A provoking suggestion from Cyclefree
I can hear the spluttering already. How could such a comparison be made? How dare someone even make it! After all, Corbyn represents pretty much everything Thatcher fought against. And for Corbyn Thatcher epitomised the hard-hearted neoliberal capitalist ideology he has consistently opposed his entire political life.
But consider the following: –
• Both were in the right place at the right time, whether through luck (in Corbyn’s case, it being his turn to represent the far Left in Labour’s leadership election and the willingness of MPs to lend him their nomination) or judgment (Thatcher picking up the baton from Keith Joseph and standing against her own party leader when others held back).
• Both courageous: Thatcher in challenging Heath and gaining the respect of those who wanted change but were too gentlemanly to strike; Corbyn in simply ignoring his MPs anguished concerns and attempts to remove him. Perhaps obstinacy might be a better description but, still, it takes nerve to ignore repeated snubs, criticisms and attacks.
• Both became leaders of their respective parties at a time when the long-established status quo was fracturing. In Thatcher’s case, the largely social democratic consensus was disintegrating under the strain of oil price rises, inflation, strikes and a feeling that something had to change if Britain’s position as the sick man of Europe was not to be permanent.
In Corbyn’s case, the long-standing consequences of boom leading to bust, the financial crisis and globalisation (declining or not rising living standards, debt, a malfunctioning housing market, an increasingly casualised work force, concentrations of wealth akin to those of the late 19th century and governments seemingly either in hock to the very wealthy or unable to control them) have led to a crisis of confidence amongst capitalism’s supporters which has made many voters willing to listen to Corbyn’s analysis.
• A close relationship with their Chancellor or Shadow Chancellor. Whatever the later strains, the Thatcher/Howe and later Thatcher/Lawson relationships were at the heart of Thatcher’s governments and economic achievements. (We do not need to look far to see how damaging the PM and Chancellor being on non-speaking terms can be.) The Corbyn/McDonnell relationship has not, of course, been tested in government.
But so far it has been focused on the economy in much the same way as Thatcher and Howe were. Corbyn/McDonnell may be more focused on how to make it fairer rather than how to make it work but, like Thatcher, they have not allowed themselves to be distracted (by Brexit in their case / by rising unemployment & riots in Thatcher’s) from what they see as key to the changes they want to make happen.
• A clear idea as to how they want to change the country. In completely opposite directions from the other, to be sure. But even if you do not favour the destination there is something attractive about someone who knows where they want to get to, especially when the alternative is busy agonising about whether and, if so, how to put one foot in front of the other.
• An ability to articulate ordinary people’s concerns in a way which makes voters listen. Both populists, to the great surprise of most who never thought that a rather stiff humourless rich Tory woman could reinvent herself as a housewife full of common-sense. Nor that a scruffy bearded rebellious old man with a history of adopting every lost, dubious or outrightly violent cause he could find could reinvent himself as an amiable and beloved wise grandfather determined to help the young.
• Like all effective leaders, both had/have their Praetorian guard and a small band of enthusiastic backers, becoming larger as success brings followers. Thatcher dominated her party while she was a winner, true believers being always fewer than the fair-weather supporters. Corbyn has never sought popularity in his party. Quite the opposite in fact. And this has helped him and his core team ignore his critics until such time as he was seen to be a winner.
There may not be that many new Labour MPs who owe their seats to him. But there are plenty who are now sitting on far bigger majorities than before. If Paris was worth a Mass, how much loyalty or turning of blind eyes to ill-thought out policies and dodgy associates will comfortable majorities and the prospect of victory get you?
• Both lucky in their party opponents: Blairites and Wets, disdainful of the leader, uncomprehending, hobbled by loyalty to the party (notably not shown by Corbyn to the party’s leaders when he was a backbencher), critical but unable or unwilling to articulate an effective alternative and ultimately smartly side-lined or ignored.
• Neither of them belonging to the traditional roots of their party. More obvious perhaps in Corbyn’s case. But Thatcher, for all her genuflections before Churchill, was in many ways very unTory and radical in ways which discomfited much of her party.
Well, there are plenty of differences too. Thatcher never lost an election as leader. Corbyn has already lost one. Thatcher changed the country and the political weather. Corbyn has yet to do so, though he has made more of a start than Thatcher did as LoTo.
Still, the most important way in which Corbyn resembles Thatcher is that he has consistently been underestimated by his opponents, whether within Labour or the Tories. The Left never understood why Thatcher was so popular, what need she answered and, blinded by their hatred and misunderstanding, never found a way to oppose her effectively or make voters listen to them instead.
Corbyn’s opponents are making exactly the same mistake now. So blinded by their conviction that he is – or should be – unelectable and is unfit for office are they, so certain are they that his policies will harm the country, they do not see how ineffective their attacks are nor how well he is letting the winds of change the Tories have unleashed with Brexit blow him to office.
Perhaps the last word might be left to Mrs T herself: “I always cheer up immensely if an attack is particularly wounding because I think, well, if they attack one personally, it means they have not a single political argument left.” Corbyn is what you are left with when you have no political arguments left.