The headlines write themselves.
‘Watch as Corbyn flushes Labour down the tube!’
The tragedy of the 2017 election is that an election that should be all about Brexit will instead become a referendum on Corbynism. By all rights, the campaign of the next five weeks should focus upon how the United Kingdom will leave the European Union (and the fallout effects for Scotland and Northern Ireland) — not on Corbyn’s socialist platform and the ongoing divisions within Labour or the rudderless leadership that Labour, generally, and Corbyn, in particular, have shown in the aftermath of last June’s Brexit referendum.
No doubt, those divisions and Labour’s weakening support are among the reasons it was so tempting for Conservative prime minister Theresa May to call an early election.
Labour is already precariously close to its 1983 position, when it won just 27.6% of the vote and 209 seats in the House of Commons. Under Ed Miliband in the May 2015 general election, Labour sunk to 30.4% of the vote and 232 seats. Labour now holds just 229 seats in the House of Commons.
If you think that Labour cannot sink below its 1983 levels, though, you’re mistaken.
Even in that landslide defeat for Labour, the party still managed to win 41 seats in Scotland. Today, it holds just one seat in Scotland, and it may lose even that. Conservatives are now in second place in Scotland (in no small part due to the quirky and distinct brand of regional Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson) and maybe even be overtaking Labour in Wales. The latter, in particular, would be a staggering rebuke to Labour, which has won more Welsh votes in every general election since 1918. Tories already hold 11 Welsh seats — their high-water mark from the 1983 election — and a shock YouGov poll over the weekend gave the Tories a double-digit lead of 40% to 30% (an earlier January 2017 YouGov poll gave Labour a 33%-28% edge).
No one knows just how deep Labour’s deficit could become, and there’s still a long way to go until June 8, so Labour could improve (or sink to even lower depths). But the Tories have a clear lead — somewhere between 40% and 50%, while Labour is hovering between 24% and 29%. Voters prefer May as prime minister to Corbyn by an even more lopsided margin of around 50% to 15%. Many leading Labour figures are retiring (including former home secretary Alan Johnson, perhaps the only truly popular figure left from the New Labour era) and others long ago left Westminster, voluntarily or otherwise (Ed Balls, the former shadow chancellor who lost his seat in 2015; David Miliband, the former foreign secretary whose brother pipped him to the Labour leadership in 2010; Andy Burnham, a would-be leader who is now running in the May 4 election to become Manchester’s elected mayor).
Labour is clearly in crisis mode, and the 1983 precedent is apt.
But it’s worth taking a closer look at that 1983 election, and the conditions that led to it, to realize that Labour’s position today may be far worse.
As noted, Labour is already ‘at 1983’ in Wales, and the party is 40 seats behind ‘1983’ in Scotland.
An alliance between the Social Democratic Party, an offshoot of Labour’s right wing, and what (little) was left of the Liberal Party won only 23 seats in 1983. Its successor today, the Liberal Democrats, hold just nine seats. But it’s not uncommon for a party to lose support in the election after serving as a junior partner in government coalition, as the Lib Dems did for five years under David Cameron’s premiership. The Lib Dems can realistically expect to win back one or two dozen of the 49 seats that they lost in the 2015 election. If the party’s inexperienced leader, Tim Farron, can stop sputtering about whether same-sex attraction is a sin and start becoming the universal voice of the anti-Brexit vote, the Lib Dems could return to the 50 or 60 seats they held from 2005 to 2015 — or even more.
The comparisons come easy between the 67-year-old Corbyn, a mild-mannered socialist with little time or patience for slick presentation, and Michael Foot, who as Labour’s leader in 1983, was already 69 years old with a reputation for frump, after appearing in what even a Labour MP at the time ridiculed as a ‘donkey coat’ in a wreath-laying ceremony on Remembrance Day in 1981.
Some historical context is in order.
In the last half of the 1970s, Labour — first under Harold Wilson, then under James Callaghan — presided over a deepening recession (exacerbated by the global oil shocks of the late 1970s) that masked a deeper malaise and an uncompetitive British economy that was struggling under crippling strikes, Northern Irish terrorism and a state-heavy public sector. Margaret Thatcher, having seen off the old-school ‘one-nation’ Toryism of figures like Harold Macmillan and Edward Heath, came to power in 1979 with a mandate to introduce free-market shock therapy to the British economy, beginning what would become an 18-year Conservative epoch that liberalized and deregulated the United Kingdom into a global economic pacesetter, though often in ways that ruptured the social fabric and undermined social welfare.
In the aftermath of Labour’s 1979 loss, Callaghan stuck around for nearly 18 months, hoping to pave the way for a seamless transition to his preferred successor, Denis Healey, who had served for five years as chancellor under both Wilson and Callaghan.
Enter Foot, who had tried (and failed) to win the Labour leadership after Wilson’s 1976 resignation, and who narrowly defeated Healey in 1980 with the support of Labour’s growing left wing. Foot himself was far to the left of Wilson, Callaghan and Healey, and over a long political career that began with his election in 1945, he only warily agreed to join Wilson’s second government in 1974 as employment minister.
