Jeremy Corbyn’s opponents have given many reasons for not supporting him, ranging from the thought-provoking (his comments about Hamas and Hezbollah being ‘friends’ – hmm…) to the absurd (he wears silly hats and carries pens in his shirt pocket – what a loser!).
There’s one key one, though: that a Labour Party based around a pre-Blairite Labour platform would be unelectable. Corbyn, we are told, is a wrecker. Well-meaning, possibly, but someone who, we are repeatedly assured, would ‘plunge us back into the 1970s’. It’s proved a pretty compelling objection – so much so, it’s become easy to characterise his growing number of supporters as hopelessly idealistic dreamers who are turning a blind eye to evidence and just hoping for the best. Even the supporters themselves seem to have bought into this idea, protesting – sometimes rather apologetically – that what the world needs now, is exactly that hope and idealism.
What hasn’t been so widely said, however, is that the entire argument about unelectability is based upon a lie. This lie has been promoted and embellished for years by Blairites, and for the most part we have swallowed it whole. The nature of this lie? That, electorally, there is no credible alternative to Blairism within the Labour party. But what’s more interesting is why they need you to believe it. On it depends not only the credibility of committed Blairite MPs, but their political careers.
At first sight, Corbyn’s ‘unelectability’ appears demonstrably true. The argument goes something like this: after Thatcher swept to power in 1979, the ailing Labour party tried everything to fix their image and their election chances – ditching the old, scruffy, but well-meaning intellectual Michael Foot for the young, dynamic and rootsy Neil Kinnock. But, quite simply, nothing worked. It proved impossible to resuscitate the corpse of mainstream democratic socialism in a changed Britain, and it wasn’t until Tony Blair radically reinvented the party – shutting out the unions and crazy old notions like state ownership, and opening the door to corporate bosses and privatisation – that Labour’s election chances were finally – dramatically – revived.
So that’s it. Change was necessary in order to secure power. Four consecutive general election defeats had shown socialism in Britain to be a failed project. A return to those crazy, idealist principles that had so clearly failed would be madness. Corbyn is therefore electoral poison. QED.
Except that it wasn’t quite like that. Obviously this ‘dragging us back to the 70s’ stuff is partly scaremongering, evoking the very worst period of any Labour government – a time of strikes, rubbish in the streets, free-ranging paedophiles, flares and the Bay City Rollers – to generate a general unease about ‘old school Labour’, even though Corbyn himself didn’t become an MP until 1983. But it also ignores what actually happened between 1979 and 1994. Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson was once credited with saying ‘a week is a long time in politics’. It stands to reason, then, that a hell of a lot can go on in 15 years.
And it did. The Labour party may have been in the wilderness in terms of governmental power, but they did not simply sit waiting for St Tony to descend and deliver them. While Kinnock’s general election defeats in 1987 and 1992 are seen purely in terms of failure, Labour had steadily gained ground, despite the fact that Major’s election to leader had given the Tories’ popularity a shot in the arm. One week from the general election vote in 1992, all major polls put Labour ahead.
But Neil Kinnock was to experience for himself the wisdom of Harold Wilson’s words. Despite Blairites blaming Labour’s defeat that year on Shadow Chancellor John Smith’s lefty plans for higher taxation (which were known months before the election anyway) it was Neil Kinnock’s behaviour at the Sheffield rally a week before the election that is widely regarded as losing Labour the election. Whilst the mood in the hall was clearly ecstatic in anticipation of what looked like potential victory, Kinnock’s performance – repeatedly shouting ‘Awright!’ like some crazed celebrity, instead of saying anything meaningful – made cringe-inducing TV. Last-minute jitters caused a crucial proportion of hard-won voters to abandon him.
Even so, there were overall gains. The 1992 election slashed the Conservative majority from 102 seats to 21. When Kinnock resigned and John Smith took over as leader, their position grew stronger still, to the extent that John Smith was judged to be the most popular Labour leader since Clement Attlee – the man who had won a post-war landslide victory against Winston Churchill. In July 1992, Labour’s lead was 4%. By January 1994, it had grown to 20%. Then, on 5 May 1994, the Conservatives suffered their worst defeats in council elections for over 30 years. Labour were in the strongest position they had been in for decades.
Then another of those long weeks happened. Exactly seven days after the drubbing of the Tories at the council elections, John Smith died of a heart attack. That July, Smith’s Shadow Home Secretary, Tony Blair, was elected as leader. In 1997, Labour were returned with the largest majority they had ever enjoyed – 179 seats. The rest is history.
But history is written by the victors – and the myth that has developed since is that the 1997 victory was entirely due to Blair’s New Labour reforms. In fact, Kinnock and Smith had already ushered in reforms, especially with regard to union influence (Smith himself had done away with the notorious union block vote). Then there is the question over what would have happened had Smith not died. On this, many commentators are agreed: barring disasters, Labour would have been elected with a majority of 100 seats. Not as great as Blair’s landslide, but a formidable victory, nonetheless.
And that’s the uncomfortable truth for Blairites. Smith was a not New Labour. He was old school – previously a cabinet member in Callaghan’s government. This is the reality Blairites would rather you didn’t know: prior to the Blairite takeover, Old Labour was not only electorally viable, it was electorally powerful (and led, by the way, by a man who would have steadfastly refused to sanction war with Iraq). There are those who will counter by saying: ‘Yes, but Corbyn is far more crazily left wing that that…’ But take a look at his economics. They are moderate. Certainly Smith would have understood them. Commentators at leftfutures.org have complained that his ‘common sense’ approach to public spending makes too many concessions, and is not left wing enough. This week, even those crazy anti-capitalist commies at the Financial Times came out in favour.
It is essential to Blairites that they continue to promote the myth, however. What they fear most is not Corbyn losing them members – Corbyn has massively boosted membership. They are not afraid that it will lose the party popularity – it’s doing the opposite. They are not even afraid that he will lose Labour the next general election. What they are most afraid of – in spite of all their protests – is that he will entirely succeed, thereby proving their exclusive claim to electoral viability wrong. And, more than that, they are afraid that a more left-leaning Labour membership – as the core body that helps select candidates to stand as MPs – will consider them an irrelevance, even an embarrassment, and call time on their political careers.