1983 and its Misuses: Jeremy Corbyn and the “Lessons of History”

Ed stone


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 words are 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 Toynbee recalls 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 Four who 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 MP Jack 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?


Source: http://www.private-eye.co.uk/pictures/covers/full/543_big.jpg
Private Eye Cover, 8th October 1982, Tony Benn and Michael Foot. Source: http://www.private-eye.co.uk/pictures/covers/full/543_big.jpg

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 remembers it 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 remembered Foot 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?

Polling data, 1979, 1983. Source: Anthony Wells, UK Polling Report
Really Useful Graph of Polling Data, 1979, 1983. Source: Anthony Wells, UK Polling Report

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.


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.

Ring any bells? Fast-forward to 2015, and we have a government who obtained 24.4% of electorate support and 36.9% of those who voted, and with a majority of 12 has immediately set upon massive cuts to welfare (and even attempted to re-introduce fox hunting) with its new-found mandate. Foot and his manifesto combined to present a confusing, contradictory face of the Labour party, in 2015, there was Ed Miliband, who muddled his way somewhere between tackling inequality and mimicking Tory policy on immigration and the economy in a bid to seem electable. Labour was nearly buried by this confusion; the metaphor of “the longest suicide note in history” was mimicked by Ed Miliband’s tombstone of triple-locked pledges; promises so wrapped within meaningless platitudes as to promise nothing but a manifesto worth less than zero.



Poll Tax Demonstrations. Source: BBC News UK
Poll Tax Demonstrations, 1989. Source: BBC News UK

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.


“Angelus Novus” by Klee, or Benjamin’s Angel of 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.