oppositional elements that sought to undermine their programme and gatekeep the realm of acceptable politics. Part two will pick up this thread and examine how two new figures, namely Neil Kinnock and Keir Starmer, rose to the Labour leadership after the disastrous defeats of 1983 and 2019 and further sought to marginalise the politics of their predecessors, having ultimately accepted the rigid logic that only something mild like the “Third Way” could offer Labour a route back into power.


Geismer, Lily. (2022) 'How the Third Way Made Neoliberal Politics Seem Inevitable' in The Nation, accessed at: []

Mason, Rowena. (2015) ‘Labour leadership: Jeremy Corbyn elected with huge mandate’ in The Guardian, accessed at: []

Merrick, Jane. (2018) ‘Jeremy Corbyn refuses to intervene to stop deselection of Labour MPs’ in The Independent, accessed at: []

Stone, Jon. (2020) ‘Anti-Corbyn Labour officials worked to lose general election to oust leader, leaked dossier finds’, accessed at: []

Childs, Simon. (2022) ‘Six Key Takeaways From the Forde Report Into Labour’s Civil War’ by Novara Media, accessed at: [Six Key Takeaways From the Forde Report Into Labour’s Civil War | Novara Media]

Forde, Martin. (2022) ‘A Foreword from the Chair’ in The Forde Report, accessed at: [The-Forde-Report.pdf (]

Johnstone, John. (2019) ‘Tony Blair savages Jeremy Corbyn for turning Labour into a glorified protest group with cult trimmings’ in PoliticsHome, accessed at: []

Gaber, Ivor. (2015) ‘The ‘othering’ of ‘Red Ed’, or how the Daily Mail ‘framed’ the British Labour leader’ by London School of Economics, accessed at: []

10 Craig, Jon. (2017) ‘Labour PLP meeting erupts in fury with shouting at Jeremy Corbyn’ on Sky News, accessed at: []

11 Milmo, Cahal. (2016) ‘Owen Smith warns Labour is ‘unelectable’ if Jeremy Corbyn remains leader’, accessed at: []

12 Smith, Matthew. (2019) ‘Labour economic policies are popular, so why aren’t Labour?’ by YouGov, accessed at []

13 Wright, Oliver. (2019) ‘How Corbyn’s manifesto compares to Labour’s ‘suicide note’ of 1983’ in The Times, accessed at: []

Authored by Sean Waite

Sean Waite

Sean Waite is a Political Science graduate of Birmingham and Aarhus University.

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The British Online Archives blog is a platform for scholars to present their research to students and the general public. The posts cover a range of historical themes and debates from around the world. The opinions expressed represent those of the authors, not British Online Archives or Microform.

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