What a fool I’ve been.
I seem to have spent a fair proportion of the past year debating with supporters of Jeremy Corbyn online.
It’s time I’ll never get back. But because I care about the Labour Party, I just can’t help myself.
As I’ve said in previous posts, the Corbynistas are the oddest collection of people, who defend their cause with a religious fervour. They are frequently bombastic and blinkered, often rude and rambunctious and, very occasionally, soppy and sentimental.
But sadly, one fairly common trait is a very muddled sense of history.
Many people who spent recent years slagging off the Labour Party are now members of it and claiming disingenuously to have its best interests at heart. And quite a few don’t really seem to know very much about previous Labour governments.
We realise, of course, that the name Blair is synonymous from their point of view with ‘war criminal’. I’m not going to get into the ins and outs of the Iraq issue here. Chilcot – remember him? – knocked together 2.6 million words on the subject.
I’m more struck by some of the ignorance about Wilson and Callaghan.
I sense that many of the new members and registered supporters of Labour only have the vaguest notion that the progressive governments of the 1960s and 1970s ever existed.
And if pressed for an administration in which they can show pride, they return to 1945. Even the three-quid brigade of budget interlopers have heard of Attlee, although a number of the people who reference him can’t spell his name.
It’s worth pausing for a moment to reflect on this obsession with the 1940s.
The last government these people believe did anything positive for working people came to power over seven decades ago. Bizarrely, it seems to be the reference point for leadership challenger Owen Smith too.
According to John Bew of King’s College London, Corbyn’s claim to be the natural heir to Attlee is tenuous to say the least. The academic’s excellent article in the New Statesman last year explains how the post-war Prime Minister detested the ‘faddish radicalism’ that the current Labour leader represents.
Bew reminds us that the 1945 administration was not only responsible for the NHS and the creation of the modern welfare state, but also presided over severe austerity and wage freezes – the stuff of nightmares for any ordained Jezuit. And that’s before we even consider the question of defence and the UK’s nuclear capability, which was first approved during the Attlee years.
So when Jez’s supporters talk of their politics being an extension of timeless Labour principles, they are actually being highly misleading. The philosophy of the Islington North MP is actually quite distinct from the mainstream of the Labour Party, with its particular emphasis on protest, pacifism, liberation politics and extra-parliamentary action.
This particular ideological strand was bubbling away in the 1970s in local government and exploded onto the main political stage during the first years of Margaret Thatcher’s administration. It is actually what became popularly known during the 1980s as the politics of the ‘loony left’ – a phrase we hear mentioned rather less today, perhaps because of understandable concerns over its political incorrectness.
To me, the connection between what’s happening today and the events of the early 1980s are glaringly obvious. That’s because it was the experimental and radical policies of these urban leftists that first attracted me to the Labour Party and protest movements as a young teenager.
At the age of 14 or 15, my hero was one Ken Livingstone – the man who notoriously staged a ‘palace coup’ within the ruling Labour group of the Greater London Council in 1981 and proceeded to become a serious thorn in the side of both Tory and Labour leaders alike. He championed cheap fares on the buses and tubes and challenged the Tories over policing in an era of disaffection and riots. He even turned London into a so-called ‘nuclear free zone’.
In many respects, I was the equivalent of today’s typical young, idealistic Corbynista. I looked for radical change in a bitterly divided and unequal society and liked what I saw at the GLC.
I wasn’t connected with one of the hard-left factions such as Labour Briefing, which had been instrumental in organising activists in constituency parties. I was involved after the event: a hanger-on, with a strong commitment to single issues such as nuclear disarmament and the campaign against Apartheid in South Africa.
My drift away from this type of protest politics was a gradual and natural process throughout the 80s. By the latter half of the decade, I was involved in the National Union of Students and I saw the disruption and perpetual agitation of Trotskyists and fellow travellers, which is enough to make anyone weep.
Critically, I also saw Labour lose elections very badly.
The allure of the left was fast disappearing for me and I found myself becoming more pragmatic and more desperate than ever for a victory over the Conservatives. After the sickening defeat in 1992 to John Major, when I was chairing Frank Dobson’s Constituency Labour Party in inner London, I was already at a point where I would have embraced the politics of Tony Blair.
I recount this history to set a context.
