19 June 2017
One of the initial defining stories of the election was the idea that Corbyn’s support came from a ‘youth surge’. This interpretation seemed to be slightly weakened by the revelation that Labour also gained a significant level of support from 35-44 year olds. We don’t know how many voted in positive support of Corbyn (rather than despite him), but we do know that this group were not sufficiently alarmed by his leadership to reject Labour. There are clearly other issues at play here (not least support for Remain – despite Labour’s own ambivalence on this topic), but looking at this in terms of generational cohort – rather than age itself – may provide at least part of the explanation.
Today’s 35-44 year olds were born between 1973 and 1982. References to Corbyn’s political past mostly do not evoke the visceral reaction for them as for some older voters. The Conservative election poster which has reappeared in recent months, bearing the words ‘So this is the new militant-free moderate Labour Party’ above images of Corbyn, Abbott and Livingstone, among others, was produced in 1987 – when the eldest of these voters would have been 14, and the youngest just 5. Far from provoking fearful memories, it arguably carries something of a nostalgic appeal – as shown by the counter-image of Corbyn being man-handled on an anti-apartheid protest, used to illustrate lists of the times when he was ‘on the right side of history’.
This is more than a general point about the passing of political time and the dulling of emotional flash-points. The memory of the 1970s and ’80s has been a continual reference point in recent political debate, largely used to stir up fear and discourage dissension from the established centre-ground. The idea that the left is poised to take us ‘back to the ’70s’ initially appeared in response to Ed Miliband’s 2013 party conference speech, but seemed to apply all the more clearly to Jeremy Corbyn. Quite apart from the familiar argument that returning to an era of affordable homes and free tuition may not look unattractive to millennials (or indeed the 35-44 year old Generation-Xers who include both the first student loan holders and many of the parents of today’s teens), the way this argument was used to shut down debate, particularly within Labour circles, was deeply dispiriting to many.
The sense that there was an inescapable historical logic which meant any move to the left was doomed to electoral failure seemed to prevent the possibility of new thinking — despite the vastly different political and economic circumstances, and despite the language of Blairite ‘modernisation’ now being 20 years out of date. Breaking the power of the ‘back to the 1970s’ threat may prove to be the most significant outcome of this election in the long-term. While Corbyn’s Labour Party did not win, it also did not land us back at the foot (sorry!) of the snake marked ‘1983’, with Blairism as the only ladder up.
This break from a history we think we already know may prove to be the case in material as well as symbolic terms. As Helen Thompson and Chris Brooke noted in a recent podcast, we may have reached the end of the political era which began in 1974 and was marked by European membership, the rise of Scottish nationalism, and the decline of two-party politics. And while the two elections of that year are currently providing handy reference points for those called upon to comment on the chaos, if this past year has taught us anything, it is that we are in an unpredictable and unstable moment, in which historical models and precedents are likely to obscure far more than they illuminate.
Emily Robinson is Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of a Sussex and a Commissioning Editor of Renewal. Her latest book is The Language of Progressive Politics in Modern Britain (Palgrave, 2017).
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