Aidan Gibbons delves into the archives to compare Labour’s swings to the left in 1979-1981 and 2015

In March 2017, a bursary from the Society for the Study of Labour History enabled me to visit the Bishopsgate Institute in London and the People’s History Museum in Manchester. This was to conduct research for my Dissertation entitled A Comparison Between the Two Recent Swings to the Left Within the British Labour Party, 1979-1981 and 2015.

My visit to London was focussed upon discovering the importance of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (CLPD) in the first swing to the Left. CLPD was a group of Labour Party members who campaigned within constituencies and trade unions for mandatory reselection of MPs within the Party and, in 1980, for an electoral college for the election of the Party Leader and Deputy Leader. My research trip involved pouring over many reports written by the group’s secretary Vladimir Derer from 1976 to 1980. These reports confirmed the importance of the group, highlighting how from holding meetings and attending Trade Union Conferences, they gained support from some of the largest Trade Unions, notably the National Union of Public Employees (NUPE). The 1980 report, which discussed campaigning for the establishment of an electoral college, was particularly critical to my dissertation. The report confirmed that before CLPD began lobbying only 8 CLPs had shown support for an electoral college. However, after CLPD involvement, 45 CLPs said that they wished for it to be debated at the 1980 Party Conference, stating they had been ‘directly inspired’ by the group. The most interesting discovery, however, was the involvement of current Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, who was a member of the Executive Committee. The 1977 report, for instance, outlined his involvement in organising a venue for the group with longtime ally Ken Livingstone. In exploring the links between the two swings, the involvement of the current Labour Party leader was an important issue and its discovery was facilitated by funding from the Society.

My research at the People’s History Museum explored how the right of the Labour Party tried to combat the resurgence of the Left. This involved focussing on the Campaign for Labour Victory (CLV), a Social Democratic Group within the Party designed to combat CLPD within constituencies. The research highlighted the weakness of the group, particularly in how they were unable to attract a popular leader. It included correspondence between the group and Bill Rodgers, in which Rodgers stated he could not lead the group as it would be against the wishes of Jim Callaghan’. Interestingly, there were also numerous letters written by the group to Constituency secretaries; however, my research in the archive suggests that there is no evidence anyone replied. This left the group in financial difficulties for much of its existence, with my research discovering that the CLV heavily relied upon an annual grant from the Rowntree Trust. When this ended in 1980, the group’s operations were greatly diminished.

Without the Society for the Study of Labour History, the quality of my dissertation would have suffered greatly, and I can only thank them for their support.

Find out more about SSLH bursary schemes.