7 September 2015

Jeremy Corbyn would be Labour’s most left-wing leader in history


The seemingly inexorable rise of Jeremy Corbyn towards the leadership of the Labour Party might seem like a truly extraordinary political event, but in fact there is plenty of historical precedent for what the Left of British politics is going through at the moment. The phenomenon by which a party after a surprise or devastating electoral defeat – and Labour’s loss in May was very much the former rather than the latter – responds by moving towards its own comfort zone rather than towards the political centre is a very familiar one. Yet the precedents offer only limited hints as to what might happen if Corbyn does become leader.

Can an unrepentant Marxist-Leninist really become the Leader of the Opposition and premier-in-waiting in a modern, advanced Western democracy? A man who has never significantly deviated from his hard Left principles over thirty years, has invited IRA men to the Palace of Westminster and shared platforms with Hamas and Hezbollah, whom he has publicly described as his ‘friends’? A man who is opposed to the Special Relationship, British membership of NATO and the monarchy? All these things might seem astounding, but in fact they fit into an established pattern of what I will dub post-election losers’ remorse.

Nor is the phenomenon confined to the Left. After Edward Heath lost the two general elections of 1974, on top of 1966, the Conservatives took the extraordinary step of electing as leader not only a woman but one who opposed Heath from the right rather than from where he himself hailed on the left. Contrary to the mantra that elections could only be won from the centre – the entire basis of the Mandelson-Blair-Cameron-Osborne world view –  the Tories chose someone who looked like she genuinely believed in the free market politics that Heath had u-turned over so disastrously during his 1970-74 premiership. In Margaret Thatcher’s case, of course, the result was that the Conservatives won three consecutive general election victories.

When the long period of Tory rule between 1979 and 1997 ended with John Major’s catastrophic defeat, the Conservatives elected three leaders in a row from the Right of the party, namely William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard. Government was to elude them until they elected the centrist David Cameron, who openly spoke of “One Nation” Toryism and saw himself as heir to Harold Macmillan’s form of Conservativism.

It is one of the truisms of British politics that, absent the kind of national crisis seen in the 1880s, 1920s or 1970s, successful Tory leaders are the ones from the centre or centre-Left of the party. In a mirror-image the same is true of Labour: Clement Attlee was to the right of George Lansbury, Harold Wilson was more conservative than Richard Crossman and Tony Blair was virtually a Tory compared to John Smith, Robin Cook and Gordon Brown.

In the United States losers’ remorse is apparent in the rise of the Tea Party after John McCain’s defeat at the hands of Barack Obama in 2008, and more recently with the present absurd popularity of Donald Trump, whose remarks have stretched the concept of political incorrectness beyond breaking point. Similarly, Hillary Clinton is under threat from the extreme Left of the Democratic Party, in the shape of Bernie Sanders.

Like Jeremy Corbyn, the Trump and Sanders phenomena is of course a stark reminder of the anti-elitism and anti-Establishment reactions of electorates – one also sees it in the French Front National – especially after the Great Crash of 2008/09. Yet there is also something more profound at work here: the sense that party members would rather feel pure than be victorious. Once parties get into that mood they tend to be doomed, at least for the next electoral cycle, until woken up by a bucket of cold water in the face, thrown by the voting public.

The fear for Tories facing the otherwise seemingly welcome development of a Marxist-Leninist leading the Labour Party must be that Corbyn simply can’t last, and that in 2018 or thereabouts he will be trailing so badly that the party ditches him for a far more attractive electoral possibility, such as Chuka Ummana, David Miliband or Tristram Hunt, who will look fresh and uncompromised in the struggle against whomever has replaced David Cameron. The precedent of Tony Blair himself, elected leader in 1994 three years before the next general election, will inspire Blairites.

Yet for all the precedents on both right and left for the Corbyn phenomenon, the reason that this is still uncharted territory is because of Corbyn himself. He is a far more left wing than Michael Foot, the leader to whom he is most often likened. Ditto Lansbury, Keir Hardie and even Aneurin Bevan, the left-wing firebrand who was minister of health and briefly Labour’s deputy leader. He is representative of precisely the kind of hard Left socialist who Ernest Bevin fought against in the Trade Union movement in the 1920s and 1930s, and who tried to take over the Labour party through ‘Entryism’ in the Seventies and Eighties. They were defeated then, yet through the application of the Internet to modern politics, they are now back with a vengeance. And what internal party vengeance they will wreak when they finally get the opportunity for which some of them have been waiting four decades.

For this is the other great break with precedent; in the Tory party there has always been an uneasy co-existence between Right and Left, ‘Wets’ and ‘Dries’, Europhiles and Eurosceptics, just as with Labour there have always been a smattering of Trotskyite entryists on the extreme Left who were kept out of power by the moderate majority. The Trotskyites have never come close to actually taking over the Labour Party before, yet they indubitably are today.

In that sense, history provides us with no guide to the future whatsoever.  For the hard Left, politics does not involve the give-and-take one sees between Tory Wets and Dries; it is ideological war to the knife. For all that Jeremy Corbyn himself might have a polite, even engaging persona, his instinct will be to seize command of all the key positions in the party to protect himself against the coming Blairite counter-attack.

Because governments lose elections rather than oppositions winning them, and governments can become very unpopular virtually overnight – such as when John Major’s was forced out of the ERM in September 1992 – the Conservatives cannot become complacent about the Corbyn Effect on British politics. This threat to Britain’s postwar domestic settlement and place in the world is a real and present one, for which there are no precedents since the founding of the Labour party over a century ago.

Andrew Roberts is one of Britain's leading historians and the author of Napoleon the Great, published by Penguin.