Things Can Only Get Better - Lessons from the Eighties on why winning matters

28 May 2017

The knowledge that others were once in a similar situation as yours is both reassuring and slightly worrying. For instance, the comedian John O'Farrell, who made his name writing sketches for Spitting Image, lay awake at night as a young man in the 1980s, worrying of the crazy, lying bigot whose hands trembled over the nuclear button in the White House. He tried to take comfort in the knowledge that his beloved Labour Party had just elected a genuine socialist as its leader, and that the attacks on the snow-haired old radical by the Tory rags were only because they so feared him sweeping to Downing Street.


O'Farrell's classic memoir, Things Can Only Get Better, is a great antidote to today’s politics precisely because it reminds the reader of so much of current events. Growing up in the Tory stronghold of Maidenhead which is now represented by Theresa May, O'Farrell witnessed years of humiliating electoral defeats of both small and large scale at the hands of the Prime Minister’s female predecessor. After the Tories were finally routed in 1997, O'Farrell celebrated by penning this hilarious account of what the previous two decades had been like, one which now serves as a warning for today's Labour supporters.


As it is now a further two decades since Tony Blair was elected many have compared Theresa May's opportunistic general election with his 1997 victory, although it is with Thatcher's 1983 landslide that the comparisons should actually be drawn. The crowd-pleasing May is no Thatcher, to be sure, although the two women both benefited from favourable political climates to extend their periods in office. Like Thatcher, May will win largely because of the weakness of her opponents.


The hapless Michael Foot was certainly of the left, but was still relatively mainstream by today’s looney standards. Besides being a distinguished intellectual and writer, Foot had also been a minister in the previous Labour government. At the time of the 1983 calamity over which he presided, Jeremy Corbyn was but a youthful parliamentary candidate, his bushy features unaged by the many years of impotent protesting which lay ahead.


O'Farrell's sense of the absurd was partly what he alerted him to the dangers of Corbyn, who he does not mention by name, but anticipates by scorning a certain type of hard-left figure who views any kind of pleasure or luxury as a sign of decadence, and that instead practises a highly narcissistic style of self-abnegation. These joyless creeps can be recognised by their scruffy clothes, their fussy eating habits, their refusal to shave, and their insistence of putting politics above all other considerations, such as family (Corbyn, if you remember, divorced his first wife over a disagreement about schooling their children). Soon, O'Farrell had made the connection between this type of figure and an unwholesome desire for electoral martyrdom.


The title of the book, reprinted just this spring, takes its name from the catchy D:Ream song which became Blair's 1997 election theme, and has since earned an ironic meaning in the years which have passed. A sequel is due in the autumn, and I will be interested to see what O'Farrell made of Blair's often centre-right style of governance, as well as his willingness to accompany hawkish American presidents into Middle Eastern quagmires. Those who fear Corbyn is leading the party to humiliation, as O'Farrell probably does, still find their demand for a centrist leader hampered by the spectre of Blair.


Yet just as the Tories fought each other for years over the legacy of their most successful and controversial leader, so it seems Labour must endure this same ideological exorcism. Making peace with Blair's double-sided legacy will be necessary before Labour returns to power again; the Corbyn moment is evidently part of this process.


Although for all the past seems similar there is no guarantee Labour's current misery will end with another booze up at the Royal Festival Hall. And this is the reason O’Farrell’s book was worrying as well as reassuring. Labour’s weakness in the 1980s gave its opponents time that neither they nor the country ever got back. Thatcher’s reforms remained in place after 1997 because by the time Labour had recovered itself, the sheer scale of her changes made them impossible to undo. If the Tories remain in power for another long period, as every indication suggests they will, Labour will have no choice but to accept the likely very different country Cameron, May and their successors will have shaped.


Those who fail to learn from history, we are often told, are doomed to repeat it. If you are a member of or care about the Labour party, order yourself a copy of O’Farrell’s misery memoir and read it by 8 June. If the predicted becomes a reality, think on what it says when you play your part in shaping Labour’s recovery. An electorate more conscious of the past may be able to avoid handing the Tories another governing period of Thatcherite character and length.

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