UK general election: Corbyn, Labour and the unknown

What can the party's history tell us about its current predicament?

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    UK general election: Corbyn, Labour and the unknown
    Jeremy Corbyn is the second favourite leader in party history, according to a YouGov poll of Labour members [Carl Court/Gallo/Getty]

    London, UK - In April, details of the Labour Party's manifesto were leaked to the press. It contained pledges to properly fund the NHS, to renationalise key services such as the railways and Post Office, and to increase tax for those earning more than £80,000 (roughly $103,000). The reaction from sections of the British press - notoriously partisan and shrill - was predictable.

    Now, even if we lose the election, our detractors within the party can't say it's because left-wing ideas are doomed, because the manifesto was really popular with the public.

    Labour party insider

    "Comrade Corbyn," screamed the headline on the Evening Standard, edited by former Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne. "The return of Old Labour: Corbyn vows to give unions more power as he plots tax hikes to fund billions of pounds more public spending," said the Daily Mail.

    Yet, by the time Corbyn - a mild-mannered man with a passion for tending to his allotment - was celebrating his 68th birthday on May 26, the tide had turned. A YouGov poll, out that day, gave Labour 38 percent of public support. When the campaign began, the party was trailing the Conservatives by 52 points; now, the gap is closer to three.

    Although polling has been notoriously unreliable in recent years, it was taken by many in the Corbyn camp as vindication of their ideas after a long, brutal battle - not just with the Conservatives and the media, but within the Labour Party itself.

    "Now, even if we lose the election, our detractors within the party can't say it's because left-wing ideas are doomed, because the manifesto was really popular with the public," said one insider who asked not to be named. "That was the real risk here - that losing this vote would mean any sort of socialist principles for Labour were shelved for a generation."

    Ever since the days of New Labour - who, under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown's leadership, spent 13 years in power - came to an abrupt halt after the election defeat of 2010, the party has been soul-searching. This intensified after Corbyn's shock victory in 2015's leadership contest; Corbyn was the representative of the Campaign Group, a small wing within the party seen as an arcane irrelevance throughout the Blair years. Despite decades in parliament, Corbyn had never held a frontbench position. His shock win was a drastic swing of the pendulum of power from one faction of the Labour Party to the other. It kicked off months of vicious in-fighting.

    In September 2015, Corbyn addressed the Labour Party conference as leader for the first time. He criticised austerity, defended the welfare state, and stressed "Labour values". Reaching out to Scottish voters, he said: "I know you feel we have lost our way. I agree with you."

    Not for the first or last time, he was reckoning with Labour's legacy. He and his close associates have often described their project as a return to traditional Labour, real Labour, old Labour. It is an appealing narrative. The New Labour project was frequently portrayed - not least by those on the often marginalised left-wing of the party - as a betrayal of Labour's core vales.

    But competing claims on ownership of Labour's history are nothing new, and the tension between revisionists such as Blair and socialists such as Corbyn has long roots. What can the party's history tell us about its current predicament?

    READ MORE: The roots of Jeremy Corbyn's support

    Labour and unions

    The Labour Representation Committee was formed in 1900, borne out of the trade union movement. Socialist groups did have a role, but were by no means the loudest voices - many members simply wanted trade unions to be able to operate unencumbered. It elected two MPs that first year, and 29 in 1906. After this, it changed its name to the Labour Party.

    It was 1922, after World War I, when Labour won enough seats to displace the Liberals as the main opposition party. Until this point, the party had been leaderless, preferring majority decisions, but now it selected its first leader, Ramsay MacDonald. The party formed brief minority governments in the 1920s and joined Winston Churchill's wartime coalition during World War II. It won its first majority in 1945.

    I'd conceive of the Labour Party as a messy grassroots organisation, partly because of the role of the trade unions...

    Charlotte Riley, history lecturer at the University of Southampton

    For its first 100 years, Labour's spells in national government were sporadic. But its dominance of the British left was near total. Since the 1920s, there hasn't been any serious threat to Labour as the dominant progressive political organisation.

    From the outset, it incorporated many views. "Labour has to be a broad church if people on the far left want to have any chance of electoral success and if people in the centre want to be able to vote for an alternative to the Conservatives," says Charlotte Riley, a history lecturer at the University of Southampton.

    Today, affiliated trade unions pay an annual fee to the Labour Party. In return, their members have certain rights - they can vote in leadership elections and at the party conference. "I'd conceive of the Labour Party as a messy grassroots organisation, partly because of the role of the trade unions - which means the leader of Labour can never have full message control," Riley explains. "Traditionally the Conservatives have been much better at message discipline."

    In 1945, after the war ended, Labour won by a landslide. Much like Corbyn today, Clement Attlee was not seen as a man with leadership qualities; Churchill described him as "a sheep in sheep’s clothing".

    Nonetheless, the party implemented sweeping social changes that would go on to set the political agenda in the UK for a decade. Aneurin Bevan, the fiery Welsh orator, was minister of health, and founded the National Health Service (NHS).

