Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Why the Thatcher / Corbyn Comparisons Are Bullshit: A Crash-Course History Lesson

“The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living." -

Karl Marx, The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte

If Marx’s witty addendum to Hegel’s notion of the repetition of world-historical events – “first as tragedy, then as farce” holds true, then just where exactly does Jeremy Corbyn’s surprising ascension to the leadership of the Labour Party place us on the Tragifarcial Historical Continuum? Elements of both have been apparent – the tragic sense gained from a pessimism that can only come from an overview of the history of left-wing party leaders in a capitalist economic system (they always fail). The sense of farce comes from observing the reaction to Corbyn’s win among the chattering classes (it ranges from condescending to absurd). The dust has yet to settle, and in the smog many writers are left scrambling for an illuminating historical analogy that can give us an explanatory pathway towards understanding how history may yet again repeat itself. As with most ephemeral political writing, the trick towards generating an audience and, crucially, those all-important clicks is to say something counter-intuitive that everyone instinctively knows is a load of old cobblers, but to argue the point in a novel way that makes it look like you have something interesting to say. It’s through this that we get the most popular contrarian analogy of the past few months: Jeremy Corbyn is Margaret Thatcher.

The argument rests on two sacred cows of popular British political history; the Great-Man-meets-Revenge-of-the-Nerds theory popularised in Hollywood sensationalist garbage like the 2011 film The Iron Lady that Margaret Thatcher was a lone political radical who transformed the country via a whiplash-inducing shift from post-war consensus to free market neoliberalism, a shift realised by the strength of the leader’s character and clarity of her vision. The other, that Thatcher’s popularity with the general public, rather than her party, was an enduring factor which led to her electoral victories.

The Lady is Not For Turning (The Tide)

The first cow to the slaughter is the notion that there ever really was such a thing as consensus in British political discourse which Thatcher was able to “smash through” on the strength of a bold new exotic ideology of neoliberalism hitherto unknown to the British people. In reality, demand for less state control of the economy existed in post-war political discourse at least since 1946 with the formation of the Housewives’ League and would be a prominent (though by no means consensual) political solution to the increasingly costly yet popular welfare state. Nevertheless, the character of state intervention in the economy through public spending projects was something politically popular and preserved in spirit through both political parties in the immediate post-war period, but with strategic targeting of marginal groups designed to get each party more votes.

It was ironically a Labour Government which first broke with the notion of entirely state-managed industry and transformed it into an electoral strategy. In 1963, the then-Leader of the Opposition Harold Wilson proposed greater public-private collaboration to forge a “new Britain” in the “white heat of technology” to propel Britain to prosperity through scientific revolution. It was the Tories, led by Sir Edward Heath who in the 1970 Selsdon Park conference later forged the radical free-market ideology upon which the Conservatives won the 1970 election. The manifesto was shortly abandoned, however, in the face of trade union opposition. It was this victory of free-market ideology and subsequent U-Turn, rather than a booming voice or skill with a cutting jibe, which formed the basis for Thatcher’s ascent to the Premiership.

Heath’s U-Turn in the face of union opposition led to the formation of the Selsdon Group in 1973, which acted as a political pressure faction based on the certitude that Heath’s dramatic shift from a deregulatory right-wing agenda was a craven capitulation to organised labour and a betrayal of what had been seen as an endorsement of neoliberalism by the British public. Rumblings of the 1980s Thatcherite rule could be felt in the first year of Heath’s leadership, with tax cuts handed out for the wealthy and curtailments on union power realised through the Industrial Relations Act 1971. By this point, Thatcher was in Heath’s Cabinet as Minister for Education and eventually became known to the public chiefly as the minister responsible for the withdrawal of free milk in schools – “Thatcher, the milk snatcher”. The end of consensus and the introduction of austerity and market reforms were felt during the subsequent Callaghan Premiership, with the proclamation of the death of consensus in the 1976 Labour conference and the introduction of widespread public sector reforms signalling a cross-party move towards the free market. Even the Thatcherite casus belli of right-to-buy was first proposed by Labour in its 1959 election manifesto.

The comparison with Corbyn which therefore states that Thatcher was a lone ideological zealot despised by her parliamentary party, yet beloved by the public, is one that fails to stand up to scrutiny. Whilst Thatcher was on the right of the Tory party, she was a prominent figure in its leadership prior to her election (though due to her gender relegated to a minor role in Cabinet), and the policies she would introduce during her premiership were already beginning to present themselves in embryonic form in previous administrations. By contrast, Jeremy Corbyn has no real ideological base of support amongst his parliamentary party and his economic policies, whilst certainly not extreme in a purely academic sense (besides a dogged insistence on the viability of rent controls), are outside the mainstream of policy forming circles which aim at profitability over investment.

The Rise and Rise of Thatcher: A Convenient Bullshit Tale

The second sacred cow is the inevitability of Thatcher’s rise. The popular mythology is a lazy sort of Whig history which treats the Thatcher’s seizure of the premiership as an inevitable outcome based on the public’s faith in her radical deregulatory platform. Whilst we can be sure that the declining rates of profit in the 1970s would have made austerity, a growth in private debt and free-market reforms inevitable, that Thatcher was necessarily the person to do this, or that it was neoliberalism as endorsed wholeheartedly by the electorate which led to her victories is questionable.

