Healey brought bad news for old Labour; he haunts Blackpool still

Twenty years ago Denis Healey strode into another Blackpool Labour conference bringing it news "from the battlefront", having applied for a loan to the International Monetary Fund. That humiliating head-on crash with global economic reality was a transforming moment for British politics; everything Gordon Brown said yesterday was shaped by the memory.

Healey had to cut public spending in real terms and did so with brutal gusto. It was the end not just for Keynesian economics as applied by successive Labour and Conservative governments, but for tax-and-spend socialism too. After the conference uproar Healey became a demon figure for many Labour supporters and, though he managed extraordinarily well in a tough situation, his austerity helped bring about the trade unions' "winter of discontent" and thus the triumph of Margaret Thatcher.

Undreamed-of levels of unemployment followed. Inflation became public enemy number one, with trade unionism running it a close second. The Labour Party itself came very close to destruction. Today, its attitudes to inflation, tax, public spending and the unions are all heavily marked by the trauma which broke upon it once at Blackpool.

Yesterday Mr Brown thumped out the hard lesson yet again: "No quick fixes. No easy options. No magic wand solutions by cooking the books or juggling the figures . . . No retreat into one nation isolationism. No unsustainable dashes for growth. No wish list spending solutions . . ." It could serve as a shrewd sub-editor's precis of the speeches made by Healey and James Callaghan 20 years ago.

The intervening period has seen Labour struggling first to accept this message and then struggling to discover a new message of its own. The latter has proved more difficult. Yesterday, Brown told the conference he did not want Labour to stop dreaming dreams or to water down its idealism. And, certainly, proposals on youth unemployment, the minimum wage and lower taxes for the poor all address real Labour concerns, even if in untraditional ways.

But if Labour wins an election this year or next, Brown cannot be a traditional socialist. He has no choice but to be an iron Chancellor in the Healey mould, tough on inflation - at least as tough as John Major and tougher than Lord Lawson. He cannot allow public spending to grow much as a proportion of national output. He cannot greatly raise taxes for the better-off or business.

Within these strict boundaries, there are local things a Chancellor can do, and Brown makes a vivid rhetorical case for doing them. But it was striking that, of the next big choice to confront the managers of the British economy, he said barely anything. For after Healey, and the Thatcher years, the dilemma now is whether or not Britain formalises its adherence to the new orthodoxy by joining a single currency.

That is a great political question, splitting the Tory party in 1996 more drastically than the IMF crisis and its consequences split Labour after 1976. But it is not, apparently, big enough to merit serious discussion in public by the Labour leadership.

Let us hope that Tony Blair turns to it today. Because the other thing about that stormy Labour conference of two decades ago is that big truths were hurled around the floor; it was a moment of trauma for our politics, but also a time of honesty and openness. And that is another part of Healey's legacy that Labour should never forget.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Sales Consultant – Permanent – West Sussex – £24-£25k plus commission and other benefits

£24000 - £25000 Per Annum plus company car and commission: Clearwater People S...

SEN Teaching Assistant

£45 - £65 per day: Randstad Education Bristol: Supply SEN Support Jobs in Bris...

SEN Teaching Assistant

£45 - £60 per day: Randstad Education Bristol: Supply SEN Support Jobs in Glou...

Humanities and Economics Teacher - January 2015 - Malaysia

£18000 - £20400 per annum + Accommodation, Flights, Medical Cover: Randstad Ed...

Day In a Page

Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A Syrian general speaks

A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

Fall of the Berlin Wall

History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

Turn your mobile phone into easy money

There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes
Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs:

Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs

"I have never regarded anything I have done in "the media" as a proper job"
Lyricist Richard Thomas shares his 11-step recipe for creating a hit West End musical

11-step recipe for creating a West End hit

Richard Thomas, the lyricist behind the Jerry Springer and Anna Nicole Smith operas, explains how Bob Dylan, 'Breaking Bad' and even Noam Chomsky inspired his songbook for the new musical 'Made in Dagenham'
Tonke Dragt's The Letter for the King has finally been translated into English ... 50 years on

Buried treasure: The Letter for the King

The coming-of-age tale about a boy and his mission to save a mythical kingdom has sold a million copies since it was written by an eccentric Dutchwoman in 1962. Yet until last year, no one had read it in English
Can instilling a sense of entrepreneurship in pupils have a positive effect on their learning?

The school that means business

Richard Garner heads to Lancashire, where developing the 'dragons' of the future is also helping one community academy to achieve its educational goals
10 best tablets

The world in your pocket: 10 best tablets

They’re thin, they’re light, you can use them for work on the move or keeping entertained
Lutz Pfannenstiel: The goalkeeper who gave up Bayern Munich for the Crazy Gang, Bradford and a whirlwind trawl across continents

Lutz Pfannenstiel interview

The goalkeeper who gave up Bayern Munich for the Crazy Gang, Bradford and a whirlwind trawl across continents
Pete Jenson: Popular Jürgen Klopp can reignite Borussia Dortmund’s season with visit to Bayern Munich

Pete Jenson's a Different League

Popular Klopp can reignite Dortmund’s season with visit to Bayern
John Cantlie video proves that Isis expects victory in Kobani

Cantlie video proves that Isis expects victory in Kobani

The use of the British hostage demonstrates once again the militants' skill and originality in conducting a propaganda war, says Patrick Cockburn
The killer instinct: The man who helps students spot potential murderers

The killer instinct

Phil Chalmers travels the US warning students how to spot possible future murderers, but can his contentious methods really stop the bloodshed?
Clothing the gap: A new exhibition celebrates women who stood apart from the fashion herd

Clothing the gap

A new exhibition celebrates women who stood apart from the fashion herd
Fall of the Berlin Wall: Goodbye to all that - the lost world beyond the Iron Curtain

The Fall of the Berlin Wall

Goodbye to all that - the lost world beyond the Iron Curtain