I have been trying to write something on the Labour leadership election for a while now but keep getting put off. Rather than look at the election itself it might be interesting to look at two of the supposed truisms with surround the election and specifically Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign: that Corbyn as Labour leader would be unelectable and that only a Blairite Labour position can win a UK general election.
The standard view is that Corbyn is unelectable. He is repeatedly compared with the other unelectable Labour leader: Michael Foot. Foot has become a bye word in political circles for unelectablility: the Donkey Jacket wearing, elderly, slightly long haired socialist intellectual who looked like Worsel Gummidge (that will take some of you back).
In reality much of that is true and Foot may well have been close to unelectable but not completely unelectable. He campaigned for leaving NATO and unilateral nuclear disarmament which whilst then not as completely outwith the mainstream as they would be now were still very major vote losers. Some of his other views were, however, a bit less extreme than they seem today. His support for renationalisation was not that odd a position as the extensive nationalisation of British industry after the war was in those days still generally regarded positively. Although British Industry had huge problems in the 1970s and 1980s it did not afflict only nationalised industries.
Foot’s support for leaving Europe was also far from bizarre. It was a minority position but a large minority position: only later did it become the province of the very odd before coming back to being again a respectable if minority position today.
The joke hair and odd clothes were also not that ridiculous for the time. Quite simply men had longer hair in the 1970s and 1980s: obvious fact but should be mentioned when one regards Foot as bizarre. Politicians were also then often a bit older than they are now. His wearing a donkey jacket is also inaccurate. He actually wore what was more a duffle coat at the cenotaph: duffle coats having been introduced by the Royal Navy for wearing on the open decks of warships; hardly insulting to the war dead. Indeed apparently the Queen Mother complemented him on wearing a sensible coat considering how cold it was (and Foot was far from a young man at that time).
Foot was also no pacifist: in 1940 he cowrote “The Guilty men” denouncing Baldwin and Chamberlain’s appeasement policies – his chronic asthma prevented him from joining the forces during the war. When the Falklands were invaded he supported Thatcher in trying to regain the islands whilst Peter Shore his shadow foreign secretary was instrumental some months earlier in stopping the Thatcher government ceding joint sovereignty of the islands against the islanders wishes.
The Falklands though was the defining reason for Foot’s defeat. In the depths of the 1980-1 recession Labour was well ahead of the Tories in the opinion polls. This was destroyed by three factors: the Labour split to form the SDP; the improving economy and the Falklands War. Whilst the improving economy might have helped Thatcher the Labour split and even more so the war finished him. He can maybe be partially blamed for the Labour / SDP split (though others on both sides were more at fault) but the other two were outwith his control.
The fundamental point though is that Foot’s unelectability is to a significant extent a post hoc analysis. Had the economy not improved, had the Labour Party not split and most fundamentally had the war not been fought he might have won. Had the Excoets found their real marks and immobilised HMS Hermes and HMS Invincible (one Exocet would have been unlikely to sink even a small carrier) Foot might well have been elected.
The other truism is the converse one namely that Labour can only win from the centre with a Blairite agenda.
Again that is only a half truth. Firstly Neil Kinnock might well have beaten Thatcher in 1992: Major was one of the few party leaders truly to win an election against all expectations. That though is an issue for another time.
Blair won in 1997 on a platform significantly less to the right than he subsequently governed on: indeed his gradual drift to the right was very marked.
It is undoubtedly true that he dropped Clause 4 whilst in opposition but equally he won on a manifesto which supported a minimum wage when all and sundry were saying it would cost jobs; had a windfall tax on companies and was going to phase out nuclear power. Finally and most ironically in view of what was to follow was the “Ethical Foreign Policy” – denounced by all sorts of foreign policy experts as daft leftism. There was in the early days no talk of academies, partial privatisation of NHS provision, certainly no invasions of foreign countries at the USA’s behest.
As such although far from a left wing agenda Blair and New Labour were elected and governed initially on a much more left of centre agenda than they later adopted.
Much more important than that in terms of thinking about Labour and Jeremy Corbyn is that if Labour was unelectable in 1983 then they were practically undefeatable in 1997. By that stage the Tories, having been in power for approaching two decades were utterly exhausted, riven with spits and their one time electoral saviour Major was pilloried by many in his own party.
Furthermore had the election been called in 1994 John Smith an old fashioned right of centre Labour (ie well left of current New Labour) politician would very likely have become Prime Minister. Indeed one might argue that had Bryan Gould beaten John Smith in the 1992 leadership election we would have had a PM to the left not only of Blair but also of Smith for approaching a decade.
The above is not in any way meant to be exhaustive. The point is, however, that there is a strong tendency in recent political analysis even more so than in real history (not disparaging analysis but it is usually too simplistic and too deterministic) to assume that whatever happened was the only thing that could have happened. It is indeed the only thing that did happen but saying that it was always inevitable and nothing different could have been envisaged is simply inaccurate.
Jeremy Corbyn might appear unelectable as Prime Minister now. If he is elected as Labour leader (personally I suspect the chances are 50% or less) and loses everyone will say “I told you so” and whilst I agree his election as leader would reduce the chance of a Labour victory: it does not make it impossible. The right set of good fortune for him and the wrong set of fortune for his opponents could make the inconceivable perfectly possible:
To quote Ecclesiastes: I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.