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Books Portcullis

The problems with Labour mythology

With Labour again promising to talk in a language that the voters can understand, a new book asks whether the party’s historical myths are the problem

Ahead of his appearance at the 2019 Durham Miners Gala, Jeremy Corbyn tweeted that, although “the mines are gone”, the “miners’ spirit lives on”. This spirit was the “spirit of solidarity and the working-class principle that says: united we are strong”.

Over 35 years have passed since the end of the 1984/85 miners’ strike, yet the dispute remains central to the politics of the Labour party. For Corbyn, the conflict encapsulated his belief that politics is inherently a battle between good and evil forces. It was he who had “stood by the miners while others walked by”, as the forces of Murdoch, Thatcherism and neoliberalism brought a once-proud industry “to its knees”.

Corbyn pinpointed the miners’ strike as the moment that Old Britain died. He placed himself central to the struggle to keep it alive, admitting that the events at Orgreave are “seared into the memory” of the “hundreds of thousands of us” who “had supported the miners”.

While Thatcher remains important to the way Labour orientates itself, the rest of the country moved on a long time ago

Corbyn revived memories of the strike and the Durham Miners Gala as leader of the party. It was something that Keir Starmer was acutely aware of when he launched his own bid for the leadership in 2019. He deployed a miner to narrate his social media video, reminding us that “in the struggles of the 1980s, the labour movement stood in solidarity against Thatcher”. He had stood on picket lines at Wapping in 1986, and promised not to speak to The Sun due to their coverage of Hillsborough in 1989. He was praised on both left and right of the party for framing his politics against Thatcher.

Rebecca Long-Bailey also chose to define her politics against the 1980s. She had not been old enough to protest against Mrs Thatcher, but she could centre her campaign around the year she was born: 1979. It was, she argued, the year in which “a new conservative leader came to power who would shatter the foundations of our economy for decades to come”. Boris Johnson was “intent on finishing Thatcher’s work”.

What are Labour politicians doing when they frame their politics through the prism of someone elected to power over 40 years ago? In the academic world, historians such as Jon Lawrence have argued that Labour’s “shared stories” become a form of mythology, which can “take on a life of their own within the collective identity and historical consciousness of party activists”.

Chris Clarke has identified three mythologies that need to be overcome if the party is to win power again

Others, such as Richard Jobson, have examined how a form of nostalgia for traditional concepts of “community” and “solidarity” runs through the party’s entire history. This nostalgia “has provided the emotional adhesive that has held the party together”, but at the same time, has constrained its “ability to communicate effectively with the demands of modern voters”. In the confines of a party leadership contest, mythology serves as a uniting force against a common enemy. But what happens when you try to apply it in the world in which the ordinary voter lives?

In 2019, Labour battled to keep hold of ex-mining towns by reminding voters about the politics of Mrs Thatcher. “THE NORTH REMEMBERS” was a campaign that focussed on the 1980s, with the conclusion that “You can never trust the Tories”. In post-industrial towns like Wigan and Leigh, a leaflet was circulated with a picture of Thatcher’s handbag on it. “Don’t let them finish the job”, it claimed.

The subsequent drubbing in those coal towns — in Leigh, Blyth Valley, Bishop Auckland, Bolsover, Ashfield, Bassetlaw — was a harsh reminder that memories of the miners’ strike matter more to Labour people than the public at large. While Mrs Thatcher is still hugely important to the way Labour orientates itself in the world, the rest of the country moved on a long time ago.

The defeat in 2019 has not dampened the desire within Labour to roll back the clock to a “golden age” before Thatcherism — and by natural extension — New Labour. Jon Trickett is the latest to argue that Labour needs to rediscover its left radicalism to reverse the 1980s. “Tony Blair did not shift the overall character of Thatcherism. Nor did he want to”, he argued last month.

This trend is the subject of Chris Clarke’s book, The Dark Knight and the Puppet Master (Penguin, 2020), a highly original take on Labour mythology and how this impacts the party’s ability to connect with the voters. Clarke roots his theories in the politics of the contemporary left and has identified three mythologies that need to be overcome if the party is to win power again. He terms these “the Dark Knight”, “the Puppet Master” and “the Golden Age”.

The first concept of the “Dark Knight” is the belief that politics is a battle between good and evil forces. Safe in the idea that your politics are on the “right side of history”, activists can be lured into believing that anyone not voting for the Labour party is not just wrong but immoral. In the immediate aftermath of the Hartlepool by-election, we saw people take to social media to prove Clarke’s point. For example, the UEA law professor Paul Bernal drew the conclusion that the voters “don’t actually want a fairer society, they want a society that’s unfair on other people, not them”.

