Saturday, September 12, 2015

has the other foot dropped?

In all the talk I've seen about the Labour Party (UK) and its leadership election, one question that seems to me a screamingly obvious one to ask has hardly been brought up at all: to what extent does the booming of Jeremy Corbyn's candidacy, now culminated with his election, resemble the election of Michael Foot as party leader in 1980? On this unanswered question hangs what my reaction to it will be.

None of the news analysis pieces I've seen addresses this question at all. British friends whom I've asked about it focus on the simple fact that Corbyn is not Foot, and seem unable to address the broader question of similarity. The only thing I've seen that deals with the question is an opinion piece by a Corbyn supporter arguing that Labour's decisive turn to the left in the late 70s and early 80s had nothing to do with the party's crashing loss in the 1983 election, but the piece draws no parallels, and its facts are so erroneous, its viewpoint so strongly one-sided, and its conclusion so ludicrous that I can't give it any credit.

There are some remarkable similarities between the situations. Both elections followed a roughly 20-year period during which the party had leaned to its right side, featuring periods in government (1966-70 and 1974-9; 1997-2010) which had their successes but which were ended by fairly tight but embarrassing election defeats under establishment-candidate fag-end prime ministers (Jim Callaghan, Gordon Brown) who'd never led the party to victory and seemed to lack the knack.

Then - after Callaghan stayed leader for a year in 1980, and after the Ed Miliband interval and another even more dismaying general election loss in 2015 - the party elected what in some respects was the same character: a long-time left-wing back-bench gadfly, a fervent self-declared socialist, rumpled and gaunt and white-haired, devoid of pomposity or slickness, 66-67 years old [yes, Foot then and Corbyn now are almost exactly the same age], and personally well-liked across the party but considered as appalling a choice as leader by his opponents as he was eagerly celebrated by his supporters.

Despite the choice of a more right-wing figure as deputy leader (one more similarity between the two situations), Labour after 1980 turned even more decisively to the socialist left, and it was a hard, authoritarian left, not a warm, civil-libertarian one. Some of the leading right-wing figures of the 1974-9 government, shouted down at Labour conferences and otherwise feeling hounded out of the party, decamped altogether and set up a new party, the Social Democrats. That presentation of an alternative, plus Conservative PM Margaret Thatcher's newfound popularity (her first since taking office) after the Falklands War, and an extreme Labour manifesto (calling for unilateral nuclear disarmament and withdrawal from the EU) dubbed by one party wag "the longest suicide note in history," led to a crashing defeat in the 1983 election, with Labour barely scraping to second place in the vote and losing many seats.

Foot immediately resigned, and Neil Kinnock was elected leader: another left-wing back-bench gadfly, but one who used these credentials as standing to criticize the authoritarian excesses of the left. The fact that he lost both the elections that he stood as leader in is sometimes held against Kinnock, and he's considered a traitor by many on the left, but he did begin a rebuilding process which improved the party's standings greatly, made it able to pick up the pieces when the Conservatives crumbled in 1997, and went far enough rightward that there's meaningful truth in the observation that "Tony Blair, M.P." anagrams as "I'm Tory Plan B." And the cycle continued revolving. (I could have made the parallel stronger by bringing up the Bevanite rebellion of 1951 which kicked off the previous cycle, but enough.)

There are, however, differences between 1980 and today. Least important is that Foot, unlike Corbyn, actually served in government office. After an entire career on the back benches, he accepted posts in the 1974-9 government. But he never compromised - he acted as much of a left-wing gadfly in Whitehall as he ever did in his insurgent speeches - and the difference is due less to any distinction between Foot and Corbyn than to the different strategies of Harold Wilson - the PM who appointed Foot - and Tony Blair. Blair was a right-wing authoritarian who crushed the left, while Wilson was so dedicated to mollifying all sides that twistiness and squirming, tacking to this side and then that, defined his political personality. Blair would never have appointed Foot any more than he did Corbyn, while Wilson would have tried his best to sweet-talk Corbyn into office as he did with Foot.

A far bigger difference lies in the different nature of the election. Foot was the last Labour leader elected by a vote of MPs only. (The theory was that the leader was only the chairman of the MPs - once true but long ceased to be credible - and so should be chosen by those who served under him.) The MPs as a whole were not much more leftist then than they are now, but they were under extreme pressure from militant constituency parties, which threatened and often carried out deselection of MPs who followed their own will and not the militants', and the labour unions, which provided support and funding for the party. Also a few right-wingers voted for Foot out of exasperation, wishing to bring the conflict out in the open.

Today's constituency parties and unions appear, as far as I can tell, to be less militant, and in any case the election procedure has changed, and is now open to anyone willing to pay £3 to join the party. Corbyn seems to have won on a wave of enthusiasm from previously disaffected and apathetic people who've signed up in new hope. That gives a positive vibe that I didn't feel in 1980, which felt more like a purge.

There's also the fact that Foot, though one of the most brilliant intellectuals in British politics and warmly loved personally, came across in media coverage as a political loony of a kind that doesn't seem to stick when the same charges are made of Corbyn. I have no idea whether these two differences are just perceptual and tactical, or if there's a real divergence here. The problem I have in finding out is that the people willing to tell me how wonderful Corbyn is also think that Foot was equally wonderful. Such a person can't tell me the difference any more than a person who thinks that run-of-the-mill SF is terrific can be trusted to point out the masterworks of the field. (Except by reporting other people's consensus, and in the political case these folks distrust the consensus as media-generated.)

One thing I don't know is how closely the political positions of Corbyn and his supporters map on to those of Foot and the militants of times past. Like Foot, Corbyn is a unilateralist; but he seems less apocalyptic about it: yet that may be because the Cold War was still on then but is over now. Like Foot, Corbyn distrusts the EU, but he seems less dogmatic about wanting to leave it. Is Corbyn an authoritarian who wants to build a utopia by fiat, or is he a lover of organically-grown equality who wants to grow it through civil freedom (not the same thing as the spurious concept of "economic freedom")? I can't really tell.

The next critical step is Corbyn's appointment of a shadow cabinet. Though no fudger like Wilson, Foot appointed as many of the prominent right-wingers to spokesmanships as he could get to serve under him. (Many would not, and decamped to the Social Democrats.) The idea was to reconcile them to his leadership. Today as many right-wingers are declining to serve under the new leader as were then, though they're making no noise about leaving, at least not yet. Will Corbyn be able to find any to serve? Will he want to? For all of Foot's gadfly status, he had a sense of how politics was played that seems anathema to Corbyn, who rejects the metaphor of a game.

It will take some time to find out how this will play out. If Corbyn is another Foot, all we can look for at the next election is another 1983, or at best a vacuum like 2005, a weird election in which the voters rejected all the parties. But he could be just the rejuvenating figure a tired party that's lost its way needs.

No comments:

Post a Comment