    Despite Labour's successes in reshaping the British state during this parliament, it was defeated in elections in 1951, 1955, and 1959, and was out of office for 13 years. In debates echoed today, there was soul-searching about whether it would ever win an election again.

    It did return to power under Harold Wilson in 1964. He remained prime minister until 1970, and the party formed a minority government under James Callaghan in 1974. By this time, Labour was increasingly seen as chaotic. When Margaret Thatcher swept to a landslide victory in 1979, it kickstarted another long period in opposition.

    Despite the brevity of Atlee's government, it has taken on a near-mythic quality for Labour activists: an emblematic sign of what Labour should stand for. Free healthcare, education for all, welfare support and workers' rights. When people talk of a return to "old Labour", they are usually referring to this.

    READ MORE: Labour's Corbyn launches manifesto 'for the many'

    The 'wilderness years'

    In 1983, after Thatcher's first term, Jeremy Corbyn, a 34-year-old local councillor and trade union official, stood for parliament in the safe Labour seat of Islington North. He advocated reversing spending cuts, increasing benefits, and called for the UK to leave the group that would later become the European Union. "This election is vital," read one of his leaflets. "We are faced with the most callous government since the Thirties; they have created unemployment to frighten people. There is an alternative - and a Labour government can provide it. In place of fear, we offer hope."

    Corbyn's platform as a first-time MP in 1983 was remarkably similar in many ways to the manifesto he produced as party leader in 2017. He won the seat, which he has retained ever since. That same year in Sedgefield, a young barrister named Tony Blair was elected as an MP for the first time, too. His leaflets cited "Labour's sensible answers" to Thatcher's "misrule".

    The party was led by Michael Foot, a passionate and eloquent left-wing parliamentarian who advocated nationalism, disengagement from the Cold War and nuclear disarmament. When he became leader, he was derided for his dishevelled appearance. His white hair and walking stick were taken as an emblem of a lumbering Labour Party. He was nicknamed Worzel Gummidge, after the fictional scarecrow. Although his 1983 manifesto is described as "the longest suicide note in history", these presentational factors arguably had a bigger impact. Labour suffered a heavy defeat, winning only 209 seats.

    Since Jeremy Corbyn became leader in 2015, a steady flow of politicians and commentators have questioned Labour's viability [Matt Cardy/Gallo/Getty]

    Many have compared Corbyn to Foot. This is a byword for being ineffectual, out of touch, and overly leftist. "If people are comparing Foot to Corbyn, it's an insult, because 1979 to 1997 are characterised as the 'wilderness years' where Labour lost - Thatcher won three stonking majorities, then [John] Major won and he wasn't even that popular," says Oliver Patel, research associate at University College London's European Institute.

    WATCH: The Listening Post - British media's coverage of Corbyn: Balanced or biased? (25:37)

    There are lessons to be learned from 1983. Firstly, packaging is vital: Foot's manifesto has long been derided as absurdly radical, but much of the programme was implemented by Blair after he led the party to victory in 1997. Secondly, perceived problems with leadership can undermine even a popular manifesto - this is certainly a high risk for Labour in 2017. And thirdly, what is happening outside the Labour Party is just as important for electoral outcomes. The 1983 election happened soon after Thatcher led Britain to war in the Falklands, and she was enjoying sky-high popularity ratings. The current turmoil in Britain after the Brexit vote may be comparable.

    During Foot's brief leadership of Labour, the party's periodic battle between centrists and leftists exploded. His leadership was clearly a victory for the left-wing faction, and it was too much for some to bear. In 1981, a group of Labour MPs broke away to form the Social Democratic Party. The four were keen to present themselves as the true heirs to Labour. One of them, Bill Rodgers, said in a speech in November 1979: "From Keir Hardie to Jim Callaghan, our Party … has owed its inspiration to British radicals, trade unionists, cooperators, non-conformists and Christian socialists - not to Marx or Lenin … if our party should abandon or betray those principles, it would be a tragedy."

    Labour party divisions

    Throughout Labour's history, both centrists and leftists have claimed they are the true torch-bearers for the party's legacy. But the reality is that Labour has always been, and promoted itself as, a messy organisation with more than one strand of thought. "It has always included people now castigated as Blairites - revisionists such as Anthony Crosland in the 1950s and 1960s, who argued for Labour modifying its image so as to adapt to modern circumstances," says Matthew Cole, a history lecturer at Birmingham University.

    Today, New Labour's early campaign videos look dated: in one, a group of conspicuously multicultural people dance on the streets while the song Things Can Only Get Better plays. In another, the camera follows the back of a man's head into a voting booth and sees him cross the box for Labour. The man turns around and smiles. It's Tony Blair.

    Former Prime Minister Tony Blair, left, drew the UK into New Labour's largest foreign affairs crisis, the invasion of Iraq in 2003 [Alastair Grant/AP]

    Blair became Labour Party leader in 1994, and enacted quick reforms. He scrapped Clause IV, the party's flagship socialist policy which stated a commitment to public ownership of key industries. This was one of the clearest recent examples of Labour reckoning with its past - and, along with Blair's active courting of the business community and acceptance of market economics, is one reason why he is seen by some as a betrayer of Labour values.

