With the release of Labour’s latest manifesto the Tory attack line seems to be that Corbyn wants to take Britain back to the 1970s. It’s the splash that The Daily Mail, The Sun, and The Telegraph have chosen, and with that narrative having been created by the right-wing press it is now the lens through which the broadcast media have chosen to discuss the manifesto. One key Tory strategist, Jim Messina, who has worked for the US Democratic Party in the past, drew parallels between Corbyn and Trump:
“Strangely, Trump & Corbyn both have something in common: wanting to drag their countries back to the bad old days of the 1970’s. . .”
Like all liberals Jim seems obsessed with horseshoe theory, which is, to quote our Shadow Foreign Secretary, bollocks. But this is a specific strand of bollocks, and should be examined for what it is.
This take on horseshoe theory suggests that the ‘centre’ is the most progressive — literally, as it wants to progress forwards in time — and that the left and right are equally regressive — they both want to move backwards in time.
The first, and most obvious, thing to point out here is that the people that are currently sending Jim the sellsword his checques are hardly a beacon a modernity: Theresa May talks about “boy jobs and girl jobs” like it’s the 1950s; the Tory’s Brexit strategy is based on a view of Britain’s strength in the world that hasn’t existed since the 1940s; Health and Safety laws have been repealed that date back to the start of the 20th Century; and wages and living standards have fallen further than at any point since Louis XI was still in the market for buying hats. The Tories want to turn Britain into a theme park based on an idea of Britain that exists in their head but not in our nation’s history. Someone whose job it is to make their message palatable to the general public shouldn’t be accusing others of wanting to go back in time.
The second point here is the same one that undermines all of horseshoe theory: that similarities on the surface level dissolve into air under closer inspection. If we are to say that Corbyn and Trump both do want to take their countries back to the 1970s — they don’t, but let’s run with it — then these two men’s vision of what appeals to them about the 1970s is very different.
For Trump the 1970s was a time when male and female positions in society were strictly set by patriarchal norms, when black people faced enormous prejudice in policing and employment, and when homosexuals were either hidden, or help up as figures of fun. Trump’s 1970s was a decade when white, heterosexual, male chauvinism could express itself with crude and cruel jokes about anyone that was different, safe in the knowledge that they were at the top of the tree, and that no-one would dare tell them to shut up. We have moved on from that, not sufficiently for me, but perhaps too much for many of Trump’s most ardent supporters, who see him as their champion in a fight against feminism, anti-racism, and LGBT rights.
For Corbyn the 1970s was a time when full employment meant that trade unions had considerable power to negotiate wages and set conditions for workers, when high taxes on the rich meant well-funded public services and falling inequality, and when a host of communities outside traditional seats of wealth were built around stable manufacturing jobs. Corbyn’s 1970s was a decade when the working-class had greater power, both economic and cultural, and received greater respect from the establishment. We have moved on from that, too much for me, but perhaps not sufficiently for the Tory Party, who are determined to slash away the last remnants of post-war social democracy.
So, despite Jim’s glib remarks, there is a clear difference between what elements of the past it is that Corbyn and Trump want to rehabilitate for the 21st Century. It is completely obvious to anyone that you can push for an industrial strategy that aims to create high-productivity manufacturing jobs, and trade union laws that allow the workers in those jobs to see steady income rises, without also wanting to bring Mind Your Language and Gollywogs. You can want to increase taxes on the rich to closer to 1970s levels — Corbyn’s proposals would leave them somewhere around what Margaret Thatcher thought was fair, showing how far to the right we’ve slid — without also thinking a woman’s highest ambition should be to prepare a prawn cocktail that draws compliments at her husband’s dinner parties.
But, what’s really worrying for me, is that drawing a link between the social conservatism of a past decade and the economic policies government’s pursued during them only helps the Donald Trumps and Nigel Farages of this world. While the social gains made by marginalised groups in no way lead to the losses made by working people and organised labour, it is likely some people do see a false connection. Older men in former pit villages, steelworking towns, and fishing and shipbuilding ports who remember a time when a school-leaver at 15 could reasonably expect by the age of 25 to have a steady job in a blue-collar industry that would allow him to keep a house must wonder what has gone wrong. It wouldn’t be difficult for them to think that when Bernard Manning was cracking gags about Asians on the telly things seemed alright for them; and now Asians are cracking gags about Bernard Manning on the telly they’re finishing their working life off in a warehouse for less money than they were seeing in their early 20s. Correlation is not causation: multiculturalism didn’t shut down the mines, or offshore industry; women’s liberation didn’t crush the unions; political correctness is not responsible for zero-hour contracts; but just because correlation is not causation does not mean someone seeing their life chances collapse as socially liberal forces were ascendant might not start to think that way. There is definitely causative correlation between those areas that have been kicked in the dick since the 1970s and those areas that voted heavily for Brexit. Or, to quote Richard Rorty’s chilling prediction:
Members of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers — themselves desperately afraid of being downsized — are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.
At that point, something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking for a strongman to vote for — someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots.
One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past forty years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion. The words “nigger” and “kike” will once again be heard in the workplace. All the sadism which the academic Left has tried to make unacceptable to its students will come flooding back. All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.
I can respect the fact that Jim Messina is eager to see ensure the people that are paying him incredibly handsomely get bang for their buck — particularly after his last gig saw him fuck up so badly the Italian Prime Minister struggled to get through his constitutional changes and had to resign. But I wish Jim would realise that attaching the flag of tolerance to the anchor of neo-liberalism would mean opposition to Trumpian bigotry, and decency towards all, including those who are different to us, would be dragged into the brine.