Parliament versus Presidents

In the olden days we in Britain used to vote for constituency MPs, each one appointed to serve his local community; who would then coalesce into parties, with the largest of them – or largest coalition – forming a government, and with a leader chosen from among them. The leader would become ‘prime minister’, and select his other ministers, formed into a cabinet, to govern the country collectively. Later on the parties were formalised, which meant that their leaders were known beforehand. That was the order of things in Britain. It was how it had been done for centuries, even under monarchical rule. When monarchical rule ended, it was by keeping the king or queen as a mere figurehead but reducing his or her powers, and elevating parliament above him (or her). That’s what ‘parliamentary democracy’ means.

It was totally different from the way the monarch was got rid of over on the other side of the pond. In the newly-independent USA s/he was replaced with a President, with similar powers to the old King, with the crucial difference that he (always a man, up to now) was elected directly, and side-by-side with the other arms of government. That’s what the American President is today: an elected King. The USA has not really moved on from the 18th century.

This explains the differences between our two electoral systems, with the British supposedly voting for a local MP first, and a party second, and the Prime Minister emerging out of that process; whereas in America the head of state is elected directly, side-by-side with Congressmen/women and the like. That’s why the American system turns so much on the personalities of the rival candidates. In Britain it shouldn’t do; but for years commentators have been noting how ‘presidential’ we have become.

That’s a pity. If we had been presidential in 1945, we would have got Churchill rather than Attlee, and so (probably) no welfare state. If America were parliamentary today, it certainly wouldn’t have been landed with Trump, or not for long. And if Britain were truer to her old ‘parliamentary’ traditions today, Corbyn would undoubtedly stand a better chance in the coming general election, and May probably none.

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Back to the Future, Part II

However the General Election turns out, it looks as though we are indeed due for a return to the 1960s and ’70s. If Corbyn’s programme looks like the moderate Wilsonian social democracy of those years, May’s is starting to resemble the response of Conservative leaders like Macmillan to that – Tory paternalism, accepting the welfareist consensus of the times.

The key sentence in May’s speech on Thursday was the one in which she declared that Conservatives ‘do not believe in untrammelled free markets. We reject the cult of selfish individualism’. That is an enormous ideological U-turn for her party. It’s what most Conservatives would have said in Macmillan’s and Heath’s time, and going back, in fact, to Benjamin Disraeli, and before then to Edmund Burke; in other words to the most venerable tradition of Toryism, before Thatcherite economic liberalism took its dreadful hold. There had of course been Thatcherites before Thatcher – Edward Heath showed signs of the infection early on – and there were always some Tories keen on keeping the lower orders down simply out of mean-mindedness, without any particular ideology behind it; but the general direction of Conservative thought and policy before 1979 was generally softer than that.

Thatcher’s arrival on the scene revolutionized the party. Personally I don’t think this was Thatcher’s contribution alone; rather she was being swept along by an international tide of High Capitalism and neo-liberalism. But the effect was the same. The Tory party was captured by free market fundamentalists. Those who protested were dismissed by Thatcher as the ‘Wets’. There aren’t many of those around now, apart perhaps for Kenneth Clarke. (I could vote for him.) This set in motion a period of free market fundamentalism, culminating in ‘austerity’ and the truly awful George Osborne, which could be seen as turning its back on the deepest historical traditions of the Conservative party, and, indeed, on the nature of ‘conservatism’ – taken literally, with a small ‘c’ – itself. What could be less ‘conservative’ than a radical revolution? And of course it did no good at all to the British economy, as it was supposed to, but instead left it more vulnerable to international takeovers and bank collapses, and rendered society more unequal and divided than for many years. We’re seeing that now.

The implication of May’s U-turn is that the past thirty-eight years – roughly a generation – have been an unfortunate blip, or interruption, or backsliding, in the trajectory of British Conservatism. Historically, therefore (my field), she’s quite right to protest that she’s aiming to revive ‘true Conservatism’ again.

