“Healey was the great
prime minister we never had”

PA Archive/Press Association Images

PA Archive/Press Association Images

It could have all been so different. On 10th November, 1980 the Labour Party was to hold its second and final ballot to elect a new leader. Denis Healey, the odds-on favourite and winner of the first ballot, was a giant in the Labour Party; an eminently capable man who had served as Secretary of State for Defence under Harold Wilson and Chancellor under James Callaghan. If he won as expected, he would face a weak Tory government with an untested Prime Minister whose government’s kill-or-cure monetarist economic policies had seen interest rates rise to 17 percent, inflation hit 20 percent and unemployment soar.

This should have been the moment Labour began its march back to power. All they had to do was elect the moderate Healey rather than the far left-wing Michael Foot, capitalise on the Tories’ unpopularity and install Labour as the governing party of choice for the UK in the 1980s. But it didn’t quite work out that way.

During the afternoon of 10th November, designated MPs who had been sworn to keep the outcome secret were counting the votes. By 5.30pm the results were in. Foot had won by a whisker – 51.9 percent to 48.1 percent. Bryan Davies, returning officer for the election, broke with tradition and informed the contenders in private before telling the rest of the party. “Denis wasn’t just disappointed”, he says, “he was really rather shattered. I don’t think he believed he would lose.”

Healey is one of the few politicians who grew in my estimation” – John O’Farrell

A few minutes later, at 6pm, the result was announced in room 14 – the largest committee room at Westminster. It was standing room only with over 260 MPs jostling for space. The Chief Teller read out the result. “As you would expect”, says Davies, “those who supported the winning candidate made a great show of support, banging desks to show appreciation. And a large number of those on the losing side wanted to demonstrate their unity to the party so they joined in as well.”

Healey, having composed himself, made a gracious speech congratulating Foot, who returned the courtesy by promising they would work together for the good of the party. Foot did make it clear, however, that he wouldn’t compromise his principles. “I am as strong in my socialist convictions as I have ever been”, he said.

Healey had run a lacklustre campaign, failing to make a sufficient effort to court the party. According to Baroness Hayter, General Secretary of the Fabian Society from 1976 to 1982, and a campaigner for Healey during the 1980 leadership contest, his lack of interest in network-building was a major problem. “His early experience of the Labour Party around the time of the war was of a party comprised of big factions, so he never wanted to be a part of all that,” she says. “Lord Barnett, who managed Denis’s campaign, said he couldn’t even get him to come and chat to his own supporters – he didn’t feel it was the right way to behave.”

There had also been a certain amount of hubris in Healey’s fall from grace – he had simply assumed that the centre and right wing of the party would rally behind him. “You have nowhere else to go,” he allegedly told the right-leaning Manifesto Group during a campaign meeting.


Foot and Healey on the tarmac at London’s Heathrow Airport in 1981. PA Archive/Press Association Images

But it may not just have been a refusal to schmooze and a presumption of victory that were Healey’s undoing. According to one theory, there may also have been a hidden subtext to the ballot of November 10.

A few months after the vote, Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Bill Rodgers and Shirley Williams – the “Gang of Four”, as they came to be known – launched a breakaway group from Labour, the centrist Social Democratic Party (SDP). One question mark hanging over the Labour Party’s history is whether some Labour MPs already knew the SDP was on the horizon and that they would defect to it – 28 Labour MPs eventually defected – and voted for left-wing candidate Foot to justify their impending departure.

Foot’s manifesto was famously described as ‘the longest suicide note in history’”

We may never know whether the Gang of Four won the day for Foot. What we do know is that the result triggered one of the most disastrous twelve months in the history of the Labour Party. First the launch of the SDP arrived like a bolt from the blue in March 1981. And then simmering tensions among the remainder of the party broke into outright civil war as Tony Benn challenged Healey in the Deputy Leadership contest in the summer of 1981. The party was in disarray, so consumed with navel-gazing that it couldn’t mount a credible opposition. “We couldn’t challenge the huge changes under Thatcher – that’s why I’m so angry about what happened,” says Baroness Hayter. “We weren’t there to fight the fight.”

In the run-up to the 1983 General Election, things went from bad to worse for Labour. By 1982, the party was haemorrhaging support to the SDP, which seemed destined for a landslide victory (polls that year predicted the SDP would take 600 out of 635 seats). Then the Falklands War gave Thatcher a popularity boost. Finally, Foot oversaw the creation of a radical manifesto calling for abolition of the House of Lords, unilateral nuclear disarmament, a pull-out of the EEC and re-nationalisation of major industries, which was famously described by Labour MP Gerald Kaufman as “the longest suicide note in history.” When the election finally arrived, Labour’s vote fell by over three million – its worst performance since 1918. It would not get back into government for another 14 years.

Would it all have been different had Healey won the leadership on 10th November 1980? With the perspective of thirty years, Labour activist and writer John O’Farrell thinks it would. “Healey is one of the few politicians who grew in my estimation”, he says. “He was principled but very realistic and that approach was rare at the time. He turned out to be right about nearly all the key issues of his day.” Baroness Hayter is even more forthright. “Healey was the great Prime Minister we never had,” she says. “He was head and shoulders above anyone else.”

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