The year is 1983. The Conservative Party, led by Margaret Thatcher has just won the general election, its second election victory in a row. The Labour Party meanwhile, has suffered its biggest loss in decades, allowing the conservatives to increase their majority in the House of Commons despite Thatcher’s extremely divisive and mostly unpopular cuts in public spending. The labour party hasn’t only lost votes to the conservatives though, a significant amount of their MPs and voters have defected to the SDP, a new party, which offered an alternative to the Labour Party which in many a person’s opinion had become too left-wing. For Jeremy Corbyn however, the election has a silver lining. He has just been elected to parliament for the first time.
Fast forward 35 years and the exact same scenario has just repeated itself. Despite large cuts in spending, the Tories, now under the leadership of David Cameron, have increased their majority in parliament. The Labour Party has lost votes not only to the Conservatives but also to UKIP and the Scottish National Party. It is their worst election result since the aforementioned one in 1983, with many analysts and former politicians claiming it was because they were again too left-wing.
The difference between the scenarios in 1983 and 2015 is in the response of the party. After the 1983 election, the Labour Party shifted gradually to the centre. This then paid dividends when they won a huge victory in 1997 under Tony Blair and stayed in power until 2010 styling themselves “New Labour”. In 2015 though the party responded by electing Jeremy Corbyn as their leader.
Corbyn has been a Member of Parliament for Labour for 32 years. In the Blair years, when the party was at its most centrist and arguably most electable and successful, Corbyn voted against his own party 25% of the time. While Blair and his cabinet agreed with many fundamental aspects of Thatcherism, such as the nationalisation of state institutions like the railways and the continued use of Trident, Corbyn has rejected the political evolution of the past three decades. Were he to become prime minister, he would move to renationalise former state institutions, reverse the spending cuts of the Cameron government, abolish tuition fees and strongly pursue nuclear disarmament. In a nutshell, he would bring his party back to the 1970s. But will he become Prime Minister? If the vast majority of political commentators in Britain are to be believed, then no, he won’t. In fact many predict that a Corbyn led Labour Party would essentially gif the Conservative Part another five years in power in the 2020 election. For while he may have regained the support of the Labour Party’s traditional voter base, a group which had in recent years increasingly abandoned the party and voted for the likes of UKIP, he may have alienated the party’s centrist supporters in return. As the Labour Party under Tony Blair proved this is the group the Labour Party needs to win elections. Instead, it is now faced with the possibility of voters and Members of Parliament jumping ship and supporting parties like the Liberal Democrats (successor party of the SDP from 1983), just like in 1983. One thing though is for sure. The Labour Party faces a monumental moment in its hiatory.