The June 2017 general election shocked the United Kingdom. It began with talk of a Tory landslide and ended with a hung Parliament. Theresa May began the campaign with the popularity of a pop idol and ended it with the credibility of a confidence trickster.
Jeremy Corbyn led a surge in support for Labour not equalled since the days of Clement Atlee. Tony Blair’s landslide win in 1997 was the only time in recent memory that Labour achieved more than the 40 percent national share of the vote it has just received under Corbyn. He might not have won the election, but May certainly lost it, and the Labour left is closer to power than at any other time in its history.
And the Conservatives, the Scottish nationalists, and all the other parties who failed to meet expectations are not the only losers from the last seven weeks of campaigning. Corbyn’s opponents among the ranks of his own parliamentary party, many of whom were widely reported to be preparing a fresh leadership challenge had the result been a little worse, wore the same fixed smiles and glazed looks of men and women whose dreams had temporarily been shattered, even if they walked away from the affair with their jobs intact.
They are right to feel down. Corbyn has done more than just hold on to the Labour leadership and loosen Theresa May’s hold on power; he has also destroyed the central idea that governed Labour for the last thirty years at least. In one stunning campaign, the whole babble about electability and the center ground has started to sound rather tinny.
The foundational myth of New Labour — the disaster of the 1983 general election, in which Labour’s Michael Foot was trounced by Margaret Thatcher — is starting to show holes, as well. We should re-examine that foundational myth, if we want to prevent the same old Labour right from once again undermining Corbyn and throwing the rise of the British left into reverse. After Corbyn’s near-triumph, we finally have the evidence as well as the theory to reject it for good.
The Labour leaders of the recent past were born homeopaths. They took the party’s active ingredient — its principles, its policies, its history, and its program — and they drowned it in water. If Labour lost a general election, they added some more. If still unsuccessful, they repeated and diluted again, and waved around the water as the cure for our problems.
Tony Blair and Gordon Brown claimed this method of political quack medicine as the key to their electoral success, even if their strategy never worked for Neil Kinnock before them or Ed Miliband afterwards. Miliband, at least, tried in the 2015 general election to give the appearance of solidity to his soggy mixture of promises by literally inscribing them in stone. In the end, not even the Edstone could save him.
What remained of Labour’s program, after the homeopaths got at it, can still be found on the party website under the heading of “Labour values.” The first value, “social justice,” at least has its roots on the Left. The last three, “reward for hard work,” “decency,” and “rights matched by responsibilities,” nearly plagiarize the motto of Vichy France and could be run on by politicians from Nick Clegg and Francois Hollande to Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen. The second is the self-satirizing proof of Labour’s long political decline. It reads thus: “strong communities and strong values.” One can only hope that it was the work of an overcaffeinated intern at Labour HQ who struggled to meet a deadline and decided to take the piss. More likely, the notion of “strong values” as a foundation of Labour Party practice came out of some dreary focus group that found a way to offend nobody and put everyone to sleep.
Labour’s political homeopathy was part of a wider strategy. The apostles of New Labour and the Labour right assumed that the party could never win unless it held to the center. Socialist policies would simply never succeed on election day and must be abandoned if Labour had any hope of achieving power. Signature policies of the Left should go out the door.
To Peter Mandelson, Alastair Campbell, and Labour’s other backroom dealers and spin merchants, the most offensive word beginning with “n” was nationalization. Labour leaders who wanted office must stick with the nuclear deterrent and declare their willingness to plunge the world into nuclear winter. Every one of the socialist policies that Labour ever played with (not that it enacted all or even most of them) must disappear into the dustbin of history.
They based this strategy on several grounds. One was an abhorrence of socialist ideas, however watered down and emptied of content they might be. Tony Blair summed up this revulsion last year when he said of Corbyn’s ideas that “we wouldn’t want to win on an old-fashioned leftist platform. Even if we thought it was the route to victory, we shouldn’t take it.”
Another was the idea that there exists a “center ground,” a magical place with no definable properties except that it was not on the left. Labour must move to that center ground and stay there, said the Mandelsons and Campbells, if it wanted electoral success.
