The current Rustler’s microwavable meat advert depicts a bloke who is sat at his bland table in his bland living room, about to have dinner. He’s in the November of his years, closer to St Andrew than Guy Fawkes, and as he reaches for his snack, his life flashes before his eyes. It is a life unfulfilled and failed, where every dream is a lie, and every hope rescinds upon him, jading him ever further. Every cultural and political movement is but a moment in time, a spark of promise quickly extinguished. Beaten at school, waiting in line in soup kitchens, beaten by police batons in ‘60s peace marches, bored and jaded from then on. No other fad or movement would awaken him again. Until now. You see, it was ok that this struggle was pointless, because along the way somebody figured out that you could irradiate a soggy roll encompassing a lump of indeterminable meat to an acceptable temperature, cutting down dinner preparation time by up to half an hour. What a time to be alive.
The advert is called “80 years of torment.” I guess it’s meant to be tongue-in-cheek but, after these last few months, for an activist soul it is trolling your effort, your ideals and your hope. It is telling you to GIVE UP, forget any such pretence of a better tomorrow, because the only progress is in rapid-ready snack food. Maybe pop a tub of pringles open for dessert – they are right there. What even is fruit anyway. A waste of time, that’s what. You don’t have time to prepare a proper meal, what with all the working you have to do. It’s alright though, because the politicians have your back. They are working late too, and what salt of the earth they are, they are also having a burger for dinner. No Rustler’s for them though, they have sent for a gourmet, onion-ringed affair straight from the heart of Dalston, moulded from a hand-fed beast that, before it too was sacrificed for the cause, had a bigger home than you, and a better diet to boot. It was sped to the Royal Mile through the streets of London by a brave cyclist, darting through the taxis and the tourists on her less-than-zero hours contract, risking her life and others to make sure the burger gets to the Chancellor of the Exchequer before it loses too much temperature.
(Actually, he’s not Chancellor any more is he. He’s a tabloid hack, or a professor, or something.)
He can eat what he wants at whatever job he wants, because he is free to do so. That’s what they say they are about, freedom. They have so much freedom already, and all they want is more. They have always been mercantile, freedom is the silver in the mines of Potosi, the secret Porcelain recipe from Jingdezhen, grab it while it’s hot and hold on for dear life. You? You have to earn your freedom. As long as you live the right way, you too can have freedom. Put aside a penny a day for retirement, and you too can enjoy a microwavable burger when you are old. It’s triple-locked.
All this talk about liberty and they don’t even know what it is – they think it cannot be created, only taken away. So that’s what will happen next, now that they have purchased popular consent. Trickle down. The poor don’t want opportunity, they want stability, an unchanging, uncompromising dourness on the face of the Commons. A two-track broken record is comforting, when your work status is precarious, your rent fluctuates with the seasons – waiting for the eviction notice – “I’m sorry, we want families and young professionals to move into your dilapidated, ladybird-infested bedsit” – or the fire alarm. You never quite know who is waiting for you around the corner, these days. Do you feel safe? Not me. The promise of further change? Well that’s just terrifying. A microwave is reassuring, you know exactly when the beep will chime, you know exactly when your meal will reach lukewarm bliss.
It was a question of taking Britain back to the ‘70s, or maybe to the Age of Empire. Bring back the workhouse. Restart the Crusades, at a push. It would be good if everybody stopped time-travelling for a moment and looked outside the window. Capital looks after its initiates, the rest of us make their coffee and bring banquets to the door of another Junior Vice President. It’s in the nature of service. I love microwaves after long days, rip off the plastic and away we go. Technology isn’t simply there to improve our lives, but to make it possible to get more out of our bones. Afternoon tea allowed fourteen hour shifts, smartphone order apps allows two hour delivery. A paper-over-cracks health service allows a higher retirement age for those who haven’t spent their time living the right way, with chronic conditions as colleagues because ATOS said so. What a time to be alive.
