Monday, 11 July 2016

The Corbyn controversy, or have we learned anything from last time Labour put its Foot in it?

Let’s wind the clock back to 1981. Specifically, to 25 January. This is the day when four former Labour cabinet members, known as the Gang of Four, announced a long-feared move to split the party.

Shirley Williams, David Owen, Roy Jenkins and Bill Rodgers set up the Council for Social Democracy because they felt that Labour had lurched too far to the left. It had adopted policies of unilateral nuclear disarmament and departure from the European Economic Community (forerunner of the European Union). It had also elected a left-wing leader, Michael Foot.

Insofar as one can like anyone without meeting him personally, I liked Foot. I agreed with most of his views, but I also felt a personal link to him: I was in the second year of doctoral studies on an eighteenth-century writer and thinker, and Foot was a respected authority on one of the greatest eighteenth-century writers and thinkers, Jonathan Swift. He even did his research in the North Library of the British Library, still in those days housed within the British Museum building, as I did.

The Gang of Four, getting ready to split the Labour Party
The Gang of Four was, however, more worried still by the veteran left winger Tony Been, seen as exercising a baleful influence on the Party.

There’s much to admire in Benn. However, I don’t go with the personality cult that’s developed around him. Unlike most Labour left wingers, he’d had experience in government, not always to his honour. As Secretary of State for Energy, he had ordered three new nuclear power stations, one of them – Sizewell B – using the US Westinghouse Pressurised Water Reactor (PWR) technology.

Later he would write in the Guardian, “I am strongly opposed to nuclear weapons and civil nuclear power.” Earlier in the same article, he talked of, “Sir Jack Rampton, my permanent secretary, who seemed to be as keen as [Dr Walter] Marshall [of the Atomic Energy Authority and an adviser to Benn] on the adoption of the PWR.” This kind of rationalisation strikes me as self-serving – “I was pressurised into making a lousy decision by bad advice” – as well as feeble – “I may be a clarion voice of the left, but when I have to defend my position against pressure, I cave.” 

Hardly the stuff of which we want Labour politicians to be made. However, back then, the Gang of Four was deeply apprehensive of him.

In March 1981, they launched the Social Democratic Party. In the end, just 28 Labour MPs joined them, and one Tory, and they were badly hammered at the 1983 General Election: only six SDP MPs were returned. Indeed, even their alliance with the then Liberal Party only managed to win 23 seats overall. However, that poor result at parliamentary level belied a far better performance in the popular vote: the SDP-Liberal Alliance took 7,780,949 vote, just 675,985 behind Labour.

Labour fought that election on probably the most left-wing manifesto it had ever adopted. But the result saw it lose 9.3% of its popular support and 52 MPs. The Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher, assisted by the split vote against them, won by a landslide, with a majority of 144 seats, despite a 700,000 drop in their vote.

Tony Benn came up with a glorious reaction to that catastrophic Labour defeat. He described the debacle as “a triumph for socialism.” I still can’t believe he said that. Two or three such triumphs and Labour would guarantee Tory government for a couple of generations.

Benn reckoned that 8,456,934 Labour voters had voted for a socialist manifesto. I suppose positive spin can be a good thing, but that struck me as a trifle over the top, given that the party had registered its worst performance since 1918. Labour MP Gerald Kaufmann seemed closer to the truth when he described the massive, turgid and indigestible manifesto, as “the longest suicide note in history.”

Benn’s mistake was no doubt down to a view, still held by many, that policies actually matter when it comes to winning elections. Aaron Banks, the leading Brexit and UKIP backer, reckoned the recent referendum win was down to the principle that “facts don’t matter”. Remain campaigners only put forward facts, but the Leave side appealed to emotions. The same is true when it comes to perception and policy in general elections. It doesn’t matter what policies you promise to pursue, if your leader isn’t seen as a potential Prime Minister. Far too few voters saw Foot as a PM, and the SDP-Liberal Alliance gave them another choice. The result was a catastrophic defeat of the Labour Party (or “triumph of socialism”, of course, if you like the Benn point of view.)

Aldous Huxley once pointed out that the only lesson to learn from history is that no one learns any lessons from history.

Let’s run the clock forward again, to today. Have we learned any lessons?

Once more, the Bennite wing of the Labour Party is in the ascendancy, in the movement known as Momentum (momentum, by the way, is something that keeps you moving forward, but doesn’t unfortunately distinguish between whether you’re heading for sunlit uplands or straight over a cliff.)

Once more, we have a leader who is kind, decent, honest, principled and from the Left of the Party. He may not be an authority on Swift. But he is, just like Foot, not someone many see as a potential Prime Minister.

It’s been reported that there are once more moves afoot to launch a new grouping, bringing together the right of the Labour Party with more liberal Conservatives. And once more Shirley Williams has emerged to talk about cross-party collaboration. Even the issue she has chosen to highlight is a throwback to the controversy of the early eighties: Europe again, following the Brexit vote.

Despite that experience, we seem to be lining ourselves up to make all the same mistakes. As Einstein almost certainly didn’t say, to do the same thing over and over again and expect different results, is the definition of insanity. We may be heading for another period of lunacy.

What were the results last time?

Fourteen more years of highly painful Tory rule. The first seven of them under Thatcher. To whom Theresa May is a worthy and effective successor.

We’ve been warned.


Anonymous said...

It's very easy to get bogged down by, is Corbyn nice and decent or otherwise, also is a leader too far to the left or right. The key point is, is the leader a leader, a strong and focused leader will direct and unite a party. This is the skill of which Corbyn has 0% and unfortunately Eagle is probably rather similar not a natural leader.

David Beeson said...

You may be right about Angela Eagle, though I saw her at a campaign event in Luton today and thought she looked, sounded and behaved like someone who could be a fine leader – so I hope your view of her may not be accurate. But for the rest of your comment, I agree 100% - you're exactly right.

Anonymous said...

Well today was the beginning of the end of the extreme takeover of the true Labour Party I suspect, a very hollow win for Corbin with a heavy and humiliating defeat to come. May we soon welcome back balanced political view to our nation and be rid of bigoted extremists who ruin our open and balanced democracy.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if anyone will ever remember tonight as a labour victory of just the beginning of the end. Let the party split as soon as possible if thee is to be any future and God forbid that those who ever thought that there was ever any future is electing a total twat ever have anything to do with this party in the future. Let's rediscover the Labour Party we all valued and believed in.

David Beeson said...

The beginning of the end of this period of self-harming delusion would be wonderful. The end itself still more welcome. But I'm not counting any chickens: there's a tough fight ahead with absolutely no guarantee that we shall win. And the sad reality that if we lose, the Labour Party loses as a whole, and the country soon behind.

Anonymous said...

So do please explain why you thought it was a fantastic idea to vote for him?????

David Beeson said...

It wasn't a fantastic idea. It just felt like something we could try: he has qualities that are admirable – honesty, principle, decency – and I found the rest of the field uninspiring. So I voted for him to see where that took us.

Many people are telling me now that we haven't given him long enough. I think nine months is plenty of time to see what kind of impact he'll have, and to me the answer feels like 'none at all.' So I've changed my mind and, if you like, I'm happy to admit I got it wrong (though I still think it was fair to give him a try.)

The key now is to change quickly and not do another Ed Milliband, leaving him there for five years while things just get worse...