    In the 1997 election campaign, he portrayed the Tories as incompetent and minimised differences in policy in a deliberate effort to appeal to floating voters, and emphasised the competence of his party - and himself. Like Thatcher in 1979, he offered the public a messianic message about national renewal - things can only get better - without quite articulating how.

    It worked. Labour won by a landslide. After 16 years of Conservative rule, it was a euphoric moment. "I think in some ways the 1997 government was more revolutionary and made a bigger impact than the 1945 one," says Riley. Blair implemented sweeping reforms in keeping with the broad Labour values of workers' rights, welfare provision, and education - although he also allowed the finance sector to expand, largely unregulated, and encouraged private money in some areas of public services.

    WATCH: UK TV audience grills Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn ahead of vote (3:06)

    It was the first time that a Labour government had won a clear governing majority since Harold Wilson in 1966 - and Blair went on to win two more elections. "At no other time [than 2001] has the Labour Party secured such a huge majority again after serving nearly a full term in office," says Cole. "Blair was in a really powerful position and had the opportunity to be more radical."

    This euphoria ended abruptly after Blair led the UK into war with Iraq in 2003. A million people marched against it in London. But it went ahead. This would eventually poison Blair's legacy to such an extent that now, within the Labour Party, the term "Blairite" is to many an insult - despite the fact that of the five times that Labour has ever held a clear majority, three were under Blair.

    Throughout this period, the centrist faction of Labour was dominant - but internal dissent remained. The Campaign for Labour Democracy, established in 1973 and led by Foot's political mentor and hero Tony Benn, met regularly at the house of founding member Vladimir Derer in Golders Green, north London. This small group of MPs was seen as irrelevant, but they continued to vote against many of Blair's policies. Corbyn was a member, as was now shadow chancellor John McDonnell and now shadow home secretary Diane Abbott.

    Throughout these years, Corbyn's electoral campaign material stressed his personal record in parliament and the wider achievements of Labour. He rarely mentioned Blair, distancing himself from the party leader even before the Iraq War, a small sign of Labour's deep divisions. Today, there is some circularity: numerous local candidates have left Corbyn's name off their leaflets altogether. They have deemed, rightly or wrongly, that his low personal popularity ratings are too great a liability.

    Crisis of confidence

    On April 5, 2017, a group of activists gathered outside the office of the New Statesman, a left-wing magazine, in London. They were from Momentum, the pro-Corbyn campaign group. They were angry about that week's front cover, which read: "Wanted: an opposition". The magazine featured a package of articles criticising Corbyn and the state of the party. The protest illustrated the depth of acrimony between different factions on the left - despite the daily drumming Corbyn receives in the right-wing media, these outlets have not been picketed.

    I hope this election will be something of a watershed, and help swing this battle for the party's soul one way or another and stop some of the vitriol.

    Labour party insider

    Since Corbyn became leader in 2015, a steady flow of politicians and commentators have questioned Labour's viability. It is not difficult to see why; Labour has performed poorly in local elections and by-elections, parliamentary colleagues have spoken out about procedural incompetence in the leaders' office, and Corbyn trails Theresa May in personal popularity. But talk of Labour's demise is almost as old as Labour itself.

    Before World War I, many questioned the purpose and prospects of the party. After 1931, many doubted its future prospects and there was pressure to cooperate with either Liberals or Communists. In the 1950s, academics asked "Must Labour lose?" and there were predictions in the 1970s and 1980s that it was finished. "I tend to think it's just a cycle the Labour Party goes through," says Riley. "The Conservatives don't seem to go through these crises of confidence. But Labour was only in power for 23 out of its first 100 years, so of course they have experience of the wilderness."

    In the summer of 2016, when Corbyn had been leader for less than a year, 172 of his 229 parliamentary colleagues voted no confidence in his leadership. Only 40 supported him (the rest abstained). But in the second leadership contest that followed, he was victorious again. This was down to changes in the method of electing a leader, brought in by his predecessor Ed Miliband, which meant that MPs' votes no longer held more sway than those of ordinary members. This has led to an unprecedented situation, where the leader has been elected by the membership despite not having the support of 80 percent of his colleagues. "The people with whom the leader has regular contact do not elect him," says Cole. This has serious implications for the day-to-day running of political business.

    What the party does next is unclear. Commentators have variously argued that Corbyn's manifesto has renewed the party, or that he is about to lead it into a historic defeat. There is huge enthusiasm among the party's hundreds of thousands of new members - many of whom signed up explicitly to vote for Corbyn in 2015 and 2016. During the current election campaign, there have been door-knocking campaigns in marginal seats organised by Momentum, and Corbyn's rallies across the UK have been attended by tens of thousands.

    But although the polls indicate a closer race than was previously expected, electoral annihilation remains distinctly possible. "I think that Labour will continue, somehow, in some form," says one insider who has opposed Corbyn's leadership. "I hope this election will be something of a watershed, and help swing this battle for the party's soul one way or another and stop some of the vitriol. Britain needs a progressive force more than ever, whatever that looks like."


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