You don’t get it, do you? Your grandparents never had a microwave. They had steady work, though. And here you have a smartphone. They aren’t for the poor, so you must be rich. Clive of India didn’t have a smartphone, and he never complained. Benefits aren’t for everybody, so they should be for nobody at all. People dressed in grey with grey countenance under miserable skies only see the world in blacks and whites, with us or against. A toasted Panini costs more than a week of mobile service, wealth has always been relative, dumbass. Thank you Rustler’s for feeding the people, one coronary at a time, relieving the pressure on our darling NHS. The population is exploding, and you want to keep people alive? You monster.
This is a time to celebrate. Haul your arse to the hypermarket (it might even be on offer), or your friendly neighbourhood food bank, take your meal from the shelf, remove all packaging, and wait for the beep. Take a seat, pick up the damp luxury that greets you, and eat every last bite. Don’t you dare complain you precious little soul about your life of diminishing returns, and remember the immortal words of Harold MacMillan – “you’ve never had it so good.”
One of the most common proverbs of pop history is Santayana’s Warning: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
History has been well-remembered in response to Jeremy Corbyn’s appearance on the Labour Leadership ballot, and even more so since he has become favourite for the job. Andrew Rawnsley’s wordsare the most colourful, telling of “a nightmarish revival of demons” in the shape of a bearded man from Shropshire. Among others, the ex-SDP candidate Polly Toynbeerecalls the early 1980s and the terrible days of Militant entryism in her column, and just today Kevin Meagher writes that a Corbyn victory is the manifestation of lessons of the past “defiantly unlearnt.”
These voices of scepticism specifically point to the early-1980s. The “Lesson of History” employed is designed to take older Labour minds back to their lowest point, when the party was split in two by the Gang of Fourwho formed the SDP in response to the growing influence of hard-left activists, dividing the anti-Thatcher vote. In the 1983 General Election, Michael Foot’s Labour Party received just 28% of votes cast. Some at the time saw it as the final nail in the coffin for the party, although its electoral performance would recover.
“Trauma denial” was responsible then, says Martin Kettle, and such post-traumatic stress is also responsible for #Jezmania. It is the job of cool-handed, hard-minded Labourites, he argues, to ensure the party doesn’t fall into its comfort zone and select another socialist. It’s a psychological assessment, incidentally, taken straight out of Liz Kendall’s campaign.
In actuality this is the exact mental state these agents of history wish to induce into the minds of left-leaning types who lived through 1983 and Thatcher’s victory, a success that gave her the confidence to launch her assault on trade unionism and local government power. Politics in Britain is a ruthless beast, and to open these old wounds that have never quite healed is to strike at the heart of the political trauma of the left, to hypnotise Labourists into thinking that it was placing their principles over pragmatism (as much as anything Thatcher did) that were to blame for the brutal repression of the miners, the centralisation of the Thatcherist state, privatisation, and a foreign policy that propped up Pinochet and Apartheid.
And what of those of us, myself included, who were not alive or old enough to remember this disaster? We are instructed to respect our elders, and defer to their opinion, for they had witnessed 1983 in the flesh, and learned the hard way that socialism can only ever be an expression of youth. “I’ve been accused of being patronising by some of the new idealistic members,” writes Luke Akleshurst, “sorry but it is difficult not to be when confronted by naivety [and] sheer made-up cloud cuckoo land economics and political analysis that i grew out of at about the same stage in 1983, when aged 11.”
Or, I was wiser as a kid than you are as young adults, so listen to my words in lieu of picking up a history book. The story of 1983 is far more complicated than its portrayal in 2015 opinion columns.
What these figures are evoking is History with a capital ‘H’. A loaded tautology, the idea that as something failed before it will only fail again. It’s the very “definition of madness” to try otherwise, we are told. The past is a clear warning against the future. To speak of 1983 is enough in such arguments, further words need not be necessary. Steven Fielding can therefore rename Jeremy as “Catastrophe Corbyn” with 1983 as supporting evidence.