Such arguments have permeated thinking on the left for a while. In the aftermath of the 2015 election, one Ed Miliband supporter argued on The Daily Politics that Ed had clearly been “too fucking good for this country”. Clarke’s central premise is that the parties and organisations that the Left opposes are no more selfish or inferior to the Left. Labour must therefore resist the urge to conflate opposition to the Conservative party into a hatred for all Tory voters. Labour’s post-war election winners — Attlee, Wilson and Blair — all made open appeals to Conservative voters by framing their values as Labour values.

The second myth that Clarke has identified relates to the “Puppet Master”. This is the idea that if what the Left wants to do is beneficial to the working class and broader society (free broadband, scrapping tuition fees etc.), then the only explanation for electoral rejection is some powerful forces “rigging” the electorate to vote against their own interests.

Post-Hartlepool, many people believed that they had found the “silver bullet” to explain why Labour had lost. It was footage of an “ill-informed” voter who blamed Labour for the closure of his local court and police station. The video was viewed over two million times after politicians and journalists jumped on it as evidence of a political culture that has corrupted the voters’ minds.

This can veer into a view that Labour only loses because the electorate is stupid. Take the “comedian” James Felton, who accused Hartlepool voters of failing “the idiot test” for voting for the “LET THE CORPSE PILE GROW LARGE” party. Or the former Coronation Street actor Reece Dinsdale, who wrote that the voters could “revel in your Tory election victories all you like, but know that you’re revelling in your ignorance.”

These three myths have created a safe environment for losing

Clarke’s third and final myth is that of the “Golden Age” and the belief that a return to a “spirit of 1945” should be the Left’s goal. This takes as its central premise the view that Thatcherism destroyed everything good and noble about British society. Only its reversal can see Britain prosper. Clarke questions why “left-wingers hanker for the years of the Black and White Minstrels, the lunatic asylum, the all-female typing pool and the secondary modern — when abortion was illegal and only a privileged 3 per cent went to university?”.

Because Brexit is seen as an extension of the Thatcherite project, any optimism that Britain can now get better is readily dismissed. This feeds into a fatalism for the future of society. One only has to look at the criticism that Keir Starmer received earlier this year when he claimed that the “UK’s best years lie ahead” to see how this impacts the Labour mindset. Miliband and Corbyn, whether they intended to or not, were seen as people who wanted to turn Britain back to the 1970s. It was always a crude observation but an easy one to make when you talk about reversing the progress of the past 40 years.

The biggest takeaway from The Dark Knight and the Puppet Master is that the three myths have created a safe environment for losing, preventing Labour from taking its defeats too seriously. Post-Hartlepool, Labour is finally embarking on a rare mid-term period of introspection on how it ended up in the electoral wilderness again. The latest argument, put forward by Angela Rayner, is that Labour has “given off an air of talking down to people and telling people what they need or even what they should want or what they should think.”

Labour mythology runs deep, and there is a tendency to align electoral rejection to forces beyond its control

The idea that the Labour party does not “speak the language” of “the people” is rooted in the party’s history. It was an accusation Herbert Morrison made in the 1930s, as did Douglas Jay in the 1950s when he claimed that “the slogans of 1926 and 1931 do not mean a great deal to the younger people today.” In Labour’s last equivalent electoral crisis — 1983 — Michael Foot clung to the belief that communication was his only problem: “We could have still won against the Thatcher Government, if we had had more time to state our case.” When campaigning to be leader, it is often forgotten that Neil Kinnock argued that the manifesto that delivered the party’s worst defeat since the 1930s “was not extreme”, but that Labour simply lacked the “self-discipline to win”.

But what if Labour’s problems are more significant than how it “talks down” to the voters? What if its own interpretation of history is part of the problem? Labour mythology runs deep, and there is a tendency to align electoral rejection to forces beyond its control. From the Zinoviev letter in the 1920s to the Falklands War in the 1980s to the Sheffield Rally in the 1990s and up to the present with the Financial Crash and Brexit, the party comforts itself that electoral victory was closer than it really was.

As the self-proclaimed party of the “traditional” working class, it cannot yet fully comprehend what appeal the Conservative party have in its former heartlands. Brexit and Tony Blair are the easy answers for the party’s demise, but The Dark Knight and the Puppet Master offers one of the most innovative explanations of how Labour has lost its way over the past decade.

So, before the inevitable policy review, the change in advisors and the adoption of a new language, perhaps the most significant task Starmer could undertake is to revisit some of the stories the party tells itself about Thatcher and her importance to the electorate in 2021. By stripping away some of the mythology around a lost “Golden Age”, and addressing the electorate as it is today, rather than what it was in 1979 or 1997, he may finally find the language to connect the party to “the people” again.

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