As a campaigner for 65 years, I can’t accept the media-rewritten history accepted by contestants for the Labour leadership. Its principle myth – believed within and outside the Labour Party (but not by Jeremy Corbyn) – is that Labour is unelectable if left-wing.
There is no hard evidence for this but, through constant repetition, it is widely believed. I will refute this with statistics but, after the boring stuff, contrast the Labour Party today with what I recall of its more inspiring yesteryear.
[I wrote previously about the 2015 “Red Ed myth” but this post deals with other elections during my lifetime.]
The most left-wing Labour Party platform I recall was in 1945 – when it won 47.7% of the votes. This rose to 48.8% in 1951 when the Tories won with only 48% on an 82.7% voting turnout (compared with 66.1% in 2015). So there is no evidence there of left-wing policies alienating voters.
Labour’s share of the vote declined thereafter, in step with a rightwards drift in policy and, in 1979 was already 30% below its 1951 high. The media blames the even lower vote in1983 to Michael Foot’s leadership, conveniently ignoring the previous 28 years, the disastrous right-wing Callaghan legacy and the SDP splinter (supported as much by the media then as UKIP enjoys now).
For me, my abiding memory of the 1983 election campaign was of Michael Foot speaking to packed audiences. These received hardly a mention in the media and were shunned by leading members of his ultra-right shadow cabinet – who openly briefed the media against the agreed Labour Party policy.
In my opinion, Labour’s low vote in 1983 was primarily due to the counter-briefings by right-wing Labour careerists, not to the policy as such. People don’t vote for a divided party and the right-wing saboteurs were at least as much to blame for this perception. Yet, measured by the enthusiasm at election meetings, the 1983 campaign was comparable with 1945, 1950 and 1951 – and not been bettered since.
During the Kinnock years Labour drifted right to become respectable, expelled left-wing members and ended any pretence of supporting the underprivileged (such as our mining communities). This decline was halted when John Smith became leader and, as the John Major government stumbled from one crisis after another, we were all sure that Labour would win in 1997.
This was confirmed in the Euro election of 1994 when, following the untimely death of John Smith and with Margaret Beckett as temporary leader, Labour achieved a massive swing from the Conservatives, polling 44% to their 28% (with the LibDems also doing well on 17%). From that day on, everyone expected a Labour victory in 1997. Tony Blair was never a factor.
In the event, Labour achieved 43.2% in the General Election of 1997 (slightly down on Margaret Beckett’s 44%) and the Tories recovered a little to 30.7%. It was a sweeping victory for sure – but in no way attributable solely to Tony Blair in the way the media now would have us believe.
Similarly, the subsequent Labour victories of 2001 and 2005 were not the unmitigated triumphs for Tony Blair now portrayed in the media. Labour’s % share declined from 43.2% in 1997 and disastrously from 40.7% in 2001 to 35.2% (!) in 2005 whilst, significantly, voter turnout declined from 71.4% to 61.4% over that same period! This was a major loss of support and the contrast with 1945-51 is stark.
Despite all this evidence, the right-wing media continue to peddle the line that Tony Blair was a great electoral asset (because they like him). The reality is, even without his criminal support for the invasion of Iraq – which has alienated millions of potential Labour voters – there is no evidence from the statistics that Tony Blair or his policies was an electoral asset for Labour.
But there is a greater legacy from the Kinnock and Blair years – Labour stopped being a campaigning party. I’ve already recalled how Michael Foot enthused members and supporters in 1983. Let me go further back – to my first General Election in 1945. I vividly remember trailing James Callaghan through Cardiff, with about fifty other 10-12 year olds, as he spoke at every available street corner to literally hundreds of local residents.
The Labour Party had been founded by activists who put heart and soul into building the party – and it did remain a campaigning party well into the 1980s. Since then, and particularly during the Blair years, its leadership has taken active steps to restrict internal discussion and demonstrative activity and relied more and more on top-down campaigning – through press releases and media interviews – to get its policies across.
Whilst I don’t deny the value of media coverage, I do think it naive to hope that a hostile media, with organic ties to the Tory ruling class, will give the Labour Party fair coverage when it speaks up for the underprivileged. So long as Labour accepts Tory values and a Tory agenda, Labour will get a sympathetic hearing – and might indeed be elected with a “Tony Blair Mark 2” leader. But what would be the point?
I think Labour has to rediscover its roots and become again a voice for the underprivileged. If it does not do so, it deserves to be replaced by one or more of the new left parties ready to take its place.