Andrew Vine: Labour’s history in danger of repeating itself

Jeremy Corbyn’s views were rejected at the ballot box three decades ago.

LURKING in the darker recesses of my garage is a scruffy old relic of the early 1980s. It’s one of those shiny dark-blue parkas with fake fur round the hood and an orange lining, which when it was bought in about 1982 I thought in my youthful idiocy looked dead snazzy, even though all my friends considered it totally naff.

This thing was worn for years, long after whatever fashion nightmare spawned it had passed, to such a point that a partner who loathed it with a passion deliberately tried to destroy it by washing it at 90 degrees.

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Instead of it disintegrating, she was aghast to find the hot wash brought it up like new. I was bubbling with delight, presented flowers to say thanks, and started wearing it even more often, much to her exasperation.

These days, it’s only grabbed in the event of downpours whilst gardening as I rush spade, shears and hoe back inside. Other than that, it belongs firmly to the past.

So when the Labour Party unexpectedly regressed three decades to the parka era, it set me wondering about sending it to that other relic of the 1980s, the leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition, with the wish he feels at home in fake fur.

I mentioned this to a long-standing Labour official in Yorkshire the other day in an effort to cheer him up, because he’s been sunk in gloom since the crowning of Jeremy Corbyn as his party’s leader.

It didn’t work, not least because mention of the early 1980s and what that era brought to his party still makes him shudder. He’s the most sensible and moderate of men, who maintains the running battles he and his colleagues fought with the hard left 30 years ago for the party’s soul gave him his first grey hairs.

And now he fears the few dark hairs he has left will also go grey because the spectre of having to fight those battles all over again – this time from a position of weakness – haunts him.

Though it’s happening quietly, he and his colleagues, alongside moderate MPs, have started to watch their constituency parties like hawks for any signs of infiltration by the hard left with the ultimate aim of deselecting those in the centre or on the right.

Alarmist? He doesn’t think so. Like many who remember the bitter in-fighting as the party attempted to rid itself of militants, he believes that unhappy history could repeat itself.

After all, Mr Corbyn and his shadow chancellor and close friend, John McDonnell, were foot soldiers of the left’s trench warfare to drag the party their way and neither has moderated their political views in the intervening years.

Fate has dealt them an extraordinary hand. Rather than being insurgents against a moderate leadership striving to keep them out, they are on the inside, with their hands on the party’s levers of power and the ability to greatly influence lists of approved candidates.

Add to that an unassailable mandate from Labour members and newly signed-up affiliates, and the re-making of the party in the image of these veteran left-wingers looks much more possible than it did 30 years ago.

Many grassroots moderates are worried. They know that the left’s ambitions never went away, but were just driven underground by the electoral success of the Blair years and have gradually gathered strength since he left office.

Their worries were only deepened by signs of bully-boy tactics so much in evidence during the early 1980s resurfacing and being practised with relish during the Labour leadership contest.

The old in-person intimidation of people with moderate views was still around, and updated to embrace vitriolic abuse via social media. So they watch too for a resurfacing of the classic takeover techniques of past battles – an influx of new members seeking to gain a majority in local branches, using the party’s own democratic framework to oust opponents.

A complicating factor is that the veteran insurgents of the 1980s have fresh young troops at their disposal, with no memory of the damage that Labour suffered and little understanding of how electorally irrelevant it became as a result of trying to accommodate the left’s agenda.

These idealistic and impressionable activists simply do not realise that the views of Mr Corbyn are not fresh and new, but stale and old. The only time they were tested at the ballot box was in 1983, when the electorate emphatically rejected them in the most humiliating general election defeat ever inflicted on the party.

Labour learned bitter lessons from that and spent its wilderness years slowly and painfully dragging itself back towards the centre ground and being electable.

But now those lessons are in danger of being forgotten. Time has put the left through the wash and brought it up looking like new. Just like my old parka, some relics of the 1980s simply refuse to disintegrate.

Andrew Vine