Your 80's Analogies are Bunk. Ish.
‘I don’t think I ever really considered it, because I don’t think it was ever on the cards.’
Michael Foot, on being asked about being Prime Minister.
In the more innocent time of two months ago, all I knew about Michael Foot was headline history: He Lost To Thatcher.
Civil strife was inevitable; … unbridgeable divisions between the leadership and the party base had built up and been overlooked.
That’s taken from Daniel Bond’s excellent summary of the election, helpfully titled Suicide Mission. Our memories often serve our interests at the expense of history, and here it’s no different. Talk to any Labour member from that era and they’ll have a pretty good idea of what went wrong, then talk to another and you’ll get a completely different one.
What I want to do is look at the simple through-line that’s been used in quite a lot of anti-Corbyn rhetoric. The logic goes ‘If Corbyn = Foot and Foot = Defeat, then Corbyn = Defeat.
But how do we work it out? What makes a prospective leader these days? It’s an immensely complicated question, but for the sake of argument let’s pick the following four and see how we get on: Most importantly, TV presence, followed by experience, and policy positions, then — last and least — how they resonate in person.
Michael Foot was a lovely man, but he was atrocious at TV, never giving a one sentence answer when an endless, rambling Nye Bevan story would do. Anyone who is comparing Foot to Corbyn is banking on their reader having never seen this.
It feels a little silly, but by way of contrast, here is a video of Corbyn actually answering a question (in case you’d forgotten what that looked like).
I accept that comparing one era to another is very dodgy, so if you can stomach it, here’s some Thatcher for you:
Michael Foot — the last Labour leader to be elected solely by a ballot of Labour MPs — was born to rule. Son of a Liberal MP, he studied PPE at Oxford, during which time he was elected President of the Oxford Union (a feat also achieved by each of his four brothers). He became editor of the Evening Standard at 28, and entered parliament in 1945 as a part of the Attlee landslide.
He remained (apart from a 5 year hiatus from the commons) on the back benches for 29 years until he entered the cabinet as Secretary of State for Employment in 1974. He then had a stint as deputy leader, before assuming the role of leader in 1981.
In what is suddenly and surprisingly a well-known story, Jeremy — A university dropout — swiftly rose the Labour ranks, starting out as a union rep, then becoming a councillor, before being elected MP in 1983 at the age of 32. He has spent practically the entire time since in the political wilderness.
Both share a history as rebellious backbenchers, but Foot defied the whip to the extent that he actually had it withdrawn for two whole years in the ‘60s. Corbyn’s rebellions, however, took on more extra-parliamentary forms. From his early opposition of Apartheid, his well-documented meetings with Sinn Fein and Hamas, to his chairmanship of Stop the War coalition, he’s often acted as an elected activist for unpopular causes, sticking to his principles no matter the political cost to his career.
The Longest Suicide Note in History Redux?
He had already decided that because of all the feuding, Foot as leader and the Falklands to boot, Labour had already lost the election. He was cunning enough to allow the left enough policy rope to hang themselves, so the Bennites could never again blame the right.
Jeremy Corbyn seems almost entirely alone in not distancing himself from the 1983 Labour manifesto. He’s even recently gone on record to defend it. If you would like a blow-by-blow account of how Corbyn’s politics match with the dreaded 1983 tombstone, Martin Shipton in Wales Online put some highlights together, and Corbyn does seem to agree with a good deal of it. Which sounds absolutely terrible, until you discover what the manifesto actually contained.
Does a minimum wage, a ban on fox hunting, Freedom of Information, and Scottish and Northern Irish devolution sound at all familiar? I can see how it’s a little awkward for either side to bring up, but a good chunk of the longest suicide note in history was implemented a decade ago by a certain Tony Blair.
Of course, that’s not what we’ve heard about the 1983 manifesto. We’ve heard about nuclear disarmament, about the nationalisation of your grandmother’s socks, and as a good number of talking heads below agree; it was a very poorly put together document.
Corbyn is a left-winger, and wears that badge with pride. He has, however, repeatedly indicated his intention to pull together a manifesto that represents the whole Labour movement. Whether that manifesto would be once again be sabotaged by internal politics is another matter, but in 2020, a Corbyn-led Labour manifesto would not be his own manifesto, but a manifesto of the whole party.
Foot was by all accounts a tour-de-force in the commons and on the stump. An excellent debater and public speaker in the age of face-to-face politics, he continued to pack halls out until the end. Corbyn shares this ability to pull in the punters, but is — if we’re honest — an average public speaker. Where Foot could ascend to his own idiosyncratic heights of rhetoric:
“We are here to provide for all those who are weaker and hungrier, more battered and crippled than ourselves. That is our only certain good and great purpose … and if you ask me about those insoluble economic problems that may arise if the top is deprived of their initiative, I would answer, To hell with them. The top is greedy and mean and will always find a way to take care of themselves. They always do.”
Corbyn makes do with a ‘tells it like it is’ simplicity:
On the eve of the festive season it is desperately sad to see hungry children not learning properly because their families can’t afford to feed them before school, and the queue in charity shops to try to clothe those same children.
The solution to poverty is not to make the rich richer in the hope of Thatcherite trickle-down but to actually increase tax income from the wealthiest individuals and corporations and provide work opportunities commensurate with the abilities of people throughout the country.
Michael Foot may have been a brilliant, flamboyant man, but he was not a politician for television. Corbyn is plain spoken and earnest. What they share is the telltale rebellious streak of the conviction politician. As a pair, they most closely resemble two parts of an idealised whole, and if only you could somehow mash them together and knock 20 years off, you might just create from these two men the perfect leftist leader.
In all, the Foot-Corbyn parallel is a lazy one. We’ve become very used to a homogenised Oxbridge type of person in charge of our political parties and anything different is bound to arouse suspicion, and even derision, from what is now a deeply entrenched political class.
Jeremy Corbyn is here to shake things up, Michael Foot was there to keep plodding down the same old road. Their policies may look somewhat similar, but the political worlds they inhabit are so different that their policy positions actually mean totally different things to the electorate than they did 30 years ago. This makes Corbyn not a pre-ordained failure, but an unknown. An uncontrollable factor. He scares politicians rather than people, and presses buttons those politicians forgot existed. Will it be enough to win in 2020? No-one knows, but whatever happens it won’t be because he’s the ‘second Michael Foot’.