Corbyn’s politics are not old, as they didn’t really exist before the 1970s. But they’re most certainly not new. In parallel with Tony Benn’s battle for the Deputy Leadership of the Labour Party at the start of the 1980s, they began to permeate the structures of branches and constituencies. They became dominant in a number of town halls, particularly in London, causing the national Labour leadership great embarrassment.
Embattled Labour Leader Michael Foot was drawn into a near-impossible dispute in the Bermondsey by-election of 1983, when he was challenged to disown Labour’s candidate Peter Tatchell – best known today for his advocacy of LGBT rights. The would-be MP was to be the victim of a scurrilous campaign by the Liberal/SDP Alliance and faced a torrent of abuse for his sexuality. But at the time, he was also someone who epitomised the new, radical urban left and its distinct policy agenda.
Here’s how Tatchell describes his pitch to the party selection meeting in his book, ‘The Battle For Bermondsey’:
“I emphasised the importance of extra-parliamentary struggle to carry out a left-wing programme which included withdrawal from the EEC and NATO, troops out of Ireland, extended public ownership under workers’ control, a 35-hour week and an £80 national minimum wage, opposition to nuclear power, abolition of the House of Lords and private medicine, democratic control of the police, positive action for women and ethnic minorities, repeal of racist immigration laws, unilateral nuclear disarmament and its replacement by a system of territorial defence with a citizens’ army, and a new international economic order to secure development and justice for the exploited poor countries of the world.”
This would have been the type of programme that Corbyn would happily have endorsed in the same period, as candidate for Islington North. To be honest, he would still accept much of it today, although if we were very lucky, he might couch the odd phrase or two a little more diplomatically.
The point is there is a clear thread that runs directly from this strand of political thinking at the beginning of the 1980s right through to 2016.
Neil Kinnock, who took over as Labour Leader after Michael Foot’s defeat in the 1983 general election, is best known for facing down the Trotskyist Militant Tendency – an organised workerist movement with its own parallel structures, which had a policy of direct infiltration of Labour and trade union branches.
But Kinnock had a hard time all round.
He also had to grapple with the old-style Communist politics of miners’ leader Arthur Scargill, whose centre of gravity was closer to the Soviet Union. And what is less well remembered is that the Welshman was also locked in a battle with the ‘trendy’ metropolitan left and its much parodied ‘loony’ policies.
No issue at this time was more sensitive than that of Northern Ireland. The Republican bombing campaign in mainland Britain was a constant topic of conversation.
In an article in The Times in December 1984, Anne Sofer – a GLC Member who defected from Labour to the SDP – asked whether Kinnock ever read the Labour Briefing publication. Her question was prompted by the content of the paper in the aftermath of the bombing of the Tory Party conference some three months earlier.
While she acknowledges that the Briefing editorial board did admit to being ‘stunned’ by the atrocity and offered their sympathy for the ‘dead and their kin’, she also quotes them as running a headline on their editorial which read: ‘Get Thatcher’s Terrorist Troops Out Of Ireland’.
The paper said that it ‘refused to parrot the ritual condemnation of violence’ and further argued that it was ‘important to harness the murderous conflicts which we find all around us as creatively as we can’.
The following month, in the letters page, readers showed no alarm at these quotes. Far from it. They expressed concern that the paper had gone soft.
‘I wasn’t aware you borrowed editorials from The Daily Telegraph’, wrote one correspondent. Another justified the bombing on the grounds that it ‘tore into the ruling class and only them’.
Yes, these were the leftist trolls of the early 1980s. Unable to access social media, they had to resort to old-style pen and paper. They couldn’t see the impact of their words in an instant, but had to wait a month for a photocopying machine to whir into action. We can only be grateful there were no retweets. Their words are preserved in Sofer’s book, ‘The London Left Takeover’.
I visited Brighton within a week of the Tory Party conference in 1984 and saw at first hand the devastation wrought on the Grand Hotel. I was shocked. But someone in Briefing wrote: ‘Is it legitimate for anti-imperialist guerrilla army to attempt to wipe out the Cabinet of the oppressor nation?’
The clash between this political culture and the one Kinnock was trying to build in the Labour Party nationally was enormous.
In the second half of this two-part post, I’ll highlight some more of the issues, conflicts and personalities that shaped Labour politics in the 1980s – many of which still have profound resonance on the battle for the soul of the party today.