Thatcher, Thatcherism and Labour

For those of us of a certain age, watching the BBC programme screened on the night of Margaret Thatcher’s death was like watching a film about all our yesterdays. Political events help to define a generation, and it was all there – her 1979 victory and the words, ironic in the light of what was to come, of Saint Francis of Assisi, the collapse of heavy industry, the people’s March for Jobs, the miners’ strike, the Brighton bombing, the privatisations and the Tell Sid campaign and the battles within the Conservative party over Europe.

As David Cameron said on the evening of her death, she was a force people defined themselves as being with or against.

For many in my generation she was a recruiting sergeant for the Labour party. In 1983 at the age of 18 I sat in Queen’s Park in Glasgow listening to the speeches at the end of the People’s March for jobs. By 1984 I was a student and standing on picket lines in West Lothian during the miners’ strike. We protested much, but most of the battles were lost. Gradually it dawned on Labour that protest was not enough. For us to win again we would have come to terms with how the country was changing and apply our values in changed circumstances.

That does not mean it is invalid to point to the consequences of what happened during Mrs Thatcher’s time in office. This period saw devastating industrial loss and huge unemployment. Some of the communities affected, like the part of the Black Country I represent, have never fully recovered. Mass unemployment set in and proved very difficult to overcome. In addition the sense of belief and pride which work and industry gave many communities was lost. Great swaths of the country felt they were outside her project, victims of Thatcherism rather than participants in it. But understanding that and pointing it out did not complete the transition from powerless opposition to a government capable of introducing its own changes. That required more.

That process has produced a verdict often said in recent days that Thatcherism changed not just one party but two. She tried to capitalise on this herself by claiming, a little tongue in cheek, that Tony Blair and New Labour were her greatest legacies.

Her effect on the Conservatives is obvious. Three election victories certainly, the privatisation of major industries, a reinforcement of the Atlantic alliance and a hostility to Europe.

For Labour the picture is less easy to define. There was certainly some accommodation with her legacy and the 1997 Blair government did not see its job as trying to press the rewind button on the previous 18 years. The privatisations were for the most part not reversed. The strike ballot laws remained intact, though Blair did also legislate for a right to union recognition and repealed her ban on trade unionists at GCHQ. In economic policy, Labour did not attempt to reassert control over interest rates but went the further step of granting the Bank of England independence. And on tax it did not seek to go back to the rates of the 1970s but instead to tax in a different way for example through the windfall tax on the privatised utilities.

But to depict New Labour simple as Thatcherism continued is far from the truth. To take one of Blair’s most important achievements, it is hard to imagine Mrs Thatcher negotiating the Good Friday Agreement. Or adopting the positive engagement with Europe which has since been eschewed by the Cameron government. She would not have entertained the idea of a minimum wage. Or the steep rise in NHS spending which brought waiting times down in stark contrast to the underfunded NHS of her period in office. Or the equalities agenda which saw her Section 28 swept aside and replaced with a raft of measures to ensure equality in education, goods and services and ultimately civil partnerships for same-sex couples. Regional development agencies?  I don’t think so. Nor the assault on child poverty or the rise in the overseas aid budget which still causes ire among her supporters.

New Labour was therefore neither a continuation of Thatcherism nor an attempt to press the rewind button on her whole period in power. Instead, something more subtle happened, something important for any opposition.

It was a hard-headed assessment of the changes which had happened in the country in the previous 18 years and a process of asking what the right policies were for today and tomorrow rather than rerunning battles of the past. Time moves on and the real challenges a country faces will differ from one decade to the next. The choice in politics is always who is best for the future, not who would have created a better yesterday.

In trying both to reassure economically and create a stronger society the Labour government shifted the centre-ground away from Thatcherism. The Tory party, bloodied and bruised by continued and repeated defeat at the hands of New Labour,  realised its opposition to some of the previous government’s measures made it look harsh and out of touch. Indeed, Cameron saw his main task on becoming leader of the opposition to correct this impression and he tried to do so through a series of repositionings on the environment and equal rights. The government’s adherence to Labour’s goal of spending 0.7 per cent of GNP on overseas aid is part of this thinking.

So in the days after Thatcher’s death it is right to assess her legacy and her effect on policy in an honest way, but wrong to describe the Labour government of 1997-2010 as continuing her project. She created some lasting change, but so too did the Labour government which succeeded her. The battle to come will be about who is best for the challenges the country faces in 2015, not 1979 or 1997.

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Pat McFadden is Labour MP for Wolverhampton South-east. He tweets @PatMcFaddenMP

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Photo: Robert Huffstutter

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