By the time Foot won the Labour leadership, however, he was far from the most radical figure in the party. Figures from the ‘Militant Tendency’ and leftist followers of MP Tony Benn were already agitating for a hard turn back to the socialist and trade unionist values under which Labour was founded in 1900. After Roy Jenkins and a handful of centrist Labour figures left the party in 1981 to form the SDP, Benn even challenged Healey (who served dutifully as Foot’s deputy through the 1983 debacle) for the deputy leadership — and Benn nearly won, much to Foot’s dismay. Like Miliband between 2010 and 2015, Foot became something of a ‘soft left’ figure who hoped to unify his party’s hard-left ‘Bennite’ wing and its moderates.
He failed. In retrospect, perhaps Foot never had a chance.
Thatcher was at her zenith, fresh off a victory in the Falklands War that seemed to rally a country long since deprived of its beloved empire and struggling through a bleak economy whose GDP would, by mid-decade, fall temporarily behind Italy’s. Running on an irredeemably left-wing platform that Labour MP Gerald Kaufman called ‘the longest suicide note in history,’ rife with pledges to hike taxes on the wealthy, leave the European Union’s predecessor (back when Labour, not the Tories, were the anti-Europe party), re-nationalize the aviation, shipping and telecommunication industries and work to achieve unilateral nuclear disarmament.
As in 1983, Corbyn-era Labour has a manifesto that is perhaps even more radical, with promises of sharp tax increases on the wealthy. It comes under the leadership of a man who valiantly stood against British participation in the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and whose personal integrity is as high as anyone’s in public life, but who has also questioned nuclear deterrence, campaigned for the leadership on a ‘people’s quantitative easing’ pledge that undermines central bank independence, once himself opposed British EU membership, has soft-pedaled anti-Semitism accusations within Labour’s ranks and whose critics believe he did far too little to stop Brexit last summer.
It was a disaster, and Labour fell 52 seats from its 1979 defeat.
The aftermath of the 1983 was even bleaker. Foot (and Healy) immediately resigned. Ironically, Benn lost his own seat, though he returned to Parliament in a 1984 by-election. One of Benn’s most ardent protégés, however, did win election for the first time in 1983 — a young Jeremy Corbyn, who immediately joined the Labour backbenches, where he would remain (through the modernizations of the next three decades) until his implausible leadership election in 2015. So it’s especially relevant today that Corbyn began his political career on the Bennite wing of the party, which even in 1983, was considerably left of Foot, a leader viewed as so toxically leftist that he notched Labour’s worst postwar result. Corbyn’s leadership, therefore, completes a journey that the Bennites in the 1970s and 1980s never dreamed they might achieve (Benn’s 1981 scare came only in a contest for the deputy leadership), and it’s an outcome that seemed unthinkable under Blairite New Labour in the 1990s and 2000s.
Indeed, Corbyn’s defenders agree that he’s no Michael Foot — they believe his bold approach in an era of disillusion with markets and capitalism can succeed where the middle-ground Foot failed to defend a washed-up vision of Keynesian economics.
For a decade after 1983, the more moderate Neil Kinnock led a project to modernize Labour in a world that long ago left behind the socialism of 1950s-era and 1960s-era Labour. But he lost the 1987 election to Thatcher and, unexpectedly, the 1992 election to John Major. That (and John Smith’s untimely death in 1994) ultimately paved the way for Tony Blair’s ascension to the leadership, beginning a project of recasting the party as ‘New Labour,’ revising the long-symbolic language of the Labour Party constitution’s Clause IV and dragging the party to a ‘third-way’ middle ground between Thatcher-style conservatism and ‘old Labour.’ It took fully 14 years to claw back to power from the 1983 debacle, 18 years from Labour’s initial 1979 defeat.
Blair’s effort worked, and he won the greatest Labour landslide in British electoral history, reducing the Tories to a caucus of just 165 seats. Labour is now in danger of the same level of annihilation — a caucus in the 160s isn’t out of the question.
Blair is reviled today, with good reason, as George W. Bush’s poodle, a glittery grifter without ideological anchor who joined a fool’s errand in the Middle East. Corbyn’s allies believe he is a war criminal, and there’s no doubt that Blair has pursued an unsavory post-prime ministerial career amassing unseemly amounts of wealth. Sadly for the British left, those stains obscure three terms of robust progressive government (much engineered by Blair’s chancellor and eventual prime minister Gordon Brown) that bolstered spending, improved health and education outcomes and reduced poverty.
But it’s that 1997 level of Tory humiliation that Corbyn now faces today as Labour contemplates a defeat that could make 1983 look sanguine by comparison. For a party that’s now been out of power for seven years, and looks further than ever from returning, the risk to British progressives is that the Corbyn interregnum could shut them out of shaping policy well into the 2020s.