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Jeremy Corbyn and James Callaghan: will Labour’s history repeat itself?

Jeremy Corbyn and James Callaghan: will Labour’s history repeat itself?


Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has often been described as ‘one-of-a-kind’ and ‘different to the rest’. Following this year’s General Election, Corbyn claimed to have “changed the face of British politics”.  Of his originality, I’m not so convinced. Though few appear to have noticed, we have seen something very similar to Corbyn, by way of former prime minister James Callaghan.

Charissa Cheong

What is it that has made Corbyn stand out to the many? Some say it’s his collective leadership style which has starkly contrasted that of previous leaders like Thatcher and Blair. By standing strongly behind his colleagues, including John McDonell and Kier Starmer, instead of making his own outright decisions, Corbyn has become a leader who has become known to work ‘for the many, not the few’. While he has been known to take an authoritarian stance when sacking MPs — most recently Andy Slaughter, Catherine West and Ruth Cadbury — he undeniably chooses collective leadership over a dictatorial style, as he himself said: ‘I’m a leader not a dictator’. This collective style has caused many Labour supporters to sing his praises.

But note that Corbyn did not come up with this idea of leadership on his own. It is a style that is borrowed from previous leaders, most notably, James Callaghan. The former Labour PM encouraged openness in cabinet and steered clear of ‘sofa politics’. The notion of a leader listening to his colleagues was not pioneered by Corbyn, but it is one of the factors which tie him together with Callaghan.

Another thing in which the two men have in common is their authentic, down-to-earth image, which meant that they were both well-liked in their Labour leadership campaigns. Callaghan grew up in poverty during the depression era, and like Corbyn never attained a university degree. Callaghan’s humble beginnings increased his likeability, and one could argue that. Jeremy Corbyn has mimicked this with his scruffy, no-tie look, which has drawn many voters to his side.

James Callaghan was famously the only British Prime Minister to be openly trade-unionist. Ringing any bells? Yes, both Corbyn and Callaghan promote the Labour-trade union link. Corbyn has been a vocal supporter of union’s rights, and Callaghan encouraged trade union links throughout his tenure. Since this trait is so rare amongst British leaders, the resemblance between the two men becomes ever harder to ignore.

Image: New Statesman

Those who still need convincing should look toward the two men’s views on the EU. During Callaghan’s leadership, he took heed to strongly oppose Edward Heath’s motion to remain in the Common Market, a free trade area promoting free movement of goods and services. Today, Jeremy Corbyn’s opposition to free movement and his refusal to back the single market shows the two are very much of the same mind set on the issue.

Both men also defied traditional Labour values in other ways. Callaghan shocked Labour backbenchers by restricting public sector pay rises to below 5%, a policy which completely flew in the face of the party behind the NHS who branded themselves as ‘for the working class’. Corbyn has supposedly betrayed the party in other ways, his support for a ‘women’s only’ train carriage in 2015 was said to have contradicted the socialist policy of equality, and his views were described as being too left-wing for a Labour party which had been veered to the centre under Tony Blair.

Corbyn and Callaghan’s purposeful shift away from mainstream Labour ideas is also what led them both to fall from grace so rapidly. While Callaghan was popular in all areas of the party and won the leadership, he lost his majority of seats on his first day in office, much like the way in which Corbyn was so popular during his leadership campaign, but has more recently faced masses of criticism. What’s more, upon losing his majority, Callaghan had to rely on seats from the Liberals and the SNP, almost exactly what the media had predicted Jeremy Corbyn to do had he got the most votes in the General Election but failed to obtain a majority.

Now that we’ve established the link between the two leaders, we can get a glimpse into what would happen should Corbyn become Prime Minister. When Callaghan was in office, disagreements within his cabinet and nationwide unrest in the ‘Winter of Discontent’ led to him losing a vote of ‘No Confidence’ in 1979, which was followed by over a decade of a disgraceful Conservative government under Margaret Thatcher. This ‘No Confidence’ vote is not dissimilar to the one that Jeremy Corbyn lost in June 2016, but more importantly it is a vote which damaged the Labour Party for years to come. Another Labour victory did not occur until the rise of New Labour in 1997. If Jeremy Corbyn were to become Prime Minister, it is not inconceivable that we could see a similar Labour defeat in the near future. With all the similarities between Corbyn and Callaghan, one can certainly see an unpopular end ahead for the current leader.

While it is impossible to say for sure whether Corbyn is fated for the same decline as Callaghan, I would strongly suggest that anyone with the initials ‘JC’ should not try and build a political career.

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