Whether she is able to, in the light of the phalanx of neo-liberals who entered her party after 1979, is another question. Already there are murmurings in the ranks against what are seen as her ‘anti-market’ views. It’s also, of course, permissible to doubt her sincerity in this regard, and her ability to return completely to the paternalistic socialism of Macmillan’s time. And – thirdly – it’s valid to resile against certain of her characteristics as a ‘leader’; in particular her authoritarianism, her opportunism (changing her mind over ‘Europe’), her aggressive stance towards the people she is going to have to negotiate with in Europe, and the hostages to fortune her party manifesto has left lying around: like clobbering pensioners, taking the food out of the mouths of schoolchildren, and the ‘death tax’. Voters will probably notice these more than her grand ideological conversion. I hope so, because they may, just conceivably, do her electoral harm. If they stopped a landslide Tory victory, that could be enough. We’ll see.

Out of the two ‘1970s’ we’re being offered in this election I’ll certainly be voting for the Wilsonian one – as I did in the 1970s. That’s Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour. The prospect of a ‘hard Brexit’ Britain, which May seems to be promising, depresses and even scares me. But we must give her some credit, at least, for getting her Conservative History right.

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Assange Free?

At last the Swedish authorities have dropped their grotesque ‘rape’ charges (or intended charges) against Julian Assange: About time too. Presumably this means that the Swedish extradition request to Britain – which was problematical quite irrespective of the veracity of the accusations (see – lapses too, and he can come out of the South American embassy he has sought asylum in since 2012, and resume a normal (or what for him passes as normal) life. It also means that the Swedish legal system is no longer in danger of being justly derided the world over, as it would have been if Assange had ever gone to trial. I suspect that this – embarrassment – is one of the reasons the charges have been dropped.

There are only, so far, two doubts. (The news has only broken in the last few minutes, so details are obscure as yet.) Firstly he was, as I understand it, also sought for examination on other, lesser sex charges. Have those been withdrawn too, and are they extraditable? Secondly, the USA still wants him over there to face charges of treason (for leaking secret documents). Trump has made it plain that he’s even keener to get him than Obama was ( Is it conceivable that Theresa May, in order to cuddle up more with the Donald, would accede to an extradition request from there? (Corbyn obviously wouldn’t.)

(I’ve blogged on this many times before. Word-search ‘Assange’.)

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Spooks and Hacks

Sadly, Donald Trump – on top of all his other sins – has given (a) conspiracy theories and (b) criticism of the press a bad name.

When it comes to conspiracy theories, I’m still very cautious; except that I know that politicians do conspire. It is no less gullible to automatically dismiss a conspiracy theory, than it is to be prone to accept it. In my researches I’ve found so much certain evidence of Britain’s secret services’, for example, plotting subvertly throughout their history, as to be in no doubt of that. Sometimes in the last century it was in cahoots with the Conservative Party. If you don’t wish to credit the ‘Wilson Plot’ of 1974-6, which is supposed to have been responsible for ousting the PM then, you must accept the Zinoviev Letter Affair of 1924, which helped bring an end to the first Labour government. (See my Plots and Paranoia.) And, at a much lower level, just think about it: haven’t you occasionally conspired, in much lesser matters, with your partner to keep something from your children, for example, or with your team mates to disguise your googly (in America, curve ball)? People conspire all the time. But crying ‘conspiracy’ can also be a convenient excuse when you’ve not got your way, which is why it’s so distrusted.

And for any historian working in this field to argue that Harold Wilson was brought down by an MI5 ‘conspiracy’ in 1976 would be the kiss of academic death. I can understand why. Conspiracy theory is the field for weirdoes. Probably the weirdest of them all is the ex-Coventry City goalkeeper David Icke, one of whose theories (among many others) is that the British Royal Family are in fact alien shape-shifting lizards. Now we have the almost-as-weird Donald Trump joining him. Another reason why academic historians don’t warm to ‘conspiracy theories’ is that it upsets their ordered view of the past. They prefer great events to have big causes. They want to see patterns in history: the progress of liberalism, say, or the inevitable march of the Marxist dialectic, or the working out of God’s (or Satan’s) will. If they aren’t pre-disposed to such broad theories ideologically, they like them because it makes it easy to present history as a narrative. Even history books are supposed to have plots. (Mine do.) That these narratives can be seriously disrupted by anything as accidental as a conspiracy among a small number of people with their hands on the hidden levers of power is anathema to them (to us).

