There is a decided Mr Magoo quality to Tony Benn, something about the serene way he proceeds, oblivious to the trail of destruction he has left behind him. He bumbles along, muttering to himself about the democratic process, about the fact that "it's not about personalities at all", while all around him the walls cave in. He squints shortsightedly at a fringe meeting of 100 people and mistakes it for the nation, thirsty for socialist fundamentalism. It seems that almost nothing can touch his political myopia.
When Clive Jenkins invited him to tea to try to persuade him to stand down, he had a special loving cup made up with "Don't Do It Tony" printed on one side and "Elections Are a Poisonous Chalice" on the other. For Tony, this was evidence of how corrupt the party had become, beset by backroom deals. Somebody a little more worldly pointed out later that "you can't be Labour leader... unless you're prepared to fix things" . But you sense that Benn would rather the party had stayed broken and pure.
Denis Healey won the subsequent election by "half an eyebrow" (not a Healey eyebrow either, which would give you a comfortable margin of victory) but Labour's standing with the electorate had been so badly damaged that the next general election was effectively written off . It was the year of "the longest suicide note in history", Gerald Kaufman's memorable description of Labour's 1983 Election manifesto, a corpulent, flabby document that might have been longer still, but for some despairing rearguard actions by the party's pragmatists: "We narrowly staved off a proposal to have a socialist policy on puppy farms," recalled Kaufman, incredulity still fresh in his voice. In the election that followed, the Labour party campaigned as if it was the political wing of the Keystone Cops - chasing power with farcical energy and not the faintest hope of ever catching it.
One doubts whether Tony Blair can bring himself to watch The Wilderness Years, even though the programme implies that the nightmare is over. But if he switched over yesterday to Equinox's (C4) film about product design he would have encountered some telling echoes. This profile of designers Richard Seymour and Dick Powell concentrated in part on their redesign of the BSA Bantam, a classic motorbike, and it included a phrase that should have a grave significance for the present Labour leader: "You only ever have one shot at bringing something back from the dead." There were other lessons here too - in the talk of establishing the clarity of an object's appeal to consumers, in the quest for "the X-factor", the indefinable seductive rightness by which a kettle or a motorbike tugs at a buyer's affections, in the importance of finding solutions to problems people actually have. Dick Powell also offered a nice analogy for the process of bringing a design together - it is, he said, like watching film of an explosion in reverse - a slow congealing of chaos which accelerates at the last to snap into something unbroken and defined. Having watched The Wilderness Years it sounded like a perfect description of the healing of the Labour party.Reuse content