I spent some of my holiday reading accounts of the Thatcher government’s first term post 1979 (I know, my wife Mandy thought so too).
The longest suicide note in history is all well trodden territory. But it is still striking to think how different history could have been; how much more we could have done to protect people who desperately needed us back in those days if we had been prepared to play on the same pitch as the Tories from the outset instead of declaring that they were playing a deeply sinful game and choosing to demonstrate outside the stadium instead.
The Conservative government was able to inflict great damage on many parts of the UK; not least my constituency of Barrow and Furness and home city of Sheffield, because we attacked them for everything instead of acknowledging where they had a point in their basic analysis. We could have offered a tough but progressive alternative, but because we couldn’t even recognise where the Tories were half right, we could not convince the public about where they were going disastrously wrong. And we could not even begin to offer a credible ‘better option’.
What if, back then, we had agreed with the government that many nationalised industries of the time were indeed appallingly run and uneconomic, and needed radical change rather than the attempts at reform (the likes of which had failed through previous decades). Instead of screaming that they were evil privatisers, what if we had been hard-headed about the need to restructure industries but also insisted on a programme of real investment; giving real hope to the people the Conservatives abandoned?
That would have been a better alternative. We should have faith that those who offer such things will win the day. They do; and usually sooner rather than later.
The public may have been deeply uneasy about some aspects of the programme that the Tories proposed back then, but they agreed with Margaret Thatcher that ‘something had to be done’. They thought we offered no credible alternative at all. So they went with the government and kept us out of office for a generation, until we eventually caught up with the voters’ basic understanding of the world (which was right; it usually is). Only then were they prepared to contemplate a progressive change.
Now, I know I am looking back on a period that others were fighting tooth and nail, but I hope am not completely naïve – I am not underestimating how difficult it would have been for the Labour Party of 1979 to make a complete volte-face in such a short space of time.
This time around, as David Miliband pointed out in his excellent speech at the King Solomon academy last week, voters’ rejection of what Labour stands for is not so absolute as it was then. Yet we are still in danger of falling into the same trap. When you look back at what the Conservatives were saying in 1979, you see how nakedly the class of 2010 are copying the ‘something must be done’ rhetoric: now ‘something must be done’ about debt-laden Britain rather than uncompetitive, union-strangled Britain.
And yes, to an extent, something must be done. Even if there were nothing else to contend with, the structural deficit caused by the massive loss in tax revenue from a shrunken City still has to be tackled. That income made it possible to spend on the things we were passionate about, but it isn’t coming back in a hurry. We understood that while we were in government, but we were so bumbling in articulating that to the public that they simply didn’t believe we were serious.
It is very important we do not come out of this leadership contest concluding that one of the reasons we lost the election is because we made the strategic mistake of conceding the argument to the Conservatives on spending reduction, when in fact the big strategic mistake we made was allowing them to own an argument that the public was so concerned about and which mattered so much to the country. Because they continue to own an argument which is readily accepted by voters and whose basic premise is right, the Tories are succeeding in getting acceptance for a slash and burn approach that is fundamentally wrong, and could again inflict great damage on areas like mine.
If we are to have a chance of stopping that happening, we have to wake up fast. Otherwise, the prospect of staying on the sidelines for another decade or more is real, and genuinely frightening for the families who look to us to stand up for them.
Of all the leadership candidates, I think David Miliband has shown the greatest grasp of that enormous challenge we face, which is one of the reasons I am supporting him when the ballot papers drop this week. It is so important we call this right.
John Woodcock is the Labour Co-op MP for Barrow and Furness.