Predicting the future from the historical past is like weather forecasting from previous meteorological data. You see familar patterns, you make predictions, often they are good, sometimes they are off. History is undoubtedly far more difficult to divine the future from, however, because of the human element.
In the UK, the soothsayers, drawing on history, have written off ‘Jezza.’ Comrade Corbyn has been under fire since he assumed the reins of the Labour leadership and he had to quell a revolt against his stewardship of the party. He wasn’t deterred by most of his MPs turning on him and threw down the gauntlet by calling for a 21st century Socialism at the Labour party conference. Derision has greeted his rallying cries. Comparisons are being made with Michael Foot, the hapless Labout leader who got creamed by Thatcher in the 1983 election.
Corbyn is even more hard-left than Foot. So, he should get even more creamed … right?
Not really. You see when it’s said that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it, the crucial part of that adage is the learning from history bit. You have to learn from history and not merely draw the conclusions you want to draw by invoking a spurious comparison. Notwithstanding Corbyn’s difficulty in speaking authoritatively and his policies which may be unpalatable to many (most definitely the media), we shouldn’t jump to comparisons with Foot. Here’s why.
In her first few years in office, Thatcher was doing so badly in the polls that she was nearly shunted out of office by her cabinet. Then in 1982, out of a clear blue sky, Atgentina invaded the Falklands. This was a ‘perfect’ war for Thatcher. It was in a land far away and didn’t pose an existential threat to the UK. The UK were ‘wronged.’ It was an old-fashioned and chivalrous affair. And most of all the UK won.
Thatcher’s victories in 1983 and 1987 were built on this victory. The Conservatives were able to portray Labour as weak and cowardly, while Thatcher was strong and virile. Victory in the Falklands was not the only factor dogging ‘Old Labour,’ moreover. There was also the fact that post-WWII Socialism (also supported by and large by the Tories before Thatcher) had failed miserably. Memories of the biting austerity of the 1970s were fresh in peoples minds. Lastly, there was the power of the unions whom, it was felt, had become too big for their boots. Invariably, the ill will towards the unions couldn’t be separated from political representatives of organized labour. The obvious outcome of the identity crisis in Labour was the emergence of ‘New Labour.’
Yet 2016 is not 1983. With regards to war, there is a sense of weariness amongst many in Britain. Even if Theresa May does go to war, it’s unlikely to be a ‘perfect’ one like in 1982. Starting a conflict to get a ‘bounce’ in the polls is a risky option. When it comes to the economy, that has been run on neo-liberal lines since Thatcher. Socialism can’t be blamed for the austerity of the last eight years. And lastly, the unions are neither as powerful nor seen as a public menace as they were in the 1980s. In fact, much of the electorate may welcome a strong Unionism in the time of zero-hours contracts.
Corbyn does face challenges to become leader. Theresa May is clever, although not as appealing as Thatcher. She has stolen Corbyn’s thunder somewhat by talking up the State and social justice. Corbyn lacks bite when he speaks and he comes across as too intellectual. Finally, there are his enthusiastic supporters, who may appear too idealistic to floating voters.
But Corbyn shouldn’t be written off and he’s no Michael Foot, not just because of their slightly different ideologies, but most of all because it’s Conservative policies that are now discredited.