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Peter Mandelson once reportedly said that he wished the Labour Left to become a ‘Sealed Tomb’, isolated and irrelevant to both the ‘modernised’ Labour Party and British politics as a whole. In the thirty years following the end of the 1984-5 miners’ strike, many historians of the Labour Party have tended to conclude that Mandelson’s wish was fulfilled. After the zenith of its power in the early 1980s, the left experienced a profound decline in unity, popularity and influence within the party’s major decision and policy making structures. Most historical scholarship has reflected this marginalisation, with the left a conspicuous absence in literature mostly dedicated to tracing the protracted ‘modernisation’ of the party under Neil Kinnock and John Smith, or the psychodrama of Tony Blair versus Gordon Brown during the New Labour years. It is only considering Jeremy Corbyn’s tenure as Labour leader, and in particular the journalistic interest in understanding from where his election shock election victory could have emerged, has greater interest been paid to the left during what appeared to be their lowest ebb.

This paper charts the trajectory of the Labour Left from the end of the 1984-5 miners’ strike to Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader, demonstrating the key political, organisational and rhetorical strategies that were developed in the intervening ‘wilderness years’. From attempts to refashion the broad unity the activist left had enjoyed in the years preceding, to developed engagements with the politics of identity, new protest movements, and the rhetoric and aesthetics of ‘old Labour’, this paper will recover the diverse influences and ideas that shaped and changed the left. Most importantly, through a detailed exploration of the concept of the ‘twin-track strategy’, this paper will demonstrate how the left was able to reorganise, survive and eventually recover through a political approach that allowed them to both appeal to cautious activists within the party fold, as well as develop rich dialogue with more experimental and innovative activists outside of it. Important technological changes, particularly the emergence of the internet, the blogosphere and eventually social media, towards the end of this period, will also play an important explanatory role in charting the left’s changing fortunes.

Alongside filling a significant gap in established Labour Party histories, this paper goes some way to challenging popular, but often misleading narratives of the 1980s, 90s and 2000s as a period of neoliberal hegemony and boring political consensus. Ultimately, this paper demonstrates that the Labour Left’s so-called ‘wilderness years’ were far from a period of political or organisational hibernation. Rather it was during these seemingly unprofitable years that the main political and organisational foundations were laid for the left’s brief resurgence, best encapsulated by Jeremy Corbyn’s surprising, but by no means inexplicable, election as party leader.

Alfie Steer is a fourth-year DPhil candidate at Hertford College, University of Oxford. He has written articles and book reviews for Contemporary British History, The English Historical Review, Tribune and Jacobin.

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