Pictured: A memorial service for an apparently popular politician.
Thatcher herself was never personally popular as a politician. Whilst there was, and still is, a section of the public and the Conservative Party who found her uncompromising and dictatorial leadership style invigorating, to the majority of the electorate (and, ultimately, her party) she was seen as an unlikeable figure and difficult, if not impossible to work with. Whilst it is often said that Thatcher, in contrast to Tony Blair, never used focus groups, the reality is that she relied heavily on the PR firm Saatchi and Saatchi to reinforce her personal image and, crucially before her premiership, the image that Labour was mismanaging the economy – the famous “Labour isn’t Working” campaign. In terms of positive ideological arguments, there was very little. The 1979 Conservative Party manifesto on which she won her first election victory outlined the “five tasks” of the Tory Party in Government:

(1) To restore the health of our economic and social life, by controlling inflation and striking a fair balance between the rights and duties of the trade union movement.
(2) To restore incentives so that hard work pays, success is rewarded and genuine new jobs are created in an expanding economy.
(3) To uphold Parliament and the rule of law.
(4) To support family life, by helping people to become home-owners, raising the standards of their children's education, and concentrating welfare services on the effective support of the old, the sick, the disabled and those who are in real need.
(5) To strengthen Britain's defences and work with our allies to protect our interests in an increasingly threatening world.

This is a fairly bread-and-butter right-of-centre manifesto, as opposed to a battle standard for an insurgent, union-busting far-right government. Though Thatcher would in later interviews decry those who sought consensus and bridge-building as idiotic wimps, the image sold to the electorate in 1979 was a vague promise to restore greatness and fairly wooly pledges to curtail union power. Rising inflation and unemployment, the winter of discontent and voter malaise with 15 years of a Labour Government made divisive, ideological rhetoric unnecessary – the entire focus of the 1979 campaign was against Labour rather than for Thatcher. Even after the 1979 election, Thatcher was less personally popular than James Callaghan, and her disastrous handling of the economy in the years after the 1979 election saw her job approval rating reach as low as 16%. It was only her victory in the Falklands War (itself a consequence of her cuts to military spending) which revived her popularity in time for the 1983 General Election.

"It was the pun 'wot won it!"

None of the above suggests that a comparison between Thatcher and Corbyn, or between 1979 and 2015, is remotely relevant to enable us to envisage a path to victory for Labour in 2020, at least in the way which is typically argued. It shows us that the idea that Thatcher’s ascension provides a blueprint for an election victory won on strong ideological grounds is false, since Thatcher’s 1979 victory was by no means inevitable and was won by exploiting voter perceptions of the Callaghan Government. Much of what Thatcher put forth in Government was just a speeding-up of what would likely have happened anyway as a result of the declining rate of profit, and would likely have been implemented in some way, shape or form by a Labour administration, as well.

Labouring the Point

The argument put forth by Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters is that Labour lost the election in 2015 because it failed to provide a credible alternative to austerity. This is an attractive argument to those of us on the left who oppose austerity, but it is, unfortunately, false. Post-election polling shows that the three issues on which the Conservatives won the election (and Labour lost) in 2015 were 1) economic credibility, 2) immigration and 3) perceptions of party leaders.

The Tory sleight-of-hand on the issue of economic credibility is fairly remarkable when we consider that an economic crisis which was caused primarily by sub-prime mortgage lending in the US was portrayed to voters as a result of reckless Labour overspending. None of this supposed recklessness was opposed by the Tories during their time in opposition, of course, but the public tendency to view public spending as “too much of a good thing” resulting in economic crisis is easily exploited, as are asinine comparisons between household and national economies that necessitate austerity (which is not really about “living within our means” so much as increasing corporate profitability). What then resulted was a crisis caused by typical enemies of the left (speculative bankers, city fatcats) being blamed on the left itself!

This is what a tabloid reader has been told a Corbyn rally looks like.
Nothing, moreover, suggests that the public view Jeremy Corbyn as more Prime Ministerial than his likely opponent (should he survive as leader) in 2015, George Osbourne. The unique hostility from the press which he faces as party leader will only increase – even natural allies such at The Guardian remain patronising and dismissive of his leadership. The odd Owen Jones here or there is unlikely to be enough to change public perception, particularly when Corbyn’s laudable adherence to Republican principles can be sold to a jingoistic Middle England as a rabid hatred of the Royal Family.

What we are left with, then, is a leader with a commendable (though hardly extreme) economic platform which shifts the focus from profitability, which has increased in the past five years, to investment, which has not, and without any of the necessary political infrastructure to implement it. When elected as Leader of the Opposition, Margaret Thatcher had served as a minister, had in broad terms the support of her party and exploited public perceptions of Labour incompetence. Jeremy Corbyn, meanwhile, cannot command the loyalty of even his Shadow Cabinet due to a long history of rebellion against the party, and absent a disastrous economic crisis which can be pinned on the Tories, can very easily be painted as a reckless, overspending socialist. As leftists, we can of course be supportive of a genuine alternative to the austerian economic consensus, but let’s not delude ourselves into thinking that success through Parliament is likely, or that solace can be found in the mythologies of our enemies.

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