Written by Steven Fielding.
“… for the first time since 1945 a political party with an openly socialist policy has received the support of 8½ million people. … the Labour manifesto commanded the loyalty of millions of voters and a democratic socialist bridgehead has been established from which further advances in public understanding and support can be made. …It is no wonder that the establishment still fears the Labour Party and its ideas so much. For they know that it is the only real challenge to their privileges.”
No, this is not a leaked draft of Jeremy Corbyn’s concession speech, one all the polls suggest he will need to deliver on June 9th. It is an excerpt from a Guardian article written by Tony Benn published within days of Labour’s cataclysmic 1983 defeat. That election – coincidentally held on June 9th – saw the Conservatives win a 144-seat majority and reduced Labour to 27.6 per cent of the vote, just 700,000 ahead of the Social Democratic Party-Liberal Alliance, and to a mere 209 MPs. It was Labour’s worst result since 1935.
Many see the party’s 1983 manifesto – described by Labour MP Gerald Kaufman as ‘the longest suicide note in history’ – as the main cause of the party’s terrible performance. This document was written at the behest of Labour’s hard left of which Benn was figurehead. But as his reaction makes plain, Benn believed the manifesto was an asset. And as recently as 2015, Corbyn – a long-time Benn disciple – described it as ‘a very interesting electoral platform’, blaming defeat on the departure of leading party figures to form the SDP in 1981, the 1982 Falklands War as well as an incompetent Labour machine. He is not alone: Diane Abbott has also refused to concede that the manifesto was in any way responsible for defeat.
At the time Benn could do little to influence Labour’s response to 1983. Having failed to become deputy leader in 1981 and losing his Bristol seat in the Conservative landslide, Benn was ineligible to stand as leader when Michael Foot resigned. Even had he still been an MP it is unlikely Benn would have prevailed as before the election he had started to lose influence as key union leaders became concerned about the party’s dramatic decline in the polls. And Neil Kinnock, elected leader with 71 per cent of votes cast, shared the prevailing view that under the hard left’s sway Labour had lost touch with ordinary peoples’ concerns. Rather than building on the ‘socialist bridgehead’ Kinnock declared ‘never again’ and took the party on a journey that would – eventually and in the face of bitter opposition from Benn, Corbyn and the rest of the hard left – end with New Labour and the 1997 landslide.
While all the polls suggest Labour has narrowed the huge gap in popular support apparently enjoyed by the Conservatives at the start of the campaign none indicate Labour will form the next government. Indeed, most experts predict that in terms of seats in the Commons Corbyn will win about the same as did Foot in 1983.
Do not be surprised if Corbyn and his supporters emulate Benn and fail to accept any responsibility for that. But do expect them to blame Corbyn’s opponents in Labour’s ranks. While no MP has left to create their own party, as did the SDP’s Gang of Four, most backed the 2016 attempt to unseat Corbyn, something John McDonnell has repeatedly claimed decisively harmed Labour in the polls. Also expect to hear complaints about staff at Labour’s HQ, seen by many Corbynites as ‘Blairite’ saboteurs. And, as their predecessors said of the Falklands War, it is also likely Corbynites will point to Brexit for promoting a Conservative-friendly xenophobia amongst voters.
If you imagine Corbyn’s poor personal polling numbers might give his partisans pause for reflection, they will nonetheless argue these were the product of a biased media distorting his image. But they will point to the popularity of many of the policies included in the manifesto and how his own ratings improved during the campaign to suggest Corbyn needs more time to make voters better aware of those policies and to overcome their mistaken impression of him. As evidence they will point to the enthusiasm Corbyn generated at a variety of meetings during the campaign. And they will also call for more time to transform a failing Labour machine into a vibrant social movement based around Momentum. Leader for less than twenty-four months, Corbyn’s supporters will undoubtedly plead for Jeremy to be given a few more years to make good the damage done to the party by New Labour. After all, a key Corbynite argument is that since 1997 Labour has been losing votes – about five million, in fact – well before Corbyn became leader.
It took Labour 14 years to win national office after 1983. To do that it went in the opposite direction recommended by the hard left. Those who win in politics do so because they are able to impose their view of reality on others. Responsibility for the 1983 defeat went wider than the hard left, but they made a significant contribution and Kinnock was keen to make sure they became the scapegoat. Being in possession of the leadership, Corbyn is much better placed to define how the 2017 defeat will be interpreted than was Benn in 1983. He will do his best to cast the blame as far away from himself as is possible, and ensure Labour does not make what he undoubtedly considers to be the same mistake twice.
We have a fair idea what those Labour MPs who will likely be returned to the Commons will think of that argument. Many will seek to place all the blame on Corbyn personally and ask why he was not able to do much better against Theresa May, who proved to be an appalling campaigner whose ‘Dementia Tax’, presented Labour with an open goal. What we do not know is how party members and those trade union general secretaries who have hitherto given Corby unqualified support will react; and it is on their response that the future of the Labour leader and the direction of the party ultimately depends.
Steven Fielding is a Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham. Image credit: Screencap/Youtube