Likewise, to suspect that huge present-day events like Brexit and the election of Donald Trump were achieved through a small group of right-wing millionaires working clandestinely through ‘a dark, dystopian data company’ called Cambridge Analytica, and not through genuine popular choice (see, must be a shock to democrats, as well as to historians. It throws all the political conventions out of the window; and fundamentally undermines confidence in democracy. That’s the ultimate political danger. Perhaps it’s just as well to be sceptical. But that doesn’t mean that conspiracies can’t be real. (See Robin Ramsay, Conspiracy Theories, Pocket Essentials, 2006, on this.)

Much the same is true of the other canard that Trump has floated among us: the idea of ‘fake news’. Again, no-one wants to cry this too loudly, because of its association with the Donald; but with regard to the present British election there can be little doubt that the news is skewed. Whether that’s connected with the ‘Cambridge Analytica’ thing – with the same millionaires behind both, for example – seems possible, but can’t be proved. The bias of the press against the Left, however, and Corbyn in particular, is pretty obvious, and not only in the papers owned, notoriously, by millionaire tax exiles. It has even reached the BBC and the ‘Leftish’ Guardian. Labour politicians are bullied, Theresa May is given a soft ride, the size of May’s public meetings is exaggerated and Corbyn’s – huge ones – diminished. There have been petitions on the web for the BBC to sack their Political Editor, Laura Kuenssberg (below), whose coverage of the election is blatantly inaccurate, biased and cynical; but of course she won’t be sacked – yet. (One of the petitions was rejected because some of its signatories expressed unpleasantly sexist views.) Besides, many of the BBC’s top people, and other political commentators, have strong Conservative links themselves. It looks quite grotesquely unfair, and far different from what we have grown to expect from a much-respected ‘impartial’ state broadcaster. There can be little doubt about this. Academic studies, for example by the Cardiff University Journalism school, confirm it. But any complaints are treated as sour grapes; which is why Corbyn generally doesn’t complain, though he must be itching to.

If these two things – a conspiracy, and the loaded press – can be shown, or even suspected, to have substantially affected the result of this election, it bodes ill for people’s acceptance of that result afterwards, and therefore for our public order. It will bear out the belief of many of us that Britain is only a semi-democracy, at best. Just as our press comes fortieth in the world scale of ‘press freedom’ (see, our political freedom can’t come very much higher. The power of our press certainly, and the ‘conspiracy’ factor possibly, have seen to that.


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Locked in the Lav.

I realise that all sides cry ‘foul’ when it comes to politics – and to sport, which politics these days is coming more and more to resemble. So it’s easy to discount it as simply sour grapes. ‘You lost. Get over it’. That seems to be the response of the authoritarian Right these days, which is claiming that any criticism at all of a decision once made is illegitimate and – in the case of the Brexit vote – even treasonable.

This kind of hysteria may derive from the Brexiteers’ realisation, or at least suspicion, that their very narrow victory in last year’s referendum may have owed something to ‘dirty tricks’, including suborning the popular press, false promises, lies, and – recently unearthed – the use of subtle internet weapons to skew opinion. In which case there would be an argument for a re-run, on a more level playing field (the sporting analogy again), rather than relying on such a flawed measure of the popular will at one narrow and fraught period of time. The result might well turn out the same. But even if so, it would have more political and moral legitimacy, and so be easier for the losers to ‘get over’. I’m always happy to accept the result if West Ham lose fairly (as often happens); but I can be gripped with resentment for months if it’s because Chelsea have cheated. I’ll feel the same after this coming General Election, where the cheating, on the Conservative side, is widespread and blatant. I’ve never before encountered more ‘diving’ in the penalty area.

It’s not all cheating, of course. The Tories have also been very clever, in playing to the bias of their media. Hiding Theresa away was a brilliant ploy; if she’s shut up in the lav any time there are ‘ordinary voters’ around, she’s not going to stumble into being challenged by unexpectedly sharp questions from housewives or pensioners, or be surprised eating a burger clumsily. We know very little about Theresa, apart from what she revealed in (a) that cosy TV chat with her tax-avoiding but quite charming hubby, (b) her frankly authoritarian tenure of the Home Office, and (c) a couple of crazy antediluvian policies she has blurted out – hunting, grammar schools. Which makes the Tories’ choice of her as their vote-winner – all their propaganda is for her, not for her party – curious, you might think, but actually quite a cunning ploy. Let her be defined by her dull, anonymous, robotic but ‘strong and stable’ image, while at the same time concentrating minutely on Jeremy’s failings – some real, many others invented – in order to sink him. It will probably work.

