Are we sure that Corbyn’s Labour would lose in 2020?

So, judging by the panic and the increasingly desperate attempts by John Mann MP to oust him from the Labour leadership contest, it seems there are now real prospects that Jeremy Corbyn may actually become the next leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition.

All of which is odd, because right now, only those on the extreme left side of the political commentariat disagree with the overwhelming consensus, that the Labour party would almost certainly lose the 2020 General Election, if led by Corbyn.

The Tories seem to agree, many of them allegedly having paid £3 to join the Labour party and vote for him, while those on the left, supporting him, are being painted as intransigent idealists. Indeed I’ve heard many of my left wing friends suggesting that it’s better to lose fighting what you believe in – as if they’ve given up on the 2020 election already. Are they really so unimpressed by the other candidates?

I confess, all my instincts push me towards the majority view; that the Labour party is preparing to commit electoral suicide, just as it did in 1980 when electing Michael Foot over Dennis Healey, and just as the Tories did in 2001 when electing Iain Duncan Smith over Kenneth Clarke.

But might we have judged this wrong?

It’s a theory which appears to be underpinned by three supposed historical precedents, which I will examine in turn:

1) Elections are won from the centre ground.

Certainly in 1983, and to a lesser extent 1987, Labour were some way further left than they are today, and they lost; just as in 2001, and to a lesser extent 2005, the Tories were further to the right, and they lost.

But in the two 1980s elections, the only party anywhere near the centre (the Alliance) came 3rd. So we’re left with only two historical precedents (2001 & 2005) which are both recent and relevant, where a centre ground party fought against idealist opposition. And yes, Labour, the party closer to the centre, won both.

Significant, perhaps, but as a basis for electoral certainty, it strikes me as more than a little flaky.

So let’s have a look at the second:

2) Labour lost the 2015 election because it became too left-wing

If the first theory is flaky, then this one strikes me as positively leprous.

Labour failed to build up a lead before the election because the electorate widely believed their leader was not Prime Minister material, and because the Coalition Government were seen to have managed a difficult economic period, pretty well.

Despite this, the election should still have been pretty close, and in my opinion it certainly would have been, had it not been for the SNP tidal wave in Scotland, and the consequent fear (justified, and ruthlessly exploited by the Tories) in England & Wales, of a Labour minority Government propped up by the SNP.

While the SNP sweep owed far more to patriotism than economics, the scale of their impact on the overall UK result, coupled with fact that they campaigned on very left-wing rhetoric (albeit rather more so than was justified by their manifesto), makes it very difficult to conclude that Labour’s defeat flowed from their policies being too left-wing.

So how about the third pillar of wisdom?

3) Labour also lost the 1983 election because it was too left-wing

At first glance, this seems a more solid premise. In 1980, left-wing leader Michael Foot was elected by an inward looking Labour party, and a landslide Tory election win followed in 1983.

But again, I think there is reason to doubt the central premise.

Michael Foot’s Labour were supposedly ‘unelectable’ in 1983, but it’s also widely believed that Margaret Thatcher’s Falklands triumph of 1982 was the crucial factor in turning around the Tories’ fortunes. Both of these can’t be true, unless one really believes that the Alliance were on course to win the next election (they began eroding the Labour vote in late 1981 and polled well in 1982, but that was in mid-term).

Moreover, Michael Foot himself was an electoral liability – even more so than Ed Miliband this year. Can we really be sure that similarly left-wing policies, presented by a more charming leader, during a period when Tory policies were far more socially divisive than anything seen since 2010, might not have returned Labour to power in 1983 or 84, if the Argentines had kept their gunpowder dry?

I don’t think we can.

So is there no other basis for the Corbyn-doom theory, beyond the three pillars of wisdom, upon all of which, a seed of honest doubt can apparently be sewn?

Because if not, I don’t think we can be quite so sure that a Labour party led by Jeremy Corbyn, would go down the tubes in 2020.


About edstradling

Documentary Producer who also writes political blogs. You can see my TV stuff at the links below.
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7 Responses to Are we sure that Corbyn’s Labour would lose in 2020?

  1. Jim Smith says:

    Possibly worth noting that the Tories’ share of the vote in 83 was very slightly down on 79. The Falklands War rescued them from the poll doldrums, but it didn’t lift them above their level of four years earlier, it was the split opposition that handed them their vast majority, rather than the Falklands or indeed anything they themselves did.

  2. Michael Hill says:

    The last poll before the Falklands War began had Labour in third place

  3. suepat says:

    I disagree that the SNP sweep was down more to patriotism than econonmics. Scotland had a viable alternative opposing austerity politics to vote for. Labour were trying to be all things to everybody and ultimately nobody was convinced. I think if Corbyn had the right people beside him he has the potential to provide a real alternative for the rest of the uk – I do think there is an appetite for this. Regrettably he has so much opposition from within the party not to mention the media, I dont know if he will be able to fulfill this.

  4. Gareth says:

    I think it shows incredible political naivety to continue to believe that the so-called ‘Falklands Factor’ had a particularly big impact on the outcome of the 1983 general election. Labour’s wild swerve to the Left during Mrs Thatcher’s first term was certainly more of more important to the average voter. During this period (and in the run-up to the ’83 election) Labour were, in their own words: ‘committed to radical, socialist policies for reviving the British economy.’ They advocated unilateral nuclear disarmament, withdrawal from the EEC and NATO as well as the nationalisation of key industries and the financial sector. For many Britons the Winter of Discontent only five years previously was a far more tangible memory than the Falklands War (indeed the elders of my family still talk of it from time-to-time) and Labour’s drastic policies did not appeal to cautious voters, for whom, as now, economics was the most important factor in determining political allegiance. Michael Foot, Leader of the House in Callaghan’s government, simply was not trusted. Indeed Labour only again became electable after Blair and co. had dragged it kicking-and-screaming towards the centre ground of politics in the mid-nineties. Little wonder that political commentators refer to the period 1979-1997 as Labour’s ‘wilderness years’; Gerald Kaufman famously called it ‘the longest suicide note in history.’

    The other contributing factor, which you also touch on, was the emergence of the SDP-Liberal Alliance in 1981. Although the Alliance only won 23 seats in the ’83 general election, if this is seen in the context of the first-past-the-post system then the Alliance got 26% of the national vote compared to Labour’s 28%. This splitting of the Left allowed the Tories to triumph in many Labour seats, increasing their majority from 43 to 144 despite receiving fewer votes than in the 1979 election. This obviously has nothing to do with any ‘Falklands Factor’ and, frankly, I wish the Left would put this particular shibboleth to bed for once and for all.

    Of course, that is not to say that there were those who did not vote for the Tories purely because of the war, immature though this may seem, however it would appear that were a number of less obvious but more mitigating reasons for the final result.

  5. Pingback: Are we sure that Corbyn’s Labour would lose in 2020? | Read Noir

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