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Corbyn’s Labour Party, can it win?

The 1960s–70s send a warning to Britain's next left-wing government.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
20 September 2018

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Prime Minister Harold Wilson greeting visitors at 10 Downing Street, 1968. Wikicommons/Fotograaf Onbekend / Anefo. Some rights reserved.

“Any person who lived through the anguished days from [date] until [name‘s] resignation will recall the high level of anticipation, expectation, surprise and wonder about what would be the next story to be leaked, scandal to be revealed, personality to be defamed, that was going to be another blow to the Labour Government.”

Fill in the blanks, and what is recalled here could be a portent of the near future: the atmosphere around a Labour government in Britain led by its current leader, Jeremy Corbyn.

The missing date is 1973, the missing name is Harold Wilson, and the quote is from a Labour MP, Kevin McNamara, introducing a special issue of the parapolitics magazine Lobster.

Stephen Dorril and Robin Ramsay's Wilson, MI5 and the Rise of Thatcher was published in April 1986 when Wilson (twice prime minister, from 1964-70 and 1974-76) was long retired and the Thatcher era was at its peak. The magazine issue examined one theme in depth: whether and how the establishment had tried to undermine Wilson's second Labour government and replace it with a Conservative administration under an acceptable right-wing leader.

McNamara didn’t necessarily accept the Lobster hypothesis in full. But he concluded:

“[These developments] make sense of Harold Wilson’s complaints when he resigned – of steps being taken to destabilise his government – which, at the time, many people put down to Wilson’s paranoia and his continuous skirmishing with the press.

Not everyone will accept the author’s analysis or conclusions but there is still sufficient evidence to make people go back and relive those events and wonder exactly what was going on and who was trying to do what in those exciting and frustrating thirty months.”

The Wilson example

Today, forty-five years later, is an appropriate moment to return to that time, and not just to the second act of the Wilson era but also to his debut in Downing Street. Both governments he led were characterised by bitter divisions within the Labour party, as well as multiple smears and not a few dirty tricks from outside sources. The similarities with the current political climate that surrounds Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party are intriguing but also instructive.

There are a few good books to help re-entry. Dorril and Ramsay went on to write Smear: Wilson and the Secret State (Fourth Estate, 1991) which tracks Wilson’s pre-leadership years and later history in great depth (there are over a thousand references). David Leigh’s The Wilson Plot (Pantheon Books, 1988) examines a specific claim of a direct security-service operation against his government in the mid-1970s, while Paul Foot’s Who Framed Colin Wallace? (Macmillan, 1989) pursues the truth of a psy-ops officer in Northern Ireland who made serious allegations of official malfeasance.

Harold Wilson was arguably a marked man when he won a narrow victory in the 1964 general election against the discredited Conservatives, who had been in power for thirteen years. In Labour Party terms he was identified with the "Bevanite" left, reflecting his association with Aneurin Bevan, left-wing architect of the National Health Service, in the post-war government led by Clement Attlee. But Wilson also carried a reputation of being close, perhaps too close, to the Soviet Union at a time when the cold war was at its height. If such a view was held even within Labour, it was embraced more fervently in Conservative circles and the security services. His six years in Downing Street, whose high point was a second and much bigger election win in 1966, were conducted under the shadow of these suspicions.

These returned with a vengeance when Wilson ousted Edward Heath via the election of February 1974. His third victory brought him to power at a time of huge economic uncertainty and social upheaval. A coal miners’ strike followed a massive (175%) surge in oil prices, leading to “stagflation” – a theroretically impossible combination of economic stagnation and rapid inflation. An exhausted Wilson resigned in March 1976, after a two-year period notorious for a constant stream of smears, all serially recycled by a print media then much more dominant in media and society than it is now. On top of this, Wilson faced rumours of coups, demands for a national government, and talk of private armies to defend the state against the dangerous forces of revolutionary change – which Wilson himself was seen as somehow responsible for.

