For those of us on the 'soft left' who spent much of the 1980s fighting (and defeating) the hard left inside Labour, the rise of Corbynism has seemed like a peculiar nightmare. The dead are not supposed to rise from the political grave. Yet here we have familiar names like Jon Lansman and Pete Wilsman alongside other remnants of Livingstone-era GLC days back at the centre of events. Not for nothing did Jon Cruddas refer to the danger of a '1980s Trotskyist tribute act'.
Whilst the circumstances of Corbyn's triumph are as much accident as march of history, the outcome was far from inexplicable. The shock of Labour's general election defeat was intense and the campaign dismal. Having lost the economic narrative argument years before, the party defaulted to a narrow retail offer fronted by a leader lacking credibility or charisma. We spoke to neither the electorate's hopes nor fears. Given their closeness to this safety-first approach, it would have been surprising had any of the mainstream candidates risen to the occasion and offered anything insightful or radical. And for the most part, they didn't. By the time Burnham and Cooper had discovered a voice, no-one was listening to anything other than the siren songs of the old time religion.
The triumph of Corbyn and the resurrection of the Labour hard left has been presented as part of a wave of global political insurgency that encompasses Syriza, Podemos and Bernie Sanders. It is certainly true that the political centre is being challenged from a variety of populist directions. Yet, as Suzanne Moore has noted, 'At the core of Corbyn's new politics is his own very old certainty. His views have not changed in thirty years. Some call this principle, the kind of stubbornness the hard left admire. I call it conservatism, and I think it's a problem'. (1) This collision of old certainties and new realities prompts me to do three things in this short article: to explore whether there are lessons to be learned from the 1980s, to examine the extent of continuity and difference at the present conjuncture, and to discuss the choices that face an alternative left.
The 1980s revisited
During the leadership campaign a full page article in the Observer from a 'young Labour voter' urged 'more seasoned voters' not to patronise her and other Corbynistas by constantly bringing up the past to question her hero's electability (and 'please, stop talking about Michael'). (2) I'm going to have to break that injunction, in part because the time horizon of newer activists is often confined to the disappointments of the New Labour years and there were far greater disappointments in the eighteen previous 'wilderness years'.
The decisive defeat of 1983 was pivotal. Until then most of the left of the Labour Party had coalesced around the Labour Co-ordinating Committee (LCC). It then split between a modernising majority and minority that combined Bennites, far left groups such as the ill-named Campaign for Labour Party Democracy and Labour Briefing (Corbyn was on its Executive), as...