Likewise, take Erdington MPJack Dromey’s endorsement of Yvette Cooper (which incidentally contains very little about Cooper herself). Dromey writes extensively of Foot and his failures, before applying his conclusions directly onto Corbyn’s future.. In such analyses Corbyn becomes Michael Foot simply because he is left-wing, and alongside his manifesto (five years prior to being written) becomes the second “longest suicide note in history.” Is this accurate?
PART II: MICHAEL FOOT, THE FICTIONAL LEFTIST
Let’s step into our time machine and head back to 1983. Gerald Kaufmann is perhaps most famous for that phrase, “the longest suicide note in history”, his scathing indictment of Michael Foot’s manifesto, and the Manchester Gorton MP remembersit as a time when “poor, innocent Foot” had been misled by communist infiltrators (known as the Militant Tendency) who worked at the mercy of the KGB (the spy he mentions, Viktor Kubeikin, according to a google search only appears on the entire internet within articles penned by Kaufmann). Kaufmann’s words are emblematic of the Lesson of 1983, where Foot plays the gullible, romantic leftist who was dealing with forces he could not understand.
Others remember it differently, and place serious doubt over the validity of Foot’s leftism. Academic Jeremy Gilbert sees Foot as an “intelligent but un-charismatic” leftist, but others rememberedFoot as closer to his deputy Denis Healey and the reformists of the right, and was regarded by many of the left at the time, Labour or otherwise, with healthy suspicion, tied to the proto-austerity of Callaghan’s government as much as a leftist agenda. Toynbee remembered a buzz of excitement around Foot from the converted (#Footmania, if you will), but there was certainly no premature coronation; a quick look back at opinion polls shows that Foot’s did not record support over 40% from 1981, and was far behind Thatcher for a year prior to the vote.
But did Michael Foot even matter? The National Executive Committee and the Constituency parties, under the figurehead of Tony Benn, held great sway over Labour policy in the early-1980s, and had seen a shift leftwards in the decade previous as activists born in the struggles of the ‘60s and ‘70s graduated to higher office. Their influence was palpable in manufacturing a left-wing platform for 1983 that has certainly never been seen in the party since. But, as Ralph Miliband argued at the time, its commitments to unilateral disarmament and re-nationalisation of industry were not far-removed from previous, victorious Labour manifestos of the 1970s. So what went so dreadfully wrong?
Had times changed? Had Thatcherism more in tune to the mood of the electorate? Perhaps, but Thatcher was deeply unpopular until the advent of war in the Falklands. The narrative of the “Falklands Factor” is well-known, but its perceived impact has recently come into question. In any case, Thatcher’s vote share fell from 1979. The SDP were an important factor, born of the “civil war” within the party, and gained millions of votes, although the idea that those votes would have otherwise “belonged” to Labour is fraught with inaccuracy. But Miliband still located the responsibility for Labour’s loss at its own doorstep. It was not the leftist platform itself, he argued, but that Labour presented a left-wing manifesto to be argued at the highest level by people like Foot and Healey who did not believe in its words. How could those unconvinced by their own arguments possibly defend them in the face of a full-blown assault by the Thatcherist media?
Jeremy Corbyn is a bona fide left-winger, there can be no doubt about that, he is a republican, a vice-chair of CND, and a weekly contributor to the Morning Star, Britain’s last remaining Marxist paper. But his platform is hardly radical when compared with ghosts of manifestos past; a Keynesian economic policy, re-nationalisation of the railways, devolution to northern England, and scrapping of Trident. These are policies with significant support that are held already in some form by the SNP and Greens. Foot in 1983 was, perhaps, in an opposite situation, as a moderate in charge of a left-wing manifesto. There is certainly enough doubt in the similarity of Corbynism with Michael Foot and the “longest suicide note in history” as to argue that there is no historical use in such association.
PART III: FROM SUICIDE NOTES TO TOMBSTONES
That is not to say that to compare Labour in 1983 and 2015 is simply an exercise in futility, there are useful comparisons to be made, but they have little to do with Jeremy Corbyn. Consider these words from Ralph Miliband.
