The 1980s were a battle between what eventually became New Labour, and what is often referred to as the Hard Left. 1983 to 1997 was a long period where the Hard Left gradually lost influence within both the party (then the membership and trade unions) and among the parliamentary party (the PLP). But this didn’t mollify the distaste New Labour had for the Hard Left.
This period meant that those opposing the left adopted two propositions which became almost hard-wired into their decisions.
The left within Labour were more concerned with controlling the party than winning elections. That has often been said about Jeremy Corbyn over the last two years.
That the Left, and their ideas and policies, were toxic to most voters. The right wing press assisted in this by talking about the loony left.
In short, it was best to act as if Labour’s Left were a political pariah. As a result of these ideas the left minority within the PLP was tolerated (Labour needed to be a broad church), as long as it remained small and powerless. Triangulation became the way to win power: to adopt policies that were never from the Left, but adopted a centre ground between the Left and the Conservatives. New Labour was not old Labour.
The strategy was extremely successful. Tony Blair won three elections, and it took the deepest recession since the 1930s to (just) remove Labour from office. The Blair government achieved a lot, particularly for the poor, but it also made serious mistakes, most notably Iraq. That stopped a lot of those on the left actively supporting the party.
In 2015, when Labour under Ed Miliband was defeated, the general mood among the PLP seemed to be that it needed to triangulate once more and move further to the right. Crucially, some leading figures suggested Labour should all but embrace George Osborne’s austerity policy. The three main candidates to take over from Miliband were seen (with justification or not) as representing this thinking. Austerity was a critical issue, in part because - if accepted - it potentially constrained what Labour could do to a large extent. It was also an economically illiterate policy, which I can safely say with authority. Worse than that, it was a policy that - as the deficit fell - began to lose its popularity, so for Labour to adopt it at just the point it was losing its popular appeal seemed a doubly crazy thing to do.
Before Corbyn won that election I wrote
“Whether Corbyn wins or loses, Labour MPs and associated politicos have to recognise that his popularity is not the result of entryism, or some strange flight of fancy by Labour’s quarter of a million plus members, but a consequence of the political strategy and style that lost the 2015 election. …. A large proportion of the membership believe that Labour will not win again by accepting the current political narrative on austerity or immigration or welfare or inequality and offering only marginal changes to current government policy.”
At this point I was receiving impassioned pleas by some to come out against Corbyn. These mainly went along the lines that Corbyn was unreformed from the 70s/80s, and wanted to take over the party for the ‘old left’. Many said he could not win an election because his policies would be too radical. He would be a disaster with the electorate. It was unmodified 1980s thinking. These arguments sounded unconvincing to me, mainly because Corbyn would have to work with the PLP. Unlike the 1980s, the left were now such a small minority within the PLP that they would have no other choice.
As I had anticipated, Corbyn and McDonnell did form a shadow cabinet of all the (willing) talents, and as far as economic policy was concerned they were far from radical. McDonnell set up the Economic Advisory Council (EAC), which I and I suspect others were happy to join because it involved no endorsement of Labour’s policies. Arguments that we should have withheld our advice because Corbyn was somehow ‘beyond the pale’ were again straight from the post-83 playbook, and I am very glad that I ignored them. I helped Labour adopt a fiscal rule which in my view exemplified where mainstream macroeconomics was, and which incidentally some sections of the Left were very critical of. It formed a key part of their 2017 manifesto
What I had not anticipated, back when Corbyn was about to be elected, was how foolish some Labour MPs would be in those months following his election. Critical briefing of the press was constant, and tolerated by many in the PLP. As I wrote at the time, this strategy was stupid even if you hated Corbyn, because it gave the membership the excuse to ignore Corbyn’s failings. I was more right than I could have imagined. This was the first major mistake that the PLP made after the election.
The other thing I had not anticipated was Brexit. This triggered the second major mistake by the PLP, which was the vote of no confidence. It was in many cases an emotional reaction to Brexit, the leadership’s role in the campaign and earlier incompetence. It was understandable, but it was nevertheless terrible politics. Corbyn’s supporters were gifted the perfect narrative in the subsequent leadership election: the PLP had sabotaged Corbyn’s leadership.
The two mistakes made by the PLP ensured that for many members the 2016 vote became the PLP against the membership. One big mistake Owen Smith made was to not side with the membership in terms of changing the 15% leadership rule, so naturally they said if you do not trust us we will not trust you. Nevertheless I supported Smith over Corbyn, because I could not see a future for a party that had become so deeply divided. I thought the next election was winnable for Labour, but not if the party was seen by the electorate as at war with itself. That was one of the key reasons I resigned from the EAC: whether that was the reason three others also left I cannot say.
After Corbyn won for a second time, the polls suggested Labour’s future was bleak. This is what led May to call her snap election. However two things happened after Corbyn’s re-election which surprised me and many others, and meant that my predictions of no future under Corbyn proved wrong. First, the internal squabbling within Labour stopped almost completely. Second, the leadership started putting together a manifesto that would prove very popular, with a competence that had earlier been missing. During the general election divisions within Labour were not part of May’s main attack, in part because she chose to make the campaign presidential in style..
Many will say that Labour achieving 40% of the popular vote vindicated the membership’s faith in Corbyn. Others will go further and say ‘if only the PLP had been more cooperative we could have won’. That is going too far..The election result was also a consequence of a truly terrible Conservatives campaign, headed by a Prime Minister who exposed herself as just the wrong person to lead the country through Brexit The economic environment couldn’t have been better for Labour: unlike 2015 we had falling real wages and the slowest quarterly GDP growth rate in the EU. Labour’s manifesto held out hope, while the Conservative manifesto was a liability. Despite all this, the Conservative vote share was above Labour.
What the election does show beyond doubt is that the attitudes most of the PLP had towards the Left, which they had carried with them from the 1980s, are no longer appropriate. The result was not the disaster they had been so sure would happen. That showed some left wing policies can be very popular, even if they are called anti-capitalist by those on the right. The curse of austerity on the UK electorate has lifted. Unlike the ‘dementia tax’, none of the policies in Labour’s manifesto proved to be a millstone around Corbyn’s neck. The days when Labour politicians needed to worry about headlines in the Mail or Sun are over.
The big lessons of the last two years are for Labour’s centre and centre-left. The rules that applied in the 1980s no longer apply. The centre have to admit that sometimes the Left can get things right (Iraq, financialisation), and they deserve some respect as a result (and vice versa of course). The centre and Left have to live with each other to the extent of allowing someone from the Left to lead the party. Corbyn has shown that the Left are capable of leading with centre-left policies, and the electorate will not shun them. With the new minority government so fragile, it is time for the centre and centre-left within Labour to bury old hatchets and work with Corbyn’s leadership.