The 1980s comparisons are easy to make, but wrong

by Kevin Meagher

Spending cuts. Unemployment. Economic experimentation.

Royal weddings. Bombing Colonel Gaddafi. Kenny Dalglish and Alex Ferguson.

Tottenham riots. Strikes and marches. Labour stuck in opposition.

Another series of Ashes to Ashes? More like a tour d’horizon of our so-called new politics.

Welcome back to the 1980s – with parallels as brash and ungainly as a first generation mobile phone.

Overseas, an army labours in the rugged Afghan terrain. In the 80s, the Red Army faced the Mujahideen. Their rebranded successors, the Taleban, now take on the Brits and the Yanks.

At home, a million young people languish, outside the reach of schooling, jobs or training. In the 80s this malaise was simply called “youth unemployment”. Now we call them “NEETs”. They remain poor and hopeless either way.

Many are taking to the streets in civil disobedience. Not miners this time, but minors, with young people and even schoolchildren radicalised.

The first group are idealists, blanching at the crippling cost of studying for a degree. The second group are nihilists, making off with hundred quid trainers and a flat-screen telly, an off-key coda to 80s Thatcherite consumerism.

Homelessness is rising with the crumpled silhouette of Cardboard City looming back into view. Meanwhile the national housebuilders’ federation predicts that the numbers of people able to afford to buy a house in future will plummet back to 1980s levels. A sharp stick skewered through that apple of Mrs. Thatcher’s eye: the Tory “home-owning democracy”.

The concept of a university education looks set to do a backwards flip too. Social mobility became a virtuous by-product of the expansion of higher education begun under the Tories in the 80s. Now it is being whittled away to an aspiration rather than an expectation.

After an uneasy truce, the culture wars are about to break out again. Slut walks. Abortion rights. English nationalism. Scottish nationalism. Immigration. The “chavs”. Everyone is angry. The right blames the feckless and moral decline. The left blames bankers and corporate greed.

Like the 1980s, the right is on top – able to capitalise on a new public antipathy that demands action on shirkers, swindlers, scroungers and skivers. Will the left slip into its oppositionalist comfort zone? Does Labour face another generation of political impotence?

At this point, the parallels break down. Cameron is no Thatcher. The Iron Lady was resolute. Aluminium Dave bends like one of Uri Geller’s spoons. Mrs T stuck to the autobahn school of policy making: keep going straight ahead, no deviations. Dave performs more twists and turns than a flamenco dancer.

For that matter, Ed Miliband is no Neil Kinnock. He leads a calm and, in the main, united party. He doesn’t struggle to gain control of obscure bits of the organisational machinery like Kinnock had to during the 1980s.

The comparisons are easy to draw, but this is no age of hegemony for either left or right.

International issues seem too big to manage and impact on ordinary people in their everyday lives. Fuel prices, international security, climate change, immigration, financial crises: all reduce national governments to mere spectators.

Right and left are both held culpable for this failