Can Corbyn become Prime Minister?

A party who had suffered two bad General Election defeats elects a new leader. Everybody reckons the party has made a terrible mistake. The MPs and party members are at loggerheads. The Government thinks it is on easy street. Some of its members say – in private – “That’s it we’re home and dry. No need to worry about the next election.”* Despite the fact that the Government has a small majority and a lot of its policies are unpopular. While members of the new leader’s own party are unhappy describing their leader as “a dud, an aberration, an error crying out for correction” and reassuring themselves that their leader will be “out by Christmas”.**

Am I writing about Labour’s shock new leader Jeremy Corbyn? No. I’m writing about Margaret Thatcher’s election to the Conservative Party leadership in 1975. Ridiculous as it seems now Thatcher was seen as an unelectable extremist who would drive the Conservatives too far to the right – and her gender didn’t help – the Economist magazine said that she was unelectable because she was a woman. Conservative voters and activists wanted Edward Heath re elected but the MPs – who were the electorate – wanted change.

Today of course Corbyn is regarded as too extreme and the party members (who elected him) are at odds with the MPs (the vast majority of whom are against him). And Thatcher’s election could be seen as a backlash against unpopular former Prime Minister Edward Heath just as Corbyn’s election is a backlash against unpopular former Prime Minister Tony Blair. So can Corbyn emulate Thatcher and win the next UK General Election? (to be held in May 2020).

The omens are not good. Thatcher was never popular as leader of the Opposition. But for two events she would be but a footnote in history.

The first event was Prime Minister James Callaghan’s failure to call a General Election in October 1978 when everyone thought he would. He didn’t because some polls had the Conservatives ahead by 2% – although others had Labour narrowly ahead. But opinion polls can be wrong – as happened in 1970, February 1974, 1992 and of course 2015. And I suspect had he held an election in 1978 fear of Thatcher’s gender – the 1970s were a very sexist decade in the UK – plus fear of Thatcher’s perceived right wing polices – would have produced a similar result to 1992 or 2015 – a small Government majority of between 11 and 21.

The next – and decisive – event was the “winter of discontent”. That was the name given to a wave of public sector strikes in January/February 1979 that led to among other things rubbish lying uncollected and the dead going unburied. This turned the people against the trade unions and by extension the Labour party since Labour depended on the unions for their funding (as they still do). The Conservatives took advantage of this and when the Government lost a vote of no confidence on March 28th 1979 and was forced to call a General Election on May 3rd the Conservatives won. But even then most pundits thought they won the election despite Thatcher rather than because of her.

The precedent of the 1970s suggests that Corbyn will only win the next election if there is some crisis that discredits the Conservative Government or say a banking or an economic crisis. If the next election is fought in normal circumstances the conservatism (as in fear of change/the unknown) of the UK people will take over. Add to that boundary changes which could increase the Conservative majority from 12 to 50 and Corbyn’s task gets even harder.

In fact he will do well to survive to lead Labour into the 2020 election. While Thatcher at least had the support of the majority of her party’s MPs only a tiny majority of the Labour MPs he has to lead voted for him today and at least nine Labour MPs have refused to serve in his Shadow Cabinet.

I suspect most Labour MPs – aware that he won today with 59.5% of the vote – will hold their fire until the party’s first post election test which will be in May next year with Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and London Mayoral elections. Of those the London Mayor election is by far the most important. First of all Corbyn’s Islington North constituency is in London.  Secondly London was just about the only part of the UK where Labour did well last May. Add to that the fact that current London Mayor Boris Johnson – who is more popular in London than his party – is standing down and it is clear Labour candidate Sadiq Khan should win. If Labour do not win the mayoral election it will be a disaster for the party – and Corbyn’s leadership.

Back in 1975 Thatcher won her first electoral test – a by election in marginal Woolwich West turning a Labour majority of 2,382 into a Conservative majority of 3,541 – which bought Thatcher time. Labour winning the London Mayoral election would do the same for Corbyn. But if they did not win in Corbyn’s own backyard Labour MPs could panic and do to him what the Conservatives did to Iain Duncan Smith back in 2003 and overthrow him.

Labour members by electing Corbyn have gambled that public opinion could swing in his favour. But the history of the UK suggests that that will not happen unless events go his way. And relying on events going in your favour is a very risky tactic…

*Dominic Sandbrook “Seasons in the Sun The Battle for Britain 1974 – 1979” page 252.

**ibid. page 259.

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