But there was more to the Labour leadership of the last thirty years than revulsion and pseudoscience. It had a historical foundation too, one that legitimized every triangulation away from the Left and served as a stick with which to beat the Left if it ever got ideas above its station. It contained suicide notes and socialist villains. It featured unelectable left-wingers and sensible centrists.
The foundational myth of the modern Labour right was a single event: the 1983 general election.
Political journalists, politicians, and media commentators are almost all agreed that Labour’s campaign in 1983 was among the worst of all time.
The picture that they paint of it is a clear one. The Labour leader, Michael Foot, ran a traditional campaign, based around mass rallies, and offered to the public a leftish manifesto that was quickly dubbed “the longest suicide note in history.” By contrast, the Conservative Margaret Thatcher ran a slick, modern campaign that exposed Foot’s many failings and smashed old-style socialism for good.
Thatcher won in a landslide, with a majority of 144. Foot was replaced as Labour leader by Neil Kinnock, who soon moved the party to the right. (Sorry, I mean the center.)
In the popular imagination of the 1983 election — or at least, the establishment imagination — radicalism met realism, and realism trumped radicalism. The only way that Labour could win another election was by abandoning anything that so much as resembled socialism or Michael Foot. According to this reading of history, the next fourteen years were the story of a party that had to be slowly rescued from its left-wing delusions and returned to the center ground of British politics.
From then on, Labour leftists were reminded of the 1983 disaster every time they tried to raise their heads and push even mild socialism as party policy.
Want to nationalize something? Come on, don’t take us back to Michael Foot. Think the financial sector is getting out of hand? Stop being unelectable and get with the program. Any doubts about public-private partnerships or cozying up to disreputable billionaires or moving away from the unions? Well you would, wouldn’t you — just another socialist dinosaur, stuck in the past.
Jeremy Corbyn faced this comparison from the very moment he ran for election as Labour leader in 2015. Tony Blair, having first suggested that pro-Corbyn party members get a heart transplant rather than vote with their own hearts in the leadership election, claimed that a Corbyn leadership risked sending Labour back to the dark days of the 1980s. The prospect of a return to 1983 drove each fresh rebellion against Corbyn, each parliamentary coup and each backroom briefing to the press against the Labour left.
In early 2017, before Theresa May took that fateful decision to call a snap election, newspapers reported with evident satisfaction that Corbyn’s support in the polls were even worse than those of Michael Foot. At each step in the last two years, the spectre of ’83 has been wheeled out as proof that Corbyn is on his way out, and that Labour must return to the centrist verities that supposedly served Blair and Brown so well.
But that specter has as little substance as the strong and stable leadership of Theresa May. It is open to challenge on historical grounds — and the same centrists who now abhor “alternative facts” and a “post-truth world” have their own way of mangling the past into a shape that they like, and omitting what they don’t like so much.
Opponents of the Left generally portray the 1983 general election as if the defeat came at a time of political calm, and the only deciding factor was the leftish lunacy of Labour’s leader and its program. That was certainly not the case.
Labour in 1983 was a party in flux. Only two years before, in March 1981, four senior Labour figures — Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams, David Owen, and Bill Rodgers — had left to form the Social Democratic Party, eventually taking nearly thirty Labour MPs with them. This “Gang of Four” claimed that Labour was moving too far to the left. They worried that left-wingers in the party wanted MPs to adhere to decisions arrived at by the party conference — and allow local party branches to deselect their local MPs if they failed to do so. They disagreed with Labour’s opposition to the European Common Market (forerunner of the European Union) and its stances on many other issues.
Their defection attracted great media attention and support, and split the Labour vote up and down the country.
A bitter struggle then followed between Labour’s left and right. The high point of the left came later in 1981, when its best-known leader, Tony Benn, almost won election to the deputy leadership. He failed by less than one percentage point and mobilized a great deal of enthusiasm among party members, but after his defeat the fortunes of the Left very quickly receded.
They received no support from the party leader. Michael Foot, once considered one of the leading figures on Labour’s left, had turned to support from the right, center, and the so-called “soft left” of the party in order to maintain his position once he became Labour leader in 1980. These groups, and not the so-called Bennites or “hard left,” were in firm control over Labour well before the 1983 election began.
