Saturday, 12 September 2015

The eighties: a warning from history?

Only I can stop Jeremy Corbyn dragging Labour back to the 80s.
With the resounding Corbyn win, it's clear that Andy Burnham's warning from history has gone unheeded. Which would be a tragedy, if it really was the lefties wot lost it.

But Alex Nunns, writing in Red Pepper, reminds us that there were a few other things going on in the eighties. In particular, there was an unexpected war coming along just in time to save an unpopular Conservative administration. And this came in the wake of a massive opposition own goal, (the Limehouse Declaration, when a group of Labour right-wingers launched their divisive, doomed bid to create an alternative opposition, a declaration which was probably a better candidate for the title of 'the longest suicide note in history' than the 1983 Labour election manifesto ever was).
...Labour didn’t lose in 1983 because it was too left wing; rather, Thatcher won because of the Falklands War. The ‘Falklands factor’ could not be clearer from opinion polls. Prior to the war of April-June 1982, the Conservative Party was slumped at a consistent 27 per cent throughout late 1981, with a slight recovery in early 1982. But the Tories’ popularity shot up spectacularly with the war, hitting 51 per cent in May and remaining above 40 per cent right through to the general election...

...Before the Falklands, Thatcher was the most unpopular prime minister since records began. But immediately after it, in June 1982, she scored the highest satisfaction rating she would ever achieve with 59 per cent approval. Thatcher wrote in her memoirs: ‘It is no exaggeration to say that the outcome of the Falklands War transformed the British political scene… The so-called “Falklands factor”… was real enough. I could feel the impact of the victory wherever I went.’ 
There's no denying that Margaret Thatcher had a good war, which is particularly ironic, given the fact that her government was quite happy to consider ceding sovereignty of the islands to Argentina before and even immediately after, the invasion.

But the Falklands factor isn't a repeatable lesson of history. It was a contained, state versus state conflict, with specific war aims, which ended in a clearly defined victory, the victors enjoying the total support of the liberated population. But these days, there's little prospect of any government winning a khaki election on the back of a clear victory in such an unambiguous state versus state war.

Regardless of the moral cases for or against intervention, it's hard to imagine a similar quick, conclusive victory in, say, the modern killing fields of Syria/Iraq. It's about as different from the Falkands as can be. At the moment, Britain is sort of allied (as a junior partner of the USA) against one undeniably vile group of people, with a sprawling alliance of disparate states and non-state actors, some of whom are almost as vile as the main enemy (Islamic State) and are variously for and against the subsidiary bad guys (the Syrian regime which, inconveniently, is also fighting Islamic State). With the exception of the Kurds, most of our regional 'allies' hate us and each other almost as much as they hate Islamic State, all have different, conflicting war aims and the only thing our non-Kurdish regional allies can agree on is that they really hate the Kurds, who also happen to be the most effective anti-Islamic State ground troops in this whole bloody mess. If there is a sequel ('The Falklands Factor 2 - This Time It's Complicated') , it's almost guaranteed to flop at the electoral box office.

As for the Labour/SDP split, well, history could sort of repeat itself, what with rumours of an anti-Corbyn coup by rivals who didn't like the election result. We could certainly see a re-run of eighties disunity, but that's entirely up to the self-described moderate, pragmatic modernisers - they can choose to wreck the opposition by stabbing the elected leader in the back, or flouncing off in a Limehouse Declaration-style huff, or they could just accept that their party is a broad church and join in with the more important job of obstructing and, preferably, defeating the Tories.

If Andy Burnham and chums don't want to go back to the eighties, I have two pieces of good news for them. First, some of the stuff that went on then isn't coming round again any time soon. Second, you can learn about the things that might come back - disunity and in-fighting - and avoid them by adopting the Gang of Four as your anti-role models. It won't guarantee victory, but it's a damn sight more helpful than the conventional wisdom about the eighties that the Labour right seems to be sharing with the right-wing press.