Labour’s Long Search For Someone Like Jeremy Corbyn

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The history of the Labour Party could be seen as a continual search for someone like Jeremy Corbyn. The search began in the earliest days of the party, as a hunt for the first genuine Labour member of Parliament. For many years, two miners were pushed into this role – Alexander Macdonald, leader of the Lanarkshire miners, and John Burt, secretary of the Northumberland miners. These two men entered Parliament in the 1870s. Up until 1920, Alexander Macdonald – a remarkable man who even with the demands of a mining job gained a degree at Glasgow University – was named by Labour Party historians as “Britain’s first Labour member” (see The Book Of The Labour Party, ed H. Tracey Vol 32 P16). The problem, as time went on, was the willingness of Macdonald and Burt to enter into alliances with the Liberals to support their position, which eventually had historians ousting them as Labour Party founders.

With Macdonald and Burt no longer fitting the bill, Labour chroniclers looked for a different founding father. For a while they tended to settle on a miners’ union representative and journalist named Keir Hardie who entered Parliament in 1892. Hardie won his time as Labour’s apparent founder because, like Jeremy Corbyn, he was not a political animal at all. He refused to enter into the alliances his colleagues felt necessary. He stood alone as a party of one. If you can call one man the Labour Party, then Keir Hardie may have been its beginning. Inevitably, however, even the most enthusiastic historians realised that Hardie could not realistically be the creator of any party, because he simply was not a party man. Historians were then forced back into the world of fudge and compromise. Keir Hardie was quietly put to one side, and the 1906 election became the defining moment for Labour, when 29 Labour Representation Committee MPs were returned. The difficulty with this apparent breakthrough, was the fact that Labour still struggled to maintain distinctive independence from the Liberals. All Labour MPs were only elected because of local Liberal associations deciding not to put a candidate up against the Labour candidate and thereby splitting the non-Conservative vote. Labour, for all intents and purposes was still a wing of the Liberal Party.

So the search for a defining figure went on, continuing through the 1920s and early 1930s, when Labour actually had its first prime minister in James Ramsey MacDonald. Poor Ramsey MacDonald found himself in his first term in 1924 leading a minority government kept in power for ten turbulent months by an alliance with the Liberals. Things became even worse in 1931 when a short lived Labour government fell and MacDonald was forced into the leadership of a coalition which included the Conservatives! This accommodation of course did not fit with the vision of Labour purity, which left the first Labour prime minister – another remarkable man – a maligned figure for many in the party. So once more the endless quest continued, as it does to this day. In the end, however, it seems that the Labour party’s almost religiously inspired search for a divinely unsullied leader, does not have much to do with the reality of politics.

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