Labour needs to battle through Long Corbyn to overcome Long Thatcherism

by Jonathan Todd

The most common symptoms of Long Covid, according to the NHS website, include extreme tiredness, loss of smell, and muscle aches. It is Zoonotic: transmitting between species and from animals to humans. It also moves from the medical to the political.

“In 82 opinion polls since January,” lamented Denis MacShane on The Article in October 2020, “the Labour Party has only been ahead in one of them”. Despite Keir Starmer outperforming the then prime minister, Boris Johnson, “in terms of competence and coherence.”

“The party,” diagnosed MacShane, “is suffering with symptoms of “Long Corbyn” … The virus of hard leftist unelectability is not easy to eradicate.”

Liverpool had not won the league in 25 years when Jürgen Klopp was appointed manager in 2015. Past glories felt unlikely to be recaptured. Klopp urged doubters to be believers. His Liverpool became the first British team to hold the European Cup, European Super Cup, Club World Cup, and league titles simultaneously.

Three months after MacShane’s article, I paraphrased Klopp to argue that Labour doubters should become believers. The symptoms of Long Corbyn were at their height: extreme tiredness (years of Labour doorstep with little to show for it), misplaced sense of political smell (failing to sniff the weaknesses that clung to Johnson even at the height of his powers), our muscles ached from the strife and disappointment under Corbyn.

This context made eccentric my prediction of Labour victory. Things have dramatically turned.

All who doubted Labour now believe. Once tired activists, bouncing back from Long Corbyn, stride purposefully towards power. The whiff of Labour government permeates all corners of national life. My reasons for optimism have come to pass – and then some.

Among my arguments was that Johnson’s kingdom of sand bequeaths little to the next Tory leader. Except, Tory grandees fear, a nasty case of Long Boris: extreme tiredness (with scandals that originate in the Johnson era), inability to smell what is round the corner (compromise with striking public sector workers, for example), exhausted muscles (after more than 12 years of government).

Submerged doubts can, though, resurface. Klopp’s Liverpool have just lost 3 successive league away games. There’s plenty of time, between now and the general election, for Labour to stumble too, with doubts rushing back.

Rishi Sunak, our latest prime minister, seeks to induce this by reinjecting Labour with Long Corbyn. He never misses an opportunity to mention the MP for Islington North. He thinks this will make Starmer appear extreme (because he agrees with the leader that he served under) or shifty (because he once did, or pretended to, and now doesn’t).

Sunak’s wish for a re-emergence of Long Corbyn may be granted. There could be more focus on Islington North in the next election than is typical on a usually safe seat, giving renewed prominence to Corbyn, and making Sunak’s Corbyn-based attacks sting. Or Long Corbyn might find some other way to debilitate Labour – it is a mysterious condition. If it does, Sunak has more chance of securing a 1992 style victory.

The more Sunak is mired in Long Boris, the greater the likelihood of 1997 win for Labour. Sunak has not run as hard away from Johnson as Starmer has from Corbyn. Sunak suffers from an underlying condition that prevents this: Long Thatcherism.

Sunak’s hero is Nigel Lawson. He feels vulnerable to attacks that he is not a tax cutter or tough enough on the EU: two Tory obsessions with much Thatcherite vintage. He rejects as “protectionism” the active industrial strategy of President Biden – the logical conclusion of this argument being the Thatcherite preference for no industrial strategy at all.

Liz Truss has reappeared to denounce Sunak as insufficiently gripped by Long Thatcherism. Not hungry enough to have the rich pay less tax and the poor be less protected by regulation. Only in a party trapped in the ideological fever of the 1980s is this a threat.

The next election might not be 1992 or 1997 but the inversion of 1979. The moment when we, finally, turn the page of the economic dogmas of the decade into which Sunak was born.

Even some of the truest believers in Thatcherism are harbouring doubts (but not the ideologically blinkered Sunak and Truss, of course). “Something has gone wrong with Mrs Thatcher’s idea of the free market,” Maurice Saatchi, a mastermind of Thatcher’s 1979 win, is quoted in Prospect as saying. It has been “taken over by cartels of giant global corporations”. Big companies, he complains, are “worse than big government, because at least with big government you can change the boss every now and then.”

Biden is using the power of the state to transform the places least well-served by the free-market doctrine that has guided America since Ronald Reagan, Thatcher’s soulmate. If the UK votes for a new boss, we will have our version of this.

It won’t be tossing the Little Red Book across the despatch box – a la John McDonnell – but throwing aside the Road to Serfdom and Long Corbyn to build a British Bidenism.

Jonathan Todd is Deputy Editor of Labour Uncut

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