To make matters worse, Margaret Thatcher had received an enormous boost in popularity after the Falklands War in 1982, when Britain expelled an Argentine invasion of its outpost in the South Atlantic. It was that boost, and some improvement in the dire economic conditions of Thatcher’s first few years in office, that led her to call an election for June 1983 and helped her to win it.
And what about the longest suicide note in history? People well to the right of Labour have admitted they approved Labour’s 1983 manifesto, composed of ideas taken from party members, without much discussion or debate. They did so for an obvious reason: with the SDP in the race, there was little chance of victory, and it was their chance to put the ideas of a defeated Labour left to the electorate in the hope that they would be soundly defeated. Benn and the other “loony lefties” would be then finished as a major political force. This is the kind of cynicism that pundits like to think of as “pragmatism.”
In other words, most centrist delusions about the 1983 election rely on the omission of three crucial historical facts.
The first is that Labour had split, and the splitters had won great (though temporary) support, which made defeat almost inevitable. The second is that the election was not a battle between the hard left and Thatcher, but between her and assorted Labour centrists and rightists who wanted to bury the Left once and for all. The third is that the Falklands War had revived Thatcher’s own flagging support.
Taken singly or together, they undermine the whole historical substructure of the argument that Labour must tack to the center, or the right, if it wants to win.
Exorcising the Ghost
Nor do we need to retrace our historical steps to put this argument in its place. Jeremy Corbyn has, after all, just managed to pull off one of the largest recoveries of all time in the Labour vote. He achieved that feat by running on a program that much of the press compared to the 1983 manifesto — and they did not mean that comparison kindly.
The fact that the 2017 manifesto was not nearly as sweeping as the 1983 one, whether in terms of government intervention in the economy, defense policy, or almost any other metric, was neither here nor there. For a few days, Corbyn was the ghost of Michael Foot returned in human flesh, a Labour leader who would be crushed just as Foot was on an unelectable left-wing platform. The tabloids looked forward to a Tory landslide of ‘83-esque proportions.
And then they realized that far from hurting Corbyn, his manifesto was actually sparking a surge in support for Labour. The second longest suicide note in history became the seed for the revival of the Labour vote.
All the things that the spin doctors and the so-called “modernizers” had placed off limits — the nationalization of major industries, an end to university tuition fees, a great new state-run investment bank — were put before the public and proved popular. Now, it is commonplace to say that Labour’s program was probably the most important factor in Corbyn’s electoral success.
It did more than that. Corbyn’s manifesto destroyed the central myth that justified all the retreats of the Kinnock era, the triangulations of the Blair years, and the fudges of Brown’s short-lived premiership. You can run on a left-wing platform and do well. A socialist campaign can attract more votes than Kinnock, Brown, Miliband, and even post-1997 Blair could achieve with their pitch to the center ground. The supposed lessons of the 1983 have been proven false.
That does not mean that the argument is over. Neoliberal economists teach the same crap that they taught before the 2008 financial crash, as if their theories and assumptions hadn’t been shown up by events — and in the same zombie-like fashion, some on the Labour right already pretend that the June election changes nothing.
Scarcely twelve hours after Theresa May failed to win a majority, Labour rightists like Peter Mandelson and Chuka Ummuna appeared on national TV and talked about the need for a move to the center before Labour could ever hope to return to office. They still prefer a version of 1983 to the reality of 2017. Their jobs and their place in politics, after all, still depend on it.
We should not humor them or their delusions. Nor do we need to. The last election, Corbyn’s manifesto, the current surge in Labour support — all this can be the beginning of much more than a solid social-democratic program and the prospect of a strong Labour opposition. Fresh elections are already appearing over the horizon, as Theresa May struggles to form a slender majority with the help of sectarian Unionists from Northern Ireland.
Beyond those contests, there is now a chance to institutionalize the gains that have been made in the last two months and put this new British left on a more solid footing. That will be the best way to gently, and finally, put Michael Foot, 1983 failures, and suicide notes to rest.