It isn’t the ‘80s any more. I can tell because I’m not writing this whilst listening to a New Order LP and chain-smoking Player’s No. 6, not to mention that I’m doing so on a home computer connected to the internet. Oh, and politics might have changed a bit, as well. With that in mind, the endless comparisons of Jeremy Corbyn to ‘unelectable’ former Labour leader Michael Foot are tiresome and irrelevant.
If we must keep banging on about Labour’s catastrophic 1983 election defeat, at least let’s dispense with the selective memory. Yes, Labour were badly beaten and yes, alright, they did so whilst standing on a left-wing manifesto (albeit a manifesto which was, in some ways, a logical progression from the victorious 1945 one). But there was a lot more at play than that. Thatcher – deeply unpopular in Ghost-Town Britain only a couple of years before – was riding high on patriotic euphoria following the Falklands War. Not only that, but the Lab-SDP split had just occurred, with the breakaway party taking a chunk of Labour votes with them , Labour were lucky to avoid coming third in ’83.
Both of these things, I’d argue, had at least as much to do with the defeat as their manifesto. Whilst the Tories may yet be lucky enough to fight an opposition riven by an SDP-style split in 2020, they’re unlikely – given their currently tiny majority – to have the good fortune of a quick, victorious, popular war to draw votes.
Granted, Foot was an imperfect leader who had the misfortune to take the helm in the choppiest of waters. But he was also a kind, intelligent man, who was treated with appalling cruelty by the press (Milliband’s bacon sandwich episode doesn’t even compare). In the early ‘80s, the newspapers were at the height of their opinion-forming powers. But there’s no way they wield that level of influence now, in the era of the internet and 24-hour news. Social media in particular – for all its faults, not least its tendency to act as an echo chamber for opinions you already hold – has arguably democratised the way we consume news. Never again will that copy of The Sun someone left in the canteen be your sole source of current affairs coverage for the day, however casually you consume your news.
The other factor that’s changed since then is that inequality has increased along many lines, not least generationally. The apathy of the current generation of young people is being killed off in death by a thousand cuts. Already disadvantaged compared to their parents by university tuition fees (thanks to Blair), ridiculous housing costs and fewer job opportunities, they’re now – like a bloke who’s just been beaten up having his wallet nicked by a passing mugger – being deprived the same benefits and minimum wage that over-25s get. Is it any surprise that a major part of the surge in support for Corbyn is amongst young people?
Every generation can be said to live, to some degree, in the shadow of the previous one (or two). But it’s especially acute for the current generation of young people. Structurally disadvantaged and discriminated against in so many ways, they’re also being collectively told by their elders not to bother with all that idealistic, let’s change the world stuff. We already tried it, say the older generation, and take it from us, it doesn’t work. We learned to get with the programme (and create New Labour). Now, I don’t know about you, but that isn’t the most inspiring message to me. And if there’s one thing no-one likes, it’s being told to grow up and get real (least of all by Tony Blair).
These young people have no emotional affinity with the Labour Party. And why should they? The focus-group driven New Labour, with its slick PR, seemed to actively discourage a grass-roots movement. Whereas some old lefties may lament for a time when this wasn’t the case, today’s young people have never known it any different. They don’t give a toss what happened in the ‘80s. But they are getting fired up by Corbyn’s message. This is also why the accusations of ‘80s Militant Tendendy-style ‘entryism’ – an organised attempt to infiltrate, and change, the party - don’t ring true. If ‘entryism’ (if we must call it that) is indeed happening, in that people are signing up for the first time in order to vote Corbyn. I’d argue it’s primarily people who were previously too disengaged with mainstream parties to want to be involved.
Admittedly, some of Corbyn’s policies (unilateral nuclear disarmament, for example) have always been divisive, both within and outside of the Labour Party. But how have we been hoodwinked into believing that universal free education – in place for decades in Britain prior to Blair - is a radical, hard-left position? I think a lot of young people are wondering why, and finding the political establishment wanting.
The tuition fees issue is symptomatic, because the terms of the debate surrounding it all too often both contribute to, and reflect, the rampant, selfish individualism so prevalent and unchallenged in society. Someone has to pay for universities, the Right argue, and it’ll either have to be those who go – or those who don’t go. Whatever happened to the idea, once held on the right as well as the left, that wide access to higher education was beneficial to society as a whole?
Look at Corbyn, by contrast, and the way he talks to the public on the assumption that people care about how society gets on in general, care about other people. The other candidates talk to the public as separate, self-interested individuals, and play to their assumed individual aspirations for themselves. This, for me, is one of the clearest dividing lines between Corbyn and the other candidates, who indirectly seem to take for granted the Thatcherite myth that there really is no such thing as society, only individuals and their families. Only Corbyn is seriously challenging this. Without his presence in the race, there’d barely even be a debate.
On a personal note, after the last election, I’d begun to come to terms with the fact that a more compassionate, kinder politics simply wasn’t what most people wanted. But the unexpected rising tide of support for Corbyn – especially amongst young people, who’ve been given the message that the Left is beaten, marginalised and irrelevant their whole lives – gives me hope. Meanwhile, the Blairites tell us that electing Corbyn would consign Labour to merely becomming a protest movement to oppose Tory cuts. Well, as the old joke goes, it would be a start though, wouldn’t it? Perhaps it’s the necessary first step on the long road toward towards becoming relevant again, and rebuilding a movement that people can connect with and relate to.