Historians tells us to learn from the mistakes of the past. Every repetition of that bromide covers up how selectively we see the past.
In 1983 the Labour Party limped in second place at the general election, ruined in part by a swathe of its right breaking away to form what would later become the Liberal Democrats and with a further spanner thrown in the works by the Falklands War.
In 1987 and 1992 Labour shifted rightwards. It still lost.
In 1997 the Labour Party won against a Conservative Party that had let hospitals rot, drowned in sleaze scandals and was led by very old, very tired men.
In 2001 and 2005 New Labour returned. But somehow, well before the economic crisis hit, it had transformed its 1997 lead into fewer votes than Neil Kinnock’s Labour lost with in 1992.
In 2010 New Labour lost.
In 2015 watered-down New Labour lost, as it tacked into the wind with some bold, left-wing populist pledges that were ruined by incoherence. Miliband’s Labour wanted to have their cake and eat it - shore up their collapsing working-class core vote with some spending commitments whilst continuing to impose austerity sufficient to satisfy Tory notions of economic credibility.
But conventional wisdom says that you only ever lose by being ‘too left-wing.’
Historians lie. So do politicians. This isn’t 1983, 1997, 2010, or 2015. This is…
Like a revenant shambling up from the deep, former Blair policy adviser John McTernan returns fresh from trashing the electoral hopes of Scottish Labour and Australian Labour to tell us anyone who doesn’t do things his way is a ‘moron.’
‘Who cares about the grassroots?’ he says. But if you can’t trust your own members, then how can you ever trust the electorate?
We should care about the grassroots. The grassroots are the thousands packing lecture halls and hotel conference rooms to see ‘Jez’ speak. The Greek left’s icon might be a macho man with a penchant for ostentatious shirts, a clean-shaven skull, leather jackets and motorbikes and ours might be an old man who likes beige and trains, but ‘Jez’ still has teenagers scaling buildings to look through windows and hear him speak.
There’s always been a suspicion of ‘the mob.’ The crowd is unreasonable, and must be restrained by sober men in suits who can discuss affairs of state with the gravitas and reason they deserve. So of course, Corbynmania is feared, by every newspaper editorial that howls the lament of its writers: ‘We are the opinion formers! We know what’s best for you! Why won’t you listen to us?’
But the ‘mob’ is too rational and clear-headed to listen. Because it knows that teachers and doctors didn’t cause a banking crisis, it knows that twice as many women as men have been sacked under austerity, it knows that the NHS is being stretched to breaking point and it will not abstain on a welfare cap that charity executives and left-wing leaders concur will shove our children into poverty.
‘Corbynmania’ is an inappropriate description. This is not a disorder, or an obsession with an individual. It is the resolution of bitterness about the present combined with finally, something that gives hope for…
Austerity has been back-loaded. The worst is yet to come. Unless brought to heel by popular movements, the extremists that told us they were elected to ensure sensible economic recovery will unleash a concentrated carpet-bombing of ideology.
Expect well-run public services to be flogged for a quick buck. (cf. Royal Mail and East Coast.) Expect spirits and bodies to be broken by a crippling regime of welfare sanctions (five minutes late because you couldn’t afford the bus fare? Well, now you have no money to put food on your table either. Scrounger.) Expect rent, bills, tuition fees and train fares to go up while wages stagnate for most of us.
A Corbyn-led Labour Party offers an alternative to that and a different argument, not a half-agreement which provides ideological cover and de facto support for the Right. A Corbyn-led Labour Party says that you fight fire with water - austerity with sustainable growth, job losses with job creation, selfishness and despair with compassion and hope.
In May 2020 a generation of left-leaning young people who came of age under austerity will go to the polls. So will an anti-austerity Scottish electorate and the million who voted Green. So might the 30% of people who didn’t vote at the last election. So will those who voted Tory and Ukip last time but are reasonable men and women who can be persuaded by force of principled argument. So will all the people who started to care about politics because of what the politics of 2015 to 2020 have done to them.
Will the historians and politicians of the future still say that being ‘too left wing’ makes you ‘unelectable?’