Forget the books. Jeremy Corbyn is without historical precedent

A leader of his type has never risen to the top of Labour before, says historian Glen O'Hara. 

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Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour’s leader has been accompanied by all sorts of talk about taking Labour back to its ‘core values’, its ‘traditional roots’, or its ‘original policies’. It is a beguiling image: an old-fashioned, straight-talking, rough-hewn, unspun Old Labour hero who’s ridden into town, saving the party from the initially successful, but ultimately shallow, ‘modernity’ of trim and muddle and compromise. The main flaw involved in this idea? It is almost entirely inaccurate.

Such claims cannot just float freely in the air: they should and can be tested, by reference to the historical record. And what that shows – once you clear away the accreted myths and stories that surround Labour’s foundation and early years – is that Labour has never before been led by a politician so far from its historic centre of gravity, so distant from the electorate, or so fundamentally divorced from the party’s intellectual mainstream.

Start with Labour’s foreign policy. Only one leader – George Lansbury, who took over in 1932 and led Labour until just before the 1935 General Election – has been an unequivocal pacifist. And the rather more realistic and belligerent trade unionists of the time made sure he was removed as the threat of European fascism became clear. Although not an absolute pacifist, Corbyn’s recent revelation that he could imagine no circumstances in which he would commit British forces to combat means he comes as close as you can without actually using the word, a position no Labour leader since Lansbury has come anywhere near.

His isolationist instincts – witness his call this week for a review of UK operations in Iraq – run clean counter to almost all of Labour’s post-Lansbury history. From Clement Attlee’s coalition with Churchill and the Conservatives to defeat Hitler and Imperial Japan, and then his alliance with the USA to fight in Korea, on to Jim Callaghan’s decision to upgrade the Polaris nuclear weapon system, through Michael Foot’s devastating denunciation of the Argentine military junta during the Falklands crisis in 1983, the party’s criticism of John Major’s weak-willed policy in Bosnia, and on to the Blair government’s intervention in Sierra Leone and Kosovo, Labour always been willing to fight to defend international peace, law and security. That is why Ernie Bevin, surely its greatest foreign secretary, fought so assiduously to found the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation; it’s why Aneurin Bevan, so lionized by many Corbynistas, came to renounce his outright opposition to the atomic bomb; it was the means by which both Attlee and Harold Wilson, with mixed results, tried to effect leverage in Washington. To abandon this tradition as a return to “Labour’s principles” may or may not be wise: it is certainly not historically justified.

The second useful category here is how Labour is supposed to campaign – and what it is actually for. The Labour leader who Corbyn most closely resembles in tone and pitch is its first, Keir Hardie. The insistence that everything must be clear, that everything must be painted as black and white and not in shade of grey, recalls Hardie, and has helped Corbyn to the leadership with members and supporters tired of political doublespeak. But scratch a little deeper and Hardie abandoned the Liberals for a campaigning new “Labour” group not because he believed in campaigning for its own sake, and not because he wanted to stay pure and unsullied by contact with rivals and electors, but because he believed from the very start that a new party was needed to seize power and use it on behalf of the workers.

There’s a personal class element here, too. Hardie spoke in the language and accent of real lived hardship, a deeply-felt inheritance from his upbringing in the Lanarkshire mines – into which he had been sent at the age of eleven. Corbyn does not have that really instinctive feel for actual working people. He speaks in the language of the rallies he has so successfully mobilized: of younger idealists and older nostalgics. There is no doubt that there is some fallow soil for a new Left idealism, mined among others by Syriza, Podemos and Bernie Sanders. Sadiq Khan is in with a chance of being London Mayor, for instance, partly because of his inspiring life story as the son of a bus driver who grew up in a council flat. Watch Corbyn for but a moment, and read just about anything he’s ever said, and you realise: his oratory and prose are full of jargon and concepts, supposition and theory, not of a lived life as Hardie would have understood it.

Only under Lansbury has Labour even really considered going down a full-throated left-wing path. Stafford Cripps won some support with his call for a more efficiently and socialistically planned war economy in 1941-42, before Churchill cemented his position as War Premier at El Alamein; Tony Benn threatened to take over the Party between the passing of Labour’s Programme 1973 and his deputy leadership defeat by Denis Healey in 1981. But neither looked truly likely, for more than a few weeks and months, to actually become leader. The unions were too right-wing, and the selectorate too deeply rooted in practical ways of thought and life, for that: while the parliamentary party, until the 1980s, remained in control of who was Labour’s actual leader in the Commons. Both Labour’s moral and pragmatic impulses have either come from the Party’s centre (Attlee), from its soft left (Wilson, Foot, Neil Kinnock), its old right (Hugh Gaitskell, John Smith) or its trade union traditionalists (Callaghan). Even Tony Blair’s radicalism bore many of the hallmarks of long-established revisionist thought, crafted by Tony Crosland among others, insistent that the ownership and control of public enterprises and services was far less important than how they actually worked in the real world. Corbyn’s leadership rivals all stood to some extent for quite old and crucially Labour traditions: Yvette Cooper for Brown’s adaptation of Labour’s centre; Andy Burnham for its Kinnockite soft left; and Liz Kendall for full-on Blairite revisionism. Despite their new image as heretics, they are much more obviously “Labour” in a historical sense than Corbyn.

In place of all this Labour’s new leader is seeking to reawaken the plebiscitary and centralizing semi-democracy of Benn’s endless seminars and “consultations”, all the better to bore and cajole the right and centre of the party into submission. Allied as it is to the clicktivists and crowdsourced Greens and Leftists so evident from Stop the War and the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition, that means Labour as we know it is now subject to a takeover from outside as well as from within. All in the service of a more insular, controlling and – ironically – technocratic vision than Labour has ever before advocated, confident in the belief that the Government can reshape the economy, mildly sceptical about the European Union, supine in the face of Russian expansionism. It is beguiling, emotional, emotive – and deeply un-Labour. Attlee, Bevin, Bevan and Gaitskell would all have been appalled at the implied diminution of both Britain and Labour itself; Wilson and Callaghan would have understood just how little influence the UK could exert under these conditions; Kinnock and Smith would have sensed just how potentially dangerous such ideas are if Labour is to maintain a pluralistic, mixed, outward-looking, liberal and – yes, let’s say it – socialist view of the world.

Most Labour people can avoid the kind of divisive language that says any type of socialism or social democracy is a “virus” – if they try. And it’s certainly the case that there have always been awkward backbenchers, principled visionaries and far left activists in Labour’s ranks. But Labour has never, ever been led or even guided by its ultra-ideologues on the left. That’s a matter of historical fact, not opinion. Something entirely new and experimental is happening on one side of British politics, more novel than New Labour, more of a partisan wrench than compassionate Conservatism, and stranger than either: an attempt to bring the ephemeral campaigning techniques of the twenty-first century to the aid of policies we thought had been tested in the 1970s, before dying in the 1980s. Its fate remains to be seen. 

Glen O’Hara is Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at Oxford Brookes University. He is the author of a series of books about modern Britain, including The Paradoxes of Progress: Governing Post-War Britain, 1951-1973 (2011). He is currently working on A History of Water in Modern Britain (forthcoming, 2016). He blogs, in a personal capacity, at Public Policy and the Past