“You call that statesmanship? I call it an emotional spasm.”Bevan’s withering lines, warning the party against unilateral disarmament, illustrate the fact that we are not in a new place. In the face of a public, for whom two world wars were still a very recent memory, the party’s left had “gone off on one”, on defence and other matters – to be fair, a move largely nurtured by Bevan himself – with the result that Labour wandered in the wilderness for thirteen long years.
Aneurin Bevan, shadow foreign secretary, 1959 Labour party conference
A similar effect took place in the 1980s under Michael Foot: seventeen more years. The party now teeters on the brink of a third, post-war wilderness period of comparable length.
Whoever wins the leadership in September, it seems clear that our current stay in opposition will eventually have lasted at least a full decade. A sudden Tory meltdown in this parliament looks remote and, objectively speaking, Cameron has made a better fist of being party leader than most in Labour give him credit for. He has, after all, increased his vote – no mean feat for a leader previously forced into Britain’s first formal coalition since the time of Churchill and Attlee.
No, it is time to take a step back. It is now more a question of, will it be just ten years in the wilderness, or will it be fifteen, or twenty? That is what the next few short weeks will decide.
But Labour, currently engaged in a frantic bout of navel-gazing, seems oblivious to this fact. While Uncut still believes he will not win, the surprising success of Jeremy Corbyn’s unplanned campaign points to a part of the Labour family pathologically incapable of learning from its past.
And the worst thing is not so much that it is veering close to repeating its mistakes, but that such a mistake could have considerably worse consequences than previous times.
For example, Corbyn’s policies strongly echo that previous 1980s wilderness period. But what is striking is how much the world has changed since. If nationalisation did not convince people then, will it really now, with the use of private capital in public bodies a reality which has lasted three-and-a-half decades?
While we can bang on impotently about the “neoliberal consensus” all we like, no-one in any major Western nation has seriously attempted to go back to full public ownership. There isn’t, bluntly, sufficient cash available which voters will stump up for.
And what about policies of open pacifism, in perhaps the most turbulent geopolitical times since that same war Bevan’s generation lived through? It is worth noting that the last time Labour elected a pacifist, George Lansbury, was a very dark time for the party and, though a man of decency, he was forced out of the leadership after only three years.
But it is in the “hostage to fortune” category that Labour’s emotional response is most dangerous. Being a little-known backbencher has its advantages: one is that your every utterance is not pored over by the newspapers.
That now, of course, is changing. Suddenly now common knowledge are facts which until recently were the preserve of political nerds like us: Corbyn’s tolerance of, or open support for, awful regimes in Venezuela, Cuba, Russia or Iran. His “engagement” – or, some would say, chumminess – with Hamas and Hezbollah, two organisations busy oppressing all sections of their own populations to a greater or lesser degree. Not to mention their brutal disregard for the lives of civilians: and not just their enemies’ civilians, but their own.
The reaction against that “tolerant tendency” within the party – let alone the country – is not restricted to the New Labour right: many on the party’s left, too, find these regimes despicable. Indeed, in recent years, the old left-right axis of the party has been joined by a second, quite independent dimension: the tolerance, or not, of authoritarian regimes.
Still, siren voices on all sides of the party talk of “unity”, or “respecting the views of the whole party spectrum”. It is a desperate, stubborn return to “one more heave”, in a world where no-one is listening. We cannot attack, it seems; we must gently persuade.
But what if some of those views are not just complacent, but barking mad? What if they need to be challenged at all costs? At what point do we opt to stand up and be counted?
Stand up, stand up, I say. For the reality is this: there are now just a few short weeks to prevent our emotional responses from turning those ten years into fifteen or twenty.
This post first published at Labour Uncut