A left-wing, CND-supporting Labour leader portrayed as weak by the media against a younger, strong woman Conservative prime minister who takes a tough line on Europe. She is accused of calling an unnecessary, cut-and-run general election. A pro-European third party enjoys a bounce in the opinion polls and threatens Labour. Sound familiar?
I’m talking, of course, about 1983, and the battle between Michael Foot and Margaret Thatcher. It was the first election I covered as a Westminster journalist. Now, as I prepare for my last one, the wheel has turned full circle.
My abiding memory of 1983 was having a front row seat when a beleaguered Foot was given a bizarre mid-campaign vote of confidence by Jim Mortimer, Labour’s general secretary, who assured us ravenous press hounds that Foot would remain party leader for the election.
Hopefully, Corbyn will avoid such a fate, even though doubts about his abilities among his MPs echo those about Foot 34 years ago. Tory MPs point up the similarities between the two left-wing leaders. So, more ominously, do Corbyn’s Labour critics. The silver lining for them is that a heavy Labour defeat would – they hope – get rid of Corbyn and his project.
One lesson the Labour leader can learn from 1983 is not to repeat Foot’s error of mistaking adulation from the party faithful for public support. That came to mind when I watched Corbyn’s strong opening speech to a very supportive rally. His response to a media question about Labour’s dire poll ratings seemed clever: he was 200-1 to win in 2015. But that was an election among Labour members, not the voters.
We know how the 1983 movie ended. Labour saw off the centre party’s threat but the Tories won a majority of 144, and Labour remained out of power for another 14 years.
Today the Tories allow great expectations of a 100-plus majority to run dangerously out of control. If Theresa May wins a much smaller one, there would be a sense of disappointment. “Whatever we think about Labour’s weakness, we mustn’t take the election granted,” one senior Tory MP told me. Hubris, not Labour, is the biggest threat for May.
As I watched Corbyn’s speech, I kept thinking about Ed Miliband’s understandable obsession with being both radical and credible. I thought to myself that Miliband would give May a much tougher fight. Then I realised that we would not be having an election now if Miliband were Labour leader.
To paraphrase The West Wing, Labour will let Jeremy be Jeremy. After all, authenticity won him the Labour leadership. He will overdose on the radicalism and worry less about credibility. He will not shift back to the centre in the way Miliband did in 2015, when he made a last-minute effort to win economic credibility. It was too late then and it would be too late for Corbyn now.
Although rumours of a June election reached Team Corbyn a couple of weeks before May’s bombshell announcement, Labour is not ready for this election, as its talk about a “rolling manifesto” reveals. The party was right to unveil some much-needed policies over Easter such as a £10-an-hour national minimum wage; free school meals for all primary pupils and higher allowances for carers. At last, Labour no longer looked as though it was contemplating its own navel. The worry for the party is that voters have already made their minds up about Corbyn.
The Labour leader is right to argue this should not just be a Brexit election. We are also choosing a government that will decide our living standards and the state of our NHS, social care system and schools. But the media will make it a Brexit election and so Corbyn needs to get Labour’s fuzzy lines clear on that before he can win a hearing on public services.
Labour desperately needs a game-changer. Here it is. Turn the tables on the Brexiteers and whack the Tories on their Achilles heel. Promise an extra £350m a week for the NHS. Yes, the Tories would say it was not credible. But it would be radical. And it might just ensure a closer contest than anyone expects. Corbyn has thought about it previously, and bottled it. What has he got to lose now?