Looking back 40 years, Labour has only came to power by rejecting its core principles. Until now, writes JOE GILL
IN 1976, when I was eight, my father Ken, then a trade union leader, introduced me to a man he said was going to be the next prime minister. It was Michael Foot, at that point standing for the Labour leadership following Harold Wilson’s resignation. He lost to Jim Callaghan, who then lost the 1979 election. It was one of my earliest political memories.
During the ’79 election, which brought Thatcher to power, I attempted to rally my fellow pupils against our Tory teachers. I was on a school trip on the Isle of Wight on the night of the election, and remember listening from the dormitory as our teachers clapped when the results came in.
In my lifetime I can recall nine general elections before this one, of which Labour lost the first four and won the next three. Then the losing streak returned. Being a Labour supporter is like being a fan of a second-league football club. You cherish your victories but you don’t expect them. (Like most premier clubs, Labour was taken over by corporate powers in the 1990s until the surprise revolt of the members in 2015 put a left-wing Arsenal fan in charge.)
In these heady days of the surprise 2017 election, it is extraordinary to think that we could ever be in a situation where the left not only had won Labour’s leadership (twice), but is giving the Tories a genuine run for their money in an election. A week is a long time in politics — and so is a day, as this campaign has proven with the horrors of Manchester and now London.
For those who are old enough to remember, it was 34 years ago when Labour last went to the polls with an avowedly left-wing offering. I remember that grim campaign, which was led valiantly by Michael Foot but never looked like changing the rightwing weather of 1983 post-Falklands Britain. After Labour’s mauling in that poll, political logic insisted that only by moving rightward would the party again win back support from middle England.
In defiance of that longstanding truism, the 1983 defeat could also be put down to the breakaway of the SDP, which fatally split the anti-Tory vote. There was also the Falklands war, which transformed an unpopular prime minister into a triumphant war leader.
Thatcher’s third decisive victory in 1987 came amid the Lawson boom, and the heady days of full-throated I’m-alright-Jack-ism following the defeat of the miners and the printers in the decade’s two great strikes. There was no going back to the years of union power and solidarity. Capitalism blue in tooth and claw was the new order of the day.
The worst of all elections was 1992 when, after three defeats, it seemed that victory was in sight. After all, we’d had the poll tax riots, another recession, and the removal of Thatcher on a memorably joyous November day in 1990.
Even with a Welshman filmed tripping over on the beach with a capacity for verbiage in place of a backbone, no-one anticipated the dreadful morning of April 10 when, once again, from the jaws of victory we snatched defeat.
Then came Blair and the New Labour years. For those on the left of the party, Blair was always a Johnny-come-lately with an untrustworthy smile and a dismissive view of Labour’s history. His rewriting of the party constitution to remove mention of common ownership and his meetings with Thatcher and Murdoch confirmed that he was not one of us. He was an imposter, stealing the clothes of the party and adding the anodyne “New” to a down-at-luck brand. It was like changing Marathon to Snickers — an Americanisation of an ancient British household name — and a terrible insult to decades of shared values in naked pursuit of votes.
That all said, 1997 marked the end of an 18-year-long night, one that had consumed my entire youth. I was 11 when Thatcher defeated Jim Callaghan in the bitter year of 1979. I was 30 when that Tory era ended.
Back at the end of the ’70s my parents’ generation of socialists and trade unionists saw the Thatcher phenomenon as one that could not last. After all, mass unemployment had been made unacceptable during the post-war years and the British people would never put up with that for long.
Oh how wrong they were. Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm wrote his prescient article “The Forward March of Labour Halted?” in 1977.
Here we are 40 years later and remarkably the retreat of labour, the party and also the movement, has never truly been reversed. The New Labour years were a triumph of Thatcherism — as the lady said herself. The Britain she created, in which economic inequality, insecure employment, and hard times for those on benefits, was never challenged by Labour’s leaders post-1992. While 1997 came as a great relief, Blair was never going to give us socialism, and the subsequent 2001 and 2005 elections are barely memorable, other than for the cartoonish leaders the Tories had at the time.
Blair was finally pushed out in 2007 after laying waste to the Middle East. Then came the Great Crash and the “bigoted woman” election that Gordon Brown lost to David Cameron. How ungrateful they were for Brown’s rescue of capitalism.
When Brown protege Ed Miliband went down to ignominious defeat in 2015 after tilting ever so slightly to the left, the Blairites were waiting in the wings to bring the party back to the tried and tested methods of their guru: mirroring the right on migration and terror, triangulation, market-friendly reforms.
But then the unexpected happened. Miliband’s secret grenade for insurgent left-wing forces was his new one-member one-vote electoral system — ironically the very voting system the unions had spent decades opposing in the belief it would entrench the Labour right. Who could have known that a new kind of Labour supporter would flood into the party and seize it for the left under Corbyn?
So here we are. A moment myself and so many others on the left thought never again possible.
Are we in the last days of British neoliberalism and will Corbyn deliver the fatal blow to this beast that has sat astride us for so long and remade us as a nation of reluctant capitalists? We shall soon see.