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16 Sep 2015
Labour's Lost Leaders - Nigel Jones

Labour's Lost Leaders - Nigel Jones

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Whether they love or loathe Jeremy Corbyn, the British media have been at one in telling us that the election of a left-wing socialist (who appears to believe what he says) as Labour leader is unprecedented, earth-shattering and will mean the end of Labour as a significant political force. As usual, the media are displaying their embarrassingly abysmal historical ignorance.

Since its foundation in 1900, Labour have frequently - in fact more often than not - had leaders who shared most, if not all, the attitudes and opinions held by Corbyn. The fundamental issues of nationalisation, pacifism, republicanism and taxation - which so horrify most of our so-called opinion formers. Although often regarded as more Methodist than Marxist, British socialism owes far more to old Karl than it does to Charles Wesley.

The views of Labour's revered founding father James Keir Hardie ( the centenary of whose death falls this month), on the monarchy for example make Corbyn's mildly sceptical opinions about the Windsors seem insignificant by comparison. Hardie outraged the House of Commons in 1894 when he made this comment about the birth of future King Edward VIII ( the Duke of Windsor):

"From his childhood onward this boy will be surrounded by sycophants and flatterers by the score and will be taught to believe himself as of a superior creation. A line will be drawn between him and the people whom he is to be called upon some day to reign over. In due course, following the precedent which has already been set, he will be sent on a tour round the world, and probably rumours of a morganatic alliance will follow and the end of it all will be that the country will be called upon to pay the bill.”

Just Imagine the outcry if Corbyn had said anything remotely similar when Prince George was born. Hardie was also a militant pacifist, and his campaign against Britain's part in the First World War almost certainly hastened his death from a stroke.

Labour's first Prime Minister, James Ramsay MacDonald, like Corbyn, was a victim of media attacks. He was also a principled pacifist whose opposition to the First World War caused the muck-raking journalist and jailed fraudster Horatio Bottomley to reveal that MacDonald was illegitimate in his jingoistically patriotic rag 'John Bull’. A century ago, such a caddish act could have spelled the end of his career.

When he first rose to party leader, MacDonald was regarded as a dangerously radical Red. In 1929, he became the first Labour Party Prime Minister - suddenly he was transformed into a Duchess-kissing, forelock tugging snob, who - when confronted by the Great Depression - sold out his socialism on King George V's advice, and invited the Tories to join him in a 'National Government'.

Expelled from Labour for his great betrayal in 1932, MacDonald was succeeded as party leader by venerable Christian pacifist George Lansbury - the Grandfather of the 'Murder She Wrote' actress Angela Lansbury. In the increasingly unstable 1930s, with Nazi Germany on the rise, His Majesty's Opposition was led by an unworldly mutton chop whiskered 19th century figure, who believed taking up arms was a mortal sin. Lansbury was brutally despatched at Labour's 1935 Brighton conference by Union bruiser Ernie Bevin in favour of war-scarred Gallipoli veteran, Clement Attlee.

Half a century later, in 1980 another ‘dangerous Red’ was elected Labour leader. Michael Foot was a white haired, walking stick-wielding republican, unilateral disarmer and far-left socialist who - just like Corbyn - was mocked for his dress sense, dishevelled appearance, and unworldly bookish persona. Where Corbyn has been denounced for sharing platforms with various unsavoury foreign totalitarians, Foot was alleged - after his death - to have been an 'agent of influence' for the Soviet KGB.

Corbyn's unlikely rise to the top can plausibly be viewed not as Labour losing its way, but returning to its real red roots after half a century pursuing pale-pink, managerial Tory-lite policies and solutions. Speaking personally, I would hasten to add that I regard Corbyn and his cohorts as at best hopelessly naive and at worst actively malign. Their socialism is as a misguided 19th century theory which failed everywhere it was tried in the 20th century, and certainly has no place in the 21st. Still, there is no denying that he is a more authentically Labour figure than any politician we have seen since Michael Foot.

While History teaches us that in Britain socialists like Lansbury, Foot and MacDonald either lose elections or win them and moderate their policies - it would be unwise to assume that the story of the future will automatically be the same as that of the past.

Nigel Jones is a historian, journalist and broadcaster. He is also the co-founder of Historical Trips.