I imagine that TM’s new appeal to ‘working class’ voters by stealing even more of JC’s clothes – workers’ rights restored, and the like – might help too. These Tories really are clever. Not intelligent, but ‘clever’; a quality the British are supposed to despise – what other country has a term like ‘too clever by half’ in its language? – but which will probably get Theresa home. What happens when she’s allowed out of the toilet is anyone’s guess. But that’s the whole point. We’re not supposed to know.

PS (later today). TM has at last been persuaded out of the lav to meet some ordinary folk. It’s not going well for her. But will it get on the telly? Or Corbyn’s HUGE crowds? Let’s see.

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Looking on the Bright Side…

Sometimes, in this sort of situation, one half hopes one’s party will lose the coming election because then the other party will have to sort out the mess they’ve made of things. There’s certainly going to be a lot to clear up this time, and much more to come as a direct result of the Tories’ domestic policies: if, that is, having stolen one of Labour’s ideas (a cap on energy bills), they don’t run away with the rest of Corbyn’s ideological clothes – as Disraeli was supposed to have done to the Whigs in 1868. If not, then Theresa May is surely going to struggle, not only with her overriding ‘Brexit’ task, where we still have no idea of the direction she’s going to take, except that it will be confrontational; but also with the reaction her domestic policies are bound to provoke. We could even have a civil war, albeit a more polite, English kind than other countries’ – hopefully. (I’m happy to take part, but would prefer not to get killed.) In any event, there could be exciting times ahead. Isn’t this something to look forward to, to lighten the gloom that has descended on most of us goodies (!) since the Brexit vote, and to bring a smidgeon of comfort to us in these dreadful times?

Aux armes, citoyens!

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What to Do if May Wins?

Well, it looks as though we’ve had it. We – the Left – will get mauled in the General Election. That’s what the press and the polls are telling us, and even Labour’s Deputy Leader. Hence the levels of despair and anger we feel. The election is a vital one for the country, and yet is being fought one-sidedly, with most of the press, the most unprincipled propaganda, and all the ‘dirty tricks’, being on the Conservative side. (I’m sorry, but the parties are not ‘both the same’ in this regard.) The very calling of the election, unnecessarily, was a devious partisan trick; its morphing into a presidential campaign concentrating exclusively on what are supposed to be the personalities and abilities of the two leaders – May’s hidden away from the people, wisely, Corbyn’s already trashed by the media – is another cunning plan by Lynton Crosby, the Tories’ prince of darkness (a.k.a. electoral strategist); and the very timing of the election, re-opening the wounds inflicted by the (similarly dishonest) EU referendum campaign, is almost bound to skew the result. Quite apart from the greater issues involved, or which ought be involved, in this election – poverty, inequality, industry, democracy, our national health, migration, Anglo-American relations, global warming, even possibly war and peace – it’s no wonder that we on the Left are cross. I’ve never known such depression, desperation and rage before in all my 70+ years. This is not normal.

As a historian, however, I need to point out that this situation – the desperation – is not entirely unprecedented in Britain. Except that on the most recent previous occasion it manifested itself, it was felt on the other side. During the 1960s and ’70s Rightists also felt desperate; but this time at the progress of socialism in Britain – the welfare state, and all that – covertly aided, they thought, from Moscow, and destined to destroy the Britain they knew and loved. ‘Country’s going to the dogs’, was one of their favourite complaints. Some of their suspicions sound crazy now. I remember Philip Larkin’s talking, at a dinner party I attended, of certain evidence he had that the Labour Government was about to repeal the Quinquennial Act, so enabling Harold Wilson to rule for ever. There are accounts of Tory Cabinet ministers gathering their families around them at Christmas to warn them that that might be the last Christmas they would enjoy. The head of the home civil service, Sir William Armstrong, was found lying on his floor one day, ‘really quite mad’, and muttering about the ‘Red Army’ at the gates, before he was ‘gently removed to Lord Rothschild’s villa in Barbados for a well-earned rest’.

