With the benefit of hindsight, Benn's challenge was the postwar highpoint of the Labour left. Already the stirrings of deindustrialisation and the consumer-oriented individuation of popular culture was starting to eat at the institutional feet of our movement. Without the nourishment of much widespread participation in labour movement matters, the left was ill-equipped to resist the disastrous fall-outs of the miners' strike defeat, the mass privatisations and attacks on trade union rights, and the loss of general elections in 1983, 1987, and 1992.
Would it have been different had Benn won the deputy leadership 34 years ago? Playing 'what if' is a very difficult game, but without a doubt a land of milk and honey did not await. Had he proved victorious Labour would have carried on as a deeply fractious party. There would have been battles between the leader's and deputy leader's office so fierce and frequent that anything approaching effective direction was impossible. At this point, the Gang of Four had cast their die and were openly trading as the SDP. It is quite possible that more of the right would have given the Labour Party up as a bad job and thrown their lot in with them rather than tolerate Benn in position. A left split with Benn at the helm would have been less likely unless the differences between the left on the one hand, and the centre and the right on the other proved utterly intractable. It's very difficult, for example, to see how Benn as deputy would have gone along with Michael Foot's support for war over the Falklands. Either way, a left split or a right split, that would have put Labour in an even more perilous and difficult position than it was in after the 1983 general election. Could it be that Healey's victory, albeit a defeat for the left, was actually a lesser evil in the long-run? We will never know for sure.
Once again, many thanks to Dave for digging this one out.