History, as Henry Ford once claimed, is bunk: and that is what many Jeremy Corbyn supporters now believe. Prior to the 2017 election, Corbynites were told by supposed experts like myself that, as Tony Blair had it, when a traditional left-wing party competes with a traditional right-wing party the traditional result will follow: defeat for the left.
Labour didn’t win the election. But it performed much better than anybody supposed. And, in accounting for this, Corbyn’s platform and persona are widely seen as having been vital. It was, many believe, Jeremy that (nearly) won it. Certainly Labour’s conference confirms the impression that the leadership thinks all the party needs is one more big dose of Corbynism and power will drop into its hands.
But while some in the party think Britons are now living, as Momentum has it, in a World Transformed, we should not yet dispense with using the past as a guide to the future, if only because there is a compelling pattern to Labour’s previous breakthroughs of 1945, 1964 and 1997.
First, all three victories were preceded by a prolonged period of Conservative or Conservative-led governments, of respectively 14, 13 and 18 years. These regimes were each, by their end, generally perceived to have failed.
In 1945 the Conservatives’ inadequate preparations for war with Hitler led many to reject their free-market policies. In 1964 Britain was widely seen as falling behind other more dynamic nations. This was seen as being due to the Tories’ amateurish approach to economic management. In 1997 John Major’s party’s reputation for competence never recovered from its disastrous devaluation of sterling just after being reelected in 1992.
In each case Conservative fortunes went into free-fall due to the impact of sudden and dramatic events which gave shape to gathering but hitherto formless doubts. Without the catalytic effects of Dunkirk, the Profumo affair and Black Wednesday, Labour’s prospects would have been much dimmer.
But a prolonged Conservative period in office, the smell of failure and a series of dramatic events do not necessarily guarantee Labour office. Neil Kinnock lost the 1992 election despite the Tories having been in power for 13 years. During that time the government was responsible for staggering interest rates that threatened many peoples’ homes. Yet Labour’s programme and its leader were not attractive enough to allow it to take advantage. Despite the old maxim that oppositions don’t win elections governments lose them, an opposition party – and certainly Labour – cannot afford to simply wait for office to fall into its lap.
Offering something different
Certainly in 1945, 1964 and 1997 Labour offered a compelling solution to Britain’s economic problems – ones the Conservatives were seen as either causing or being unable to address. If this involved bringing the state back in – in 1945 dramatically so, in 1997 on a more restricted scale – Labour always presented its programme in a non-ideological way, as a practical means of taking the country forward.
The nationalisations that underpinned Labour’s 1945 programme are now seen as radical but at the time, after the experience of World War II, taking failing private industries into government hands was seen as a fairly pragmatic economic policy. Similarly Wilson’s indicative planning and Blair’s pledge to improve public services were generally seen as vital to promoting economic efficiency.
As a result, at these moments, Labour could successfully depict the Conservatives as being the ideological party, representing only the privileged elite. Meanwhile, it could cast itself as the head of a national crusade that included but transcended working-class and trade union interests. Across these three elections, the party had message designed to appeal to those beyond the party.
If Labour had an approach that resonated with the public, it also usually had leaders who evoked a popular response. The exception was in 1945. While many Labour members now look on Clement Attlee as a secular saint, had it been a presidential contest Winston Churchill would have walked it. Attlee would show his mettle as prime minister but if they sought Labour policies, many voters in 1945 wanted Churchill to remain in Downing Street.
The importance of leadership has subsequently increased and in 1964 and 1997 Wilson and Blair played critical roles in embodying Labour’s message. Wilson the grammar school boy and Blair the lawyer evoked a classless modernity that cut across their party’s traditional cloth-cap image so as to win over wobbly Conservative voters.
Taking on Theresa May
Where does Corbyn’s Labour stand in relation to the party’s previous breakthrough moments? The Conservatives have only been in office for seven years, but Theresa May’s appalling performance in the 2017 campaign was an unexpected event that brought to the fore many people’s doubts about the effectiveness and desirability of unending austerity. That said, there is little sense that the Conservatives are generally seen as failing.
Indeed, according to YouGov voters regard them as preferable to Labour for managing the economy, the Brexit process, immigration, tax, law and order and defence. It is even level with Labour on unemployment.
It’s true that parts of Labour’s 2017 manifesto were very popular – notably the promise to abolish university tuition fees and the pledge to renationalise a number of key industries. Corbyn’s rhetoric that Labour represented the many, not the few, evoked a positive response. But there remains a significant gap between what the party offers and what the public wants.
Even now, Corbyn continues to trail May as the person regarded as the best prime minister. Perhaps even more worrying for Labour, nearly one-third of 2017 Labour voters are not sure Corbyn would make the best prime minister.
The party, if anything, is heading in a direction that could further weaken its potential as a party of government. Labour’s conference has seen Corbyn’s position further entrenched thanks to the impression he stands on the verge of power. On the basis of this analysis, the party might want to reconsider matters.
Historical comparisons can be useful: they help identify persistent patterns. They can also be dangerous, for the present is never exactly like the past.
Certainly I believed the 2017 campaign would end in a drubbing for Labour just as it had in 1983. History is there to be changed – it’s not always a prison. We aren’t necessarily locked into the same behaviour. But if he is to become prime minister any time soon Jeremy Corbyn will be a truly unique Labour figure, in more ways than most, for he is currently waging a war not only on the Tories, but on history.