Some of them believed this existential threat to ‘their’ Britain justified extreme and indeed illegal measures to counter it. There’s a theory – not to be shrugged off – that Britain’s Secret Services, no less, were part of a great plot against the Wilson government, whom they suspected of being a communist agent. In the 1960s a group of retired generals visited the Queen Mother to get her support for a military putsch against Wilson and the socialists. Apparently the Queen Mum told them ‘not to be silly boys’. Another similar conspiracy was floated by the Daily Mail proprietor (who else?) in 1968. That came to nothing, too. A little later a number of ‘private armies’ sprang up in support of any such mutiny, when ‘the balloon’ went up. There’s a delightful skit on this on Youtube: a scene from Channel 4’s A Very Secret Army series in 1984, with the marvellous Geoffrey Palmer playing the nutty ‘Major Jimmy’, who is in on the plot: (It’s my favourite sit-com clip of all time.) None of this happened, of course; or not that we’re aware of. If there was a clandestine plot to get Thatcher in, it was a good deal more subtle. But it shows the lengths to which some of these demoralised and disappointed Rightists were prepared to go, in their desperation for their country, and in the face of an opposition whose success, they believed, was attributable to dishonest and foul means. (All this is in my Plots and Paranoia, and Britannia’s Burden.)

Are we on the Left there yet? We can, I think, certainly empathise with the feelings of these 1960s-’70s Rightists, though from a different perspective. Like them, I feel my country is being stolen away from me, starting with Brexit, and continuing with the authoritarian tendencies of Theresa May. At least part of the reason for this is the capture of influential parts of the machinery of democracy – mainly the Press – by the extreme Right. In this election, with a majority of the electorate supporting Labour’s policy manifesto but being turned against voting for it by the canards floated by the media, a justification could be made for protesting the result in unconstitutional ways, in order to restore genuine democracy. (The same applies to the USA, with Trump’s being a minority President; but at least there they also have the constitutional possibility, or even probability, of his being impeached. And then, hopefully, Pence.)

Of course the polls may be wrong. Labour ‘moderates’ (huh!) may yet learn to rally round Corbyn; the electorate’s eyes may be opened to his qualities, and also to May’s carefully concealed weaknesses; the young may come out to vote, which apparently would make a substantial difference; a shocking Tory scandal might unexpectedly break (May pictured sinking her teeth into a live fox?); and the tide will massively turn. I’ve not given up all hope yet. And I’ll be over the moon (and £90 in credit at the betting shop) if  my defeatist prediction proves wrong.

But we need to start looking ahead, at what we’re going to do if the proto-fascists (yes, really!) do prevail. Maybe not a putsch – we don’t have that kind of influence at the top; or a ‘secret army’. (Though incidentally I was quite a good rifle shot in my school CCF.) But something, please, beyond blogging and satire, to ease our pain, before the next election, if there is one. What are the good Americans doing, to ease theirs?

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Algorithms (Personal)

I’ve just discovered a feature on my Blogsite thingy that allows me to see which of my posts are most often read. I was shocked to find that the winner, nearly every day, and by a long shot, is a piece from January I called ‘American Pussy’. Here it is: It’s a satirical cartoon I came across featuring Donald Trump and the Statue of Liberty.

Why is that the most popular? Now it occurs to me that the title of the piece might have got it indexed among pornographic sites. (Perverts will have been very disappointed.) I suppose I could check, by searching for ‘pussy’ on Google; except that this would probably get me added to the list, ‘algorithmically’, and I’d never be able to rescue my reputation. Computers don’t forget.

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And Now for Something Completely Different

I blame Monty Python. Originally regarded as entirely beyond belief, but touching gently on certain British traits, it got us used to the ridiculous. Then came Brexit. The genuinely ridiculous Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove – its leaders – could feature in a reprise of the series, without even needing to over-act. Theresa May could replace poor Terry Jones in his cross-dressing role: ‘Hello Mr Hilter!’ And for some (only) of their followers, judging by internet and radio phone-in programme comments I’ve seen and heard recently, how about the following?


My. Head. Hurts.’

Reality mirroring art, indeed.

