James Ruddick says the Tories are storing up glory by trashing our past

The next election is already being lost.  And the one after.  And indeed the one after that.  John Kennedy once said: “We can’t know where we’re going until we know where we’ve been.”  Well I’m old enough to have been here before: it was the summer of 1979 and Margaret Thatcher was busy rewriting the last Labour government as the Worst Moment in History.

She succeeded – big time – and her rewrite kept Labour out for a generation.  It didn’t matter that the disasters which had led to the fall of the Callaghan government – the biggest since World War II – were not Labour’s fault (there had been an international oil crisis, then a US gold crisis, then another oil crisis, then European stagflation).

It didn’t matter that Jim Callaghan had led international efforts to rescue the global situation, working with Jimmy Carter and Cy Vance to stave off another great depression.  It didn’t matter that chancellor Denis Healey had put together rescue packages to keep the country moving, and that his handling of the economy averted disaster.

No, when the government fell because of the impact of international problems the Tories seized the chance to make everything that had gone wrong the Direct and Incontrovertible Legacy of Another Disastrous Labour Administration.  Labour had over-spent, over-managed, over-taxed, over-stretched.  It was a calumny – but the Tories stayed in power for a generation almost solely on the back of it.

Even by 1992 the Tories were still getting traction by running ads “reminding” people how Labour’s irresponsibility had brought the country to its knees – footage of the winter of discontent (actually triggered by Ford Motors in the US); the dead unburied; the streets piled with rubbish.  “Do you remember what it was like last time that Labour was in power…” growled the actor, Anthony Quayle, who had made his name in Biblical disaster movies.  The tone was so menacing you kept waiting for a shot of Denis Healey in a robe trying to hold up the crumbling pillars of the temple.

Nonetheless, it worked.  Thatcher used the global troubles that befell her domestic adversaries as a tool to paint them as unfit for government – amateur interlopers, childish idealists, dangerous and naïve, spending money in their final days as though they knew they would never be allowed back into the treasury and were wrecking things out of sheer spite.   To give these people back the keys to government, went the legend, would be to invite another biblical calamity on yourselves and your children.

So here we are all these years later.  And I can hear the ring of John Kennedy’s maxim.  The same dismal lie is being put about today as it was in 1979 – and it will have the same effect.  Danny Alexander and George Osborne are lambasting the last government not just as a means to spike the predicted public outrage that will follow in the wake of their cuts – they couldn’t care less about cuts that will only really hurt Labour voters.

Instead, they are putting about the lie of Labour profligacy in order to set the stage for the electoral slaughter that will follow once we are in recovery.  The Tories have dusted down the blueprint that served them so well in the 1980s and are rebooting it.   You will feel it most acutely when it is too late – when the sun starts shining again, as it eventually will, and Cameron and Clegg come out into the bright dawn to portray themselves as the men who had to save the nation from the terrible legacy of another Labour disaster.

They will sit under a blue sky and talk about how hard it was to clean up the mess bequeathed by the childish idealists.  They’ll grimace as they describe how tempted they were to give in and take the reflation option.  Finally, with a nod at the sunlit hinterlands, they will warn that Labour must never, ever again be allowed the keys to the public purse.

They will talk about Labour being unfit to govern.  They will talk about every Labour government ending in financial calamity. And to complete the calumny they will run those ads all over again: “Do you remember what it was like the last time Labour was in power…”  It won’t be Anthony Quayle this time – he’s dead – it’ll probably be the psychopathic detective out of the Saw movies.

But the images will be more or less the same – Gordon Brown looking weird and pained as he triples the national debt; Harriet Harman joking with Peter Mandelson as the property market collapses.  “Labour’s tax and spend gave us the worst recession since the war,” the ads will say.  “How can you trust them again?”   By the time the electoral effects of this strategy are exhausted, David Miliband will be a crusty figure in the Lords.

So what is to be done? Don’t imagine for a moment that Labour can defeat the Tories by ignoring their strategy and concentrating minds instead on the terrible effects of the cuts.  Neil Kinnock emoted about hospital closures and unemployment every day in the 1980s – and everyone still voted Tory.

No, the only way to save the next election is to play the Tories at their own game.  Right now, before the lie becomes the indisputable truth.  Forget the esoteric debates about the future of the party (normal people are watching the World Cup anyway).  Forget the musing of the leadership candidates about where the party went wrong in the last 13 years.   That sort of thing leads only to another voluminous chapter in Labour’s Long Diary in Opposition.