The election results have conferred a new legitimacy upon an exceptionally reactionary Conservative government; and they have also served to demoralise further a movement that was already in bad shape well before the election. It may be said – and indeed it should be said – that the Conservative Government only obtained 30.8 per cent of the total vote and 42.2 per cent of those who voted; and that its vote was less than in 1979. But the system is designed to put the main emphasis on the number of seats won rather than on votes cast; and the fact that the Government obtained a majority of 144 seats in the House of Commons makes it possible for it to claim, however spuriously, that it has a ‘mandate’ for the policies it chooses to put forward.
It was the damage following 1983 that many today warn may be repeated under Corbyn. Dromey gives an impassioned recollection of the decade, and how Thatcher’s war against trade unionism was legitimated by Labour’s defeat. That’s fair, but it discounts the frequent historical examples wherein opposition (or lack of it) played an important role; Kinnock’s diluted labourism achieved nothing but two further electoral defeats, and as Thatcher met stern opposition from striking miners and city councils, the “leader of the opposition” was nowhere to be found. While Kinnock sat on the fence, solidarity for the miners instead came from small activist organisations (such as the now-famous Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners). The Poll Tax demonstrations that would contribute to Thatcher’s downfall were forged in Militant. Kinnock, a weather-vane leader, was absent again until the tide was clearly turning.
Opposition can make a significant impact, just ask Ed Miliband, whose stance against David Cameron on Syria for a time changed government (and international) policy on the matter. It is another myth of history to suggest that little can be achieved outside of government; but when electability is all that matters to the Corbyn critics, no other aspect of political history is even considered. Were Labour to select another Kinnock, the current government may rule without proper and consistent opposition from the second-largest party in Parliament (as the SNP are unlikely to always intervene on English and Welsh legislation).
I cannot predict the future; it would be foolish and reductive to say with any certainty that “effective opposition” to the Conservative government would manifest itself simply through a Corbyn leadership. Gilbert is sceptical. He feels that the lack of an accompanying left popular movement will render this impossible; it was this, for Gilbert, that was the key failing of 1983 and he feels that, based on past experience, it could take another 10 years (or two Conservative governments) to build one.
PART V: FIRST LESSON, TRIPLE HISTORY
Whether it’s 1945, 1983, or 1997, the Labour leadership election is constantly being dragged into the past, and as in so many British political issues, there is perhaps too much importance being attached to the lessons of history. The intentional evocation of 1983 by the Labour right is clear, but British society as a whole can be too obsessed with applying historical rhetoric to present-day arguments. It is the duty of the historian to call out distortions of the past such as this, but to keep this discussion rooted in 1983 is to mimic Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History, hurtling backwards through the present with our eyes firmly rooted upon the debris of the past.
It needs to be written, boldly and simplistically (but not set in stone), that 2015 IS NOT 1983. Things move quicker now. The “Yes” campaign, Syriza and Podemos all show that mass movements do not need 10 years to grow, they just need a catalyst. Never mind the obvious statements that there is no Soviet Union in 1983, the Militant Tendency no longer exists, as well as the fact that left-issues considered “loony” 32 years ago such as LGBTQ rights and feminism are now increasingly part of the political mainstream. It is possible, through Corbyn or through other channels, for the English and Welsh left to organise on a national scale and nobody can say for certain whether this will “succeed” or “fail” based on the memories of Michael Foot and the election of 1983.
But memories of an altogether different time continue to dominate discussion over Corbyn. Just yesterday, Blairite John McTernan called for Tom Watson to rescue Labour “from itself”, writing that “if Jeremy Corbyn is Michael Foot, Tom Watson is Neil Kinnock. There is no alternative.” The real lesson of 1983 is that those who obsess over the past are condemned to repeat it, and those who misuse the past intend to repeat it.
Disclaimer: Although it is no secret that I am a massive leftie, this post is in no way affiliated to Labour Party, Corbyn, Michael Foot, or anyone except myself, and I write it as a historian.