This isn’t a reference to the FA Cup Final replay of that year and Ricky Villa’s brilliant goal, but to a much rougher match held at Wembley four months before.


As we look forward to this weekend’s special Labour Party conference on rule changes, my mind goes back to January 1981, the last time the party reformed its leadership election structure.


After its defeat in 1979 the party had descended into civil war between left and right wing factions. The left were determined to end the exclusive right of Labour MPs to elect the leader. This was in spite of the fact that two months earlier left winger Michael Foot had been chosen as the party’s new standard bearer.


We reporters arrived at Wembley to a tension filled auditorium. The stakes had been raised dramatically higher by the threat of four senior former Labour cabinet ministers to form a new party if the exclusive right of Labour MPs to elect the leader was removed.


Undeterred the conference voted to introduce a new system whereby the unions, constituency parties and MPs would each have a third share in electing the leader.

The “Gang of Four”, Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers and David Owen formed the Social Democratic Party and Labour was out of office until 1997 when Tony Blair led it back to power. He reformed the famous Clause Four statement of strong socialist principles but never touched the leadership voting system.


So it was that Ed Miliband narrowly beat his brother by winning the union part of the electoral college even though most MPs and party activists voted for David Miliband.




Things couldn’t be more different this weekend as Labour is set to reform their leadership election method after 33 years. It’s come a long way since last summer when the Tories goaded Ed Miliband into proposing the change after allegations of Unite The Union shenanigans in the selection of a parliamentary candidate in Falkirk.


It looked for a while that Unite’s leader Len McCluskey would resist the reforms aimed at defusing Tory criticisms that the party was too close to the unions. But all the signs are that Saturday’s conference will rubber stamp the changes so we’d better look briefly at what they are.


The electoral college will be abolished. MPs will choose the short-list, but will then only have one vote each along with party members and affiliated supporters (see below) in choosing the next leader.


In future each trade union member will have actively to agree to a levy going to the Labour Party. Since 1946 the levy has been automatically deducted unless the member objected. Ed Miliband is taking a big financial risk with this proposal. He hopes trade unionists will take the next step by becoming affiliated supporters. He wants them to take an active interest in the party. They will get a vote in leadership elections but not in the choice of parliamentary candidates. That right will be retained by full party members.


Conservative critics do not believe their fox has been shot because the unions will retain their block vote at party conference and on the ruling National Executive Committee. This may be the price Miliband has paid for securing union agreement for the changes.


But Tories need to be careful in their criticism of who influences Labour policy. Big business continues to bankroll the Conservatives and people are still asking why plans for minimum priced alcohol and plain packaged cigarettes were withdrawn. Tory party membership is down to 100,000 partly because their activists have virtually no say in making policy.


All parties are struggling with plummeting party membership. Miliband’s attempt to get people to associate with the Labour Party if they won’t actually join might help a bit but it seems to acknowledge that he’s not inspiring people very much.


That’s partly his fault and partly the fact that there is very little to choose between the three main parties. A far cry from the Margaret Thatcher v Michael Foot General Election that followed two years after that memorable conference at Wembley.