Stephen Komarnyckyj wonders why Labour views its most successful leaders – Wilson and Blair – in such harsh terms.
“Steve!” someone yelled from behind me. I turned round and saw my mate Dave. He was holding a live carp in his hand. It was 1975, we were both twelve years old and hanging round the ‘rec’, the playing ground on our council estate. “I’ve just found it,” he said, and we ran to my house and filled a biscuit tin with water.
The fish swam around looking at reflections of itself repeated ad infinitum. My dad, a sternly moral Ukrainian, made us take it to the mill pond at Deep Lane and he hurled it into the middle of the water. I can still see it now twisting through the air like a ribbon of fire, the glass crown as it hit the water.
I’ve been thinking a lot about those days and how Britain has changed. My English mum, a firebrand socialist who worked in a biscuit factory, raised money at the Labour Party garden fete by telling fortunes. She was in a tent with an inverted goldfish bowl and a headscarf and called herself Gypsy Jean.
We lived only five minutes walk away from where Harold Wilson, Labour’s forgotten leader, was born in 1916. He came to power in October 1964 and changed Britain utterly, winning four elections. Wilson’s government introduced equal pay, race relations legislation, and decriminalised homosexuality. He was the architect of the socially tolerant Britain threatened by the right wing authoritarianism. Yet strangely he is largely forgotten by his own party, and the working classes of the north are in turn forgetting Labour.
However, these areas have suffered most at the hands of a Tory government. Here schools and youth centres have closed, and health services have been cut to the bone. Why did Labour lose the 12 December 2019 election here when it should have won?
I spoke to Glen O’Hara, professor of history at Brookes College Oxford, who has written extensively about the Labour party. He thinks that one problem is Labour’s view of its history.
“It can’t think back beyond Kinnock’s battle with militants, or even Tony Blair,” O’Hara told Byline Times. Labour often views its most recent successful Prime Minister in exclusively negative terms. Blair’s government is remembered for the Iraq war, rather than introducing a minimum wage, lifting people out of poverty and improving public services. However, Blair also won three elections, while Corbyn couldn’t win even one. Why?
Corbyn’s stance after the Iraq war was that Blair should be investigated for ‘war crimes’. He came to bury Blair not to praise him. However, Corbyn himself has not so much a skeleton as a whole graveyard in his cupboard. Britain’s largely oligarchic owned and right wing press gleefully covered his associations with terrorists. As O’Hara notes, polling shows “that the main reason the Party lost was a widespread loathing of Corbyn.”
Labour also failed to tackle accusations of antisemitism and Corbyn made the problem worse. Russia Today, which he praises, has promoted conspiracy theories about 9/11 of the kind which would bring a gleam to the eye of many a Neo Nazi. In 2016, Ken Livingstone, a Russia Today regular, ludicrously suggested that Hitler once supported Zionism. The problem spiralled out of control and, as O’Hara notes, that “came up on the doorsteps, and spoiled Labour’s image as the ‘nice’ party.”
The Party’s policy confusion also affected its credibility.
Corbyn rejected the approach of Blair and Wilson but had nothing credible to put in its place. Voters were very wary of a manifesto that was a list of unrealisable promises. Milne and Murray, key figures in the Party, are ex British Communist Party Members with a deranged view of history. Both men have tried to find nice things to say about Stalin of the kind such as he may have murdered umpteen million people but hey unemployment was low. The Party’s proposals reflected this weak grasp on reality and its own past. Some people in focus groups laughed out loud as they read Labour’s pledges.
what the papers don’t say
Stay up to date with news from the Byline Times Team
The Party also bungled its approach to the EU. According to O’Hara, Labour appeared “to be on both sides of the debate with regard to Brexit. It would not commit to free movement even though its conference voted for it.” Why?
I spoke to Dr Thomas Prosser of Cardiff University who has written about the crisis in Labour movements. He argues that the “EU was used as a scapegoat by politicians from all parties for years. However, Labour has a particular problem”. “Its support base is composed of public sector professionals and traditional working classes. These groups experience EU membership very differently, he told the Byline Times.“
The Labour Party lost because it failed to find a language to speak with its working class supporters. It failed to craft a programme that could appeal both to them and its white collar supporters in public services.
The plumber who thinks they are fighting for work with a Polish rival and the NHS manager with a second home in France live in different worlds.
The Party’s leadership was also grabbed by a clique, some of whom believe that one of history’s most murderous regimes wasn’t that bad.
Whoever ultimately leads Labour now will have to build a party that ditches them and rebuilds its support by offering something believable. They, like Blair and Wilson, will have to be radicals who you could take to your gran’s for a cup of tea. Wilson once said, “the Labour party is a crusade or it is nothing”.
Only when the Party understands that he and Blair did their best to make life in Britain better and fairer and learns from them will it win again.