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: https://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2015/08/07/bernard-porter/whos-a-dinosaur-now/; 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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Much about the 70s would be attractive to-day: free higher education for all; a full commitment to the NHS and a fairer education system; greater equality of income and opportunity; no privatisation; and a Labour Party with some big beasts still.
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