With division like this, Blair can smile

Labour's history shows that it has rarely been so united before an election

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At the Labour conference of 1944, held in London, the young left- winger Ian Mikardo defied the leadership and pushed through a resolution calling for the party to commit itself to widespread nationalisation. He was immediately buttonholed by a furious Herbert Morrison. "You realise, don't you," said Morrison, "that you've lost us the election?"

The scene could be - and probably will be - repeated this week at Blackpool, with senior leadership figures browbeating and haranguing "rebels" every time there is a whiff of dissent in the air. Without doubt, the troublemakers will again be told they are jeopardising the election victory.

In the case of 1944, we know better. Mikardo's resolution may not have been to Morrison's liking, but it did not lose Labour the election and what is more the Attlee government went on to nationalise like no other, before or since.

Blackpool 1996 is being presented as a divisive conference, with the unions bitter and bruised and old Labour finally rousing itself to fight back. Tony Blair, depending upon whom you listen to, is either grimly preparing himself to impress floating ex-Tory voters with his brutal treatment of dissent or is bracing himself for an untimely battering from a party that has fallen out of love with his modern methods.

Yet any previous leader of the party - not just from the reviled 1980s, but from the 1970s, 1960s, 1950s and even the 1940s - would have laughed at his problems. New Labour apparatchiks may be appalled at the prospect of public disagreement so near to the election, but a quick look back over the past 50 years of party history should give Mr Blair cause to reflect on how lucky he is.

Under Clement Attlee, party divisions blossomed, and he had to put up with his share of rows. While the vocal "Keep Left" group assailed Ernest Bevin's foreign policy, two younger ministers, Nye Bevan and Hugh Gaitskell, began a public duel that dwarfed anything Labour knows today.

Bevan described Gaitskell as "nothing, nothing, nothing". Gaitskell eventually forced Bevan into an emotional resignation from the cabinet. In 1951 Bevan chose, in effect, to conduct his own election campaign. Labour lost.

When in October 1952 the party assembled for its conference at Morecambe, the mood was far fouler than anything we will see this week. Arthur Deakin, the right-wing head of the TGWU, was booed from the floor, and Will Lawther, the NUM boss, told a heckler to "shut your gob". Gaitskell attacked the Bevanites as a group of frustrated journalists and alleged that one in every six of the constituency delegates was a Communist.

It was, wrote Michael Foot, "rowdy, convulsive, vulgar, splenetic; threatening at times to collapse into an irretrievable brawl".

As the 1955 election approached, Gaitskell tried to have Bevan expelled from the party altogether. Imagine if, up to two weeks before the next election, the Labour national executive were devoting meeting after meeting to deciding whether Ken Livingstone should be expelled from the party.

The run-up to voting in 1959 was better because the party had united around its opposition to Suez, but the Bevanites were never reconciled to Gaitskell's leadership. Surface unity made no difference to the result: Labour lost.

Again the splits opened up. CND was reaching its height, and on the bomb and on timidity on domestic policy the left more or less disowned the leadership. Gaitskell responded defiantly to defeat, by advocating the replacement of Clause IV and skirmishes became open war. For two years, pro- and anti-leadership organisations fought it out, vote by vote and constituency by constituency. The result was a draw.

Gaitskell won on the bomb but deserted his friends on Europe, achieving a kind of unity for Brighton in 1962. After he died, a more or less united party fought and won the 1964 campaign.

It did not last and, in power, things were little different from the worst days of opposition. There were cabinet plots against Harold Wilson; the left gained command of the constituencies; the right seemed to be fighting a losing campaign over EEC entry; Trotskyist entryism was beginning.

Trouble was brewing, which burst forth in opposition in the 1970s. The leadership was frequently defeated at conferences of the 1970s, and speeches became "almost obsessional acts of contrition" for the reactionary policies of government. The party behaved in public, it was rightly observed, like an "obscure sect".

Labour won in 1974 by a hair's breadth. Wilson's genius had been, among other things, to make the party look marginally more united against the EEC than the Tories were for it. The government then proceeded to change tack and store up another set of supposed betrayals.

When James Callaghan replaced Wilson, many on the right became disillusioned, many on the left utterly alienated. A special conference at Wembley in 1980 marked the height of discord and hatred but the nadir, the apotheosis of old Labour, was the general election campaign of 1983, fought under the leadership of Michael Foot. Frontbench speakers disowned the party's defence policy, activists measured political success by the size of the local CND branch and the SDP cut Labour's vote to a historic low. A slow death seemed almost inevitable.

The turning point was Neil Kinnock's electrifying speech to conference in Bournemouth in 1985, damning the "impossible promises" of the left. From there the party has never looked back.

No one familiar with this story could argue that Labour today is a seriously divided party (although the Conservative papers will undoubtedly try this week). On the contrary, the party is probably more united and focused on winning power than at any comparable period in the electoral cycle since the war.

Indeed, there is a strong argument that the phobia about dissent which it has developed since the 1980s does not and will not serve it well. Labour in the past may have been rendered virtually unelectable at times by internal division, but it was also vibrant, intellectually challenging and ideologically interesting. Even Morecambe in 1952 had, as Michael Foot admitted, a "fierce human ebullience" entirely lacking in today's politics.

Labour today offers no home to new radicalism, new protest. That has moved elsewhere, out of party politics and into the movements whose front line is at a port where veal is being shipped or in a stretch of country being cleared for a bypass. It is a development that should worry politicians, even those on the threshold of power.

What will we see this week? Tony Blair's record suggests that he will not be able to resist one more blow to the head of old Labour. He might flesh out the whispers of the past month, spelling out the next stage in breaking the link with the trade unions, or he might indulge his love of political drama and take an even bolder step, like proposing the merger of the NEC and Shadow Cabinet.

It would be a mistake. Despite all the brouhaha of recent weeks, he should relax. No Labour leader has ever had it so good and he should behave accordingly, even to the point of accepting the odd defeat gracefully. To borrow a phrase from Attlee, a period of silence from the Labour leader would be appreciated. That silence might allow the internecine warfare in the Tory party to be heard more clearly by the electorate.

The writer teaches history at Kingston University. His biography of Hugh Gaitskell, published by Richard Cohen Books, is reviewed by Ben Pimlott in the 'Sunday Review'.

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