James Callaghan, a figure associated with Labour's right, inherited the premiership and governed for three years without facing similar harassment. He lost to Margaret Thatcher’s neoliberal Conservatives in 1979, the start of an eighteen-year ascendancy, the last seven under John Major. When Tony Blair’s New Labour entered Downing Street in 1997, his policies were quite acceptable to the British establishment. The smears went largely into abeyance, though some began to crawl back when Ed Miliband led Labour from 2010-15. But it was the advent of Jeremy Corbyn which has made Wilson's experience acutely relevant.

The Corbyn test

Even the shades of difference between the two periods illustrate the pressures on these leaders. Both faced opposition from within the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), although Corbyn has to deal with even more intensely visceral criticism than Wilson had. Antagonism to Corbyn and what he represents remains deeply embedded among Labour MPs and, after three years, shows no sign of easing. An earlier column in this series tried to account for it from the perspective of a mid-career MP who would have considered even Ed Miliband's outlook too left-wing compared with the Blairite worldview (see "Corbyn's critics: time to come round*, 4 May 2018)

Such an MP would have been hit by a series of shocks, the most grievous being Labour's failure to form a government in 2015 and then the sight of Corbyn coming from nowhere to be elected leader. These two events effectively ended the parliamentary ambitions of almost any Blair-inclined MP, at least in the short term. The blows continued when Corbyn survived an attempted parliamentary coup in mid-2016 and then won re-election with an increased majority. At that point the last resort was to focus on his supposed unelectability, but that was thrown into disarray by Labour’s strong performance in the general election of 2017, fought on the basis of a popular manifesto.

Since then, Corbyn has been hounded by a succession of charges: the persistent antisemitism one, being a one-time Soviet stooge or even agent, his leading a party riven by harassment and/or infiltrated by hard-left Marxists. All have been pushed vigorously by a right-wing press with reliably anti-Corbyn MPs always on hand for reinforcing quotes.

None of these accusations, and nothing else besides, seems able to dislodge him. Corbyn now leads a party of 540,000 members and rising, more than four times the size of the Conservative Party and substantially larger than the combined party membership of the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, Greens, UKIP, Scottish Nationalists, Plaid Cymru and the DUP. Moreover, the recent elections to Labour's national executive committee indicate that a clear majority of members support Jeremy Corbyn and what he stands for.

Leaving to one side the personal antagonism within the PLP and the intense dislike of the Corbyn worldview, the establishment's persistent claim is that Corbyn and his ilk, even in their hundreds of thousands, are throwbacks to the 1970s, completely out of touch with the way that the neoliberal capitalist model has since successfully evolved. This differs from the Wilson era, when the establishment's core belief was that the threat was primarily from communism and Soviet influence. Such a danger, from without as well as within, was amplified by what were then recent memories of imperial status.

Those making such arguments today encounter tough problems, not least in Britain's manifest political uncertainties. The Conservative-led government of 2010-15 rested on a party that was decidedly more right-wing and ideological even than Thatcher; ready to blame the 2008 crisis on almost anything except the system; and fully committed to a policy of austerity that, usefully, had its greatest impact on the poorer strata of society. The Liberal Democrat coalition partners restrained policy in some respects, but after the Conservatives won outright the 2015 election, the neoliberal future looked assured.

David Cameron's party then became fractured over the European Union referendum in 2016, and even more so when it resulted in a vote for Brexit. Such divisions might have been contained had Labour elected a usefully centrist leader in 2015. But the trouble with Corbyn and his supporters is that they simply do not buy into the austerity agenda. For them, the neoliberal transition is running into the sand, with a distinct possibility that it might follow the Soviet model of a rigid centrally-planned economy into the graveyard. Moreover, the shock result of 2017 means that, appallingly, Labour might well be electable next time.

So, can Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party win? Given that Labour is now close to being not so much a party as a mass movement with an active and informed membership, then the answer is: quite probably, yes. When he lodges in Downing Street, that will be when the sparks really do fly – expect the leaks, the smears, the talk of threats from within, the rumours of private armies ready to defend civilisation and, no doubt, the urgent need for a national government.

At that point, it will certainly be helpful to revisit and learn from the Harold Wilson years. But perhaps the more sensible thing is not to wait, but to do that now.

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