Instead, call out the Tories for making the nation’s economic prospects worse.  Attack them for spending cuts that will prolong the downturn and damage growth.  Remind them that when the US retrenched in 1937 it threw the country back into the depression.  Above all, defend, defend, defend.  Reiterate again and again that high spending in the last months of the Labour government was an essential tool – recommended by business leaders and the Bank of England – to avert national catastrophe: the same policy that was being pursued from the White House to the Bundestag.  Remind the public of Warren Buffet’s words – that without Gordon Brown’s rescue package the west would have lost all paper money within 48 hours of the fall of Lehman Brothers.  Defuse the black propaganda that is gearing up to misrepresent the very policies that saved jobs and homes.  If you don’t, the battle for the next government – the next generation – is already lost.

“We can’t know where we’re going until we’ve know where we’ve been”.  Well we know where we’ve been:  Margaret Thatcher retained power by using a plethora of global problems to smear Labour.  As for where we’re going – the size and longevity of Thatcher’s victories will look like nothing compared to the landslides that Cameron will start racking up once he’s finished his rewrite of Labour history.

James Ruddick is the author of Death at the Priory, among other books.

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7 Responses to “James Ruddick says the Tories are storing up glory by trashing our past”

  1. Alison Pringle says:

    couldn’t agree more- there must be no apologies. No hand-wringing, no stepping back from Labour’s decisions, no undercutting their policies. Don’t be distracted from what’s to come- a generation of kids whose education is compromised by their being housed in broken, under-sized schools; whose Special Needs Budget is drained off to pay for Vanity Schools- ‘Free’, by no measure known to man- ; who might start looking to their Milk at Break Time again to see if it’s still there next week. These ‘Little Cuts’, the ones that the kind of people who log on to Government Web-Sites are going to decide for you- what will they include? Can’t bear to imagine, if the Start-off point is cutting back on those Pesky Highly Qualified Health-Care Operatives in favour of less expensive, Less Trained Workers. Ruddick is right- let’s give them OUR opinions: it isn’t enough to hope that Cameron takes out Clegg and we sneak back in on the back of the disillusioned Lib-Dem Votes. Leave the backstabbing, and finger-pointing and Caricaturing to the Tories. Speak up for the legacy of the last Labour Government, and look to the Next.

  2. Crispin Brierley says:

    Bravo Mr Ruddick!!

  3. Hal says:

    Great post. Don’t let the Tories write the narrative of the Labour years. Should be required reading for all leadership candidates.

  4. David Boothroyd says:

    It’s a minor point but the election in which the Tories used Anthony Quayle to ask viewers if they remembered the Winter of Discontent was 1987, not 1992. Anthony Quayle became unavailable for voiceover work in October 1989.

    But your point is a sound one. The British economy was actually in a relatively good position in 1978 and was well placed going into 1979, but because the Labour Party was unwilling to defend the Wilson/Callaghan governments of the 1970s (many attacked it for being insufficiently leftwing) this ground was effectively conceded to the Tory myth.

    With the most recent government we have to remind people that in October 2008 we were within hours of major British clearing banks going bust. If it wasn’t for the Labour government the ConDem coalition wouldn’t have had an economy to inherit. The deficit did its job and stopped the recession having such a great human impact as did the Tory recessions of the 1980s and 1990s.

  5. Henrik says:

    Aw bless, the comrades are unrepentant and proud of what they did! Good luck with that narrative, no-one’s listening and no-one will for a few years yet. Get yourselves used to being HM Opposition and start thinking about what you’re going to try and say to the electorate next time around. See if you can come up with something *positive* and *inspiring* rather than the same old sour, carping, canting wankery. By all means critique what the Government’s up to, but for the love of The Purple Velvet Elvis bear in mind that knee-jerk opposition and tribal shrieking won’t play well with an electorate who, broadly, *hated* the last government.

  6. ocon says:

    I dont know about everyone else but i for one are totally sick to the back teeth with all this torry crap, they keep on about the uk national debt, what nonsense, the uk has always had a national debt & before some jumped up torry opens that big gob no labour havent trebled the debt no, stop listening to all that crap. Infact up untill late 2005 labour was the only ones ever to have cut the national debt & by 38 Billion this is fact. The national debt has only risen since then & thats all down to the utter greed of the banking system that brought the world into recession all over, that left l;abour picking up the cost & having to keep the country from a worse outcome. I wish they would shut up get on with the job that they are in & stop blame spreading.

  7. anon says:

    You can try to deflect the blame all you want, your dogmatic socialist idealism will ruin the country if it ever gains any power again.

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