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Back to the Future

As soon as the Labour manifesto is leaked, we get the Telegraph and the Mail rubbishing it as a ‘return to the 1970s’. That of course is in order to paint Corbyn as the antediluvian reactionary he – to be fair – does appear to be, and to tar him with some of the carefully-selected images the Right likes to use to characterise the 1970s with: unburied bodies lying among the dustbins, for example, rampant Red trade union ‘barons’ under Moscow’s thumb, and Michael Foot laying his wreath at the London Cenotaph in a donkey jacket. I wrote about this kind of portrayal of Corbyn in a piece two years ago:; drawing a historical parallel in order to show how this had been done before – in order to dismiss the Liberal ‘pro-Boers’ around 1900 – but with no lasting effect.

In fact the ‘return to the ’70s’ accusation against Corbyn is not unfair; as neither was the fin-de-siecle Tories’ accusation against the anti-imperialists of their time for reverting to the Gladstonian 1880s. Rail and (part-) energy nationalisation; greater equality; high taxes on high earners; free higher education; an industrial strategy; expansion of the welfare state; an end to privatisation in the NHS; freeing up the Trade Unions; ‘no first use’…; all were either already established in the 1970s, or were on the Labour Party’s shopping list. Then they were considered pretty mainstream policies on the whole, shared or at least tolerated and rationally debated on both sides of the political divide. It was only some time after Thatcher came to power, and free market zealotry started making its come-back, that views like these came to be dubbed ‘extreme’, and were banished to the outer reaches of the conventional political solar system. Which goes to show just how far to the Right the political consensus has shifted over the last fifty years. Standing on the middle ground in 1975, and not shifting very much since then, Corbyn now finds himself dismissed as a wild-eyed Lefty, even a ‘Marxist’. And me too. I’ve not shifted (much) since the 1970s either. Which of course is one reason why I identify with Jeremy.

Of course we’re both ‘behind the times’. Except that I prefer to think of it differently. The 1970s were the decade when the social democratic trend in British politics climaxed, but then began to stagger and fail. There were many reasons for this: global money, the re-energising of the Right, mistakes on the Left (especially among the over-confident trade unions, damn them), Rupert Murdoch (of course!), and hosts of little ‘conspiracies’ (like, possibly, the secret service one against our last genuinely social democratic prime minister, Harold Wilson). Then the ‘Great Reaction’, as I call it in my books, kicked in, and Britain took a different turn in the road; the glitzy ‘free market’ one that has landed us where we are today.

Living in Sweden for much of the last twenty years, it’s clear to me now that there was another path we could have taken: the one taken by Sweden (and, I think, the other Scandi countries) since the 1970s. Britain and Sweden then were quite similar, politically and socially, with each of us following the ‘progressive’ social democratic road. In most ways Sweden was ‘ahead’ of us, and hence became a ‘model’ for us Labourites, but not so very much ahead, if you look back to that period; and with Britain taking the ‘progressive’ lead in some areas. But then we parted company. While we in Britain decided to veer off sharply to the Right, the Swedes kept to the ‘progressive’ road we had both been on before that point, and which they have – with a few little diversions, especially recently (‘free’ schools) – continued steadily along to this day. This was the ‘alternative’ that Thatcher told us didn’t exist. (Remember ‘TINA’?)

This may also be the reason for the material differences between us, with Sweden, and the Swedish people – especially at the middle and lower ends of the social scale – far more happy and prosperous than Britain is. Look at their economic and social indicators, by the side of ours! They don’t regard Corbyn as old-fashioned or extreme. Indeed, as a number of people have pointed out in the press recently, the Labour Party’s 2017 manifesto would be regarded as ‘moderate’, and indeed common-sense, in present-day Sweden and Norway; simply because their countries chose the British social-democratic way of ‘progress’, rather than the American one. That’s the road we Corbynistas should like to get back on to now; not just out of nostalgia, but in order to retrace our steps to the alternative and better future which this particular past could lead us on to. It would be like unravelling knitting after a dropped stitch, in order to progress again. I don’t hold out much hope of this; not for a while, anyway. But then the Tories’ trashing of the ‘dinosaurs’ in 1900 only worked for a limited time. In the following election, the people saw through them.

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