tkitching (tkitching) wrote,

Why the Tories should fear Jeremy Corbyn

It's a given amongst the smug and mocking sections of the Tory party that Jeremy Corbyn's surge in the Labour leadership election is a disaster waiting to happen for Labour, and therefore good news for the Conservatives. After all, the last time Labour had a hard left leader in 1983, the manifesto became known as 'The longest suicide note in history'. Michael Foot's defeat was so comprehensive that it took 14 years, huge internal reforms, and a public commitment to forever shun such unpalatable policies as nationalisation of industry, unilateral nuclear disarmament, and high taxes on the rich before they were able to regain power.

The conventional wisdom is that Thatcher broke the mould, and made a return to state socialism impossible. To the right, Foot's colossal defeat proved once and for all that free market economics was the only path, and that Labour would have to accept it to become electable.

The thing about eternal political certainties, is how quickly they can be blown away in times of national distress.

During the fifties and sixties, the Conservatives were forced to accept state ownership of heavy industry and utilities. MacMillan even referred to privatisation as 'Selling off the family silver'. The political reality was that unfettered market forces were banished from the economy. There was a minister responsible for deciding the price of cheese. The Conservatives accepted this state of affairs as the price they had to pay for stewardship of the economy. Until Thatcher.

And whilst Thatcher may have believed that she was a great radical propelled by destiny, I've always viewed her more as the inevitable consequence of a series of avoidable cock ups from both parties.

The rubbish was piling high in the streets, everyone was on strike at the same time, the lights were going off, and Jim Callaghan was so jaded by the mess that it all seemed perfectly normal to him, looking through the papers whilst sunning himself in the Caribbean. There was a perception amongst the public that government policy was largely written by the unions, particularly but not exclusively when Labour was in power. Giant public sector pay rises were the fuel for rampant destructive inflation, yet the government was seemingly powerless to control them.

In short, in 1983, the last thing the public wanted was a return to the shambles of the 1970s. And they were prepared to sacrifice heavy industry to do this. 30 years of state socialism had led to an over-reach, and the public cut loose common Jack to stop it.

But that was then, and this is now. in 1979, we'd had 34 years of state socialism. In 2015, we've had 36 years of free market capitalism with a blindfold on and the gloves off. To naively assume, as the Tories do, that people's reactions to the ideas espoused by Mr Corbyn will be the same now as they were in 1983 is to live in a dogmatic bubble. Many voters, maybe a majority, have no meaningful memories of the winter of discontent. Many will not even know what price controls are. The idea of trades unions having any meaningful say over government policy, even if Labour got back in, is laughable to most. Instead of living with the abuses and incompetence of the left, they have grown up and lived under the abuses and blindness of the right.

And if the unions and the left over-reached in the 1970s, then surely the right is doing the same now. With a working majority in the commons, the Tories have ignored the fact that their share of the vote is in serious and generational decline. They are acting as if they have the sort of mandate that Thatcher could claim. They do not. They support policies that a huge majority of the country do not support, such as reintroducing fox hunting, privatising chunks of the NHS, and increasing the cost of tertiary education, particularly for the poor. Even a majority of Conservative voters would support renationalisation of the railways.

The first past the post system has conspired to create a false legitimacy for pursuing this kind of policy that is an exact mirror of the legitimacy crisis the left suffered in the 1970s. And like the unions, they have continued to push further and harder, despite losing friends and support along the way, believing incorrectly that their way of doing business is the only way, and the political orthodoxy is this time immutable, set forever in their own terms. In their arrogance, there is no longer any attempt to reach out past this small and declining constituency.

And now there's a bloke who stands against this. If Corbyn wins the leadership, this will not be 1983 all over again. This will be 1979 all over again. Remember, Thatcher was a joke candidate, just there to make up the numbers in the leadership election and give voice to the right of the party who might otherwise feel left out. Once chosen as leader, she would never really have a chance of succeeding, as her ideas were too far from the accepted mainstream. There were too many moderates in her party for her to truly stamp her authority.

Corbyn offers policies that attack those who are seen to have caused or profited from the economic failures. He offers policies that aim to help the poor and the vulnerable. He throws the modern orthodoxy out of the window. He makes absolutely no apology or excuse for challenging the mainstream. He may be wrong about some of it, he may be right, but it's an attractive recipe for an electorate who can't remember the devastation of the 70s, but are currently living through the very real consequences of the financial crisis, which almost everyone would agree was caused by a failure of capitalism. Even those who do remember, may feel that the pendulum has swung too far the other way, and unlike the 80s, there's not even the guilt of having to sacrifice the working class to achieve change. Thatcher, a radical, attracted many people from the centre, harnessing their anger towards the political over-reach of the left. There is no reason why Corbyn cannot channel these same centrist forces, whilst the right arrogantly over-reaches in government.

Believing, as they do, that Corbyn is an unelectable throwback, is where the Tories misread the situation. Thatcher was seen in exactly the same way until it was too late. By over-reaching on a very limited mandate, and making no attempt to govern on behalf of those who do not directly support them, they create resentment, anger, and fear. Corbyn would stand to profit hugely from this, as a man of unimpeachable personal moral standing, and eloquent delivery. The Tories will continue to laugh at him as they blindly sail their unsinkable policy ship towards the hidden iceberg of public fury. Their mocking support of his leadership campaign is an act of collective hubris destined to blow up in their faces.

Or perhaps the Tories could do what Labour failed to do in the 1970s. Govern for those who didn't vote for them as well as those who did. If we must have austerity, let's actually share the burden. If we must have cuts, can we shield those who are weakest and most vulnerable? I would be surprised if they did, for they are blinded by their own sense of unchallengeable righteousness. Thatcher is the prophet and her word is law. The lessons of history are lost on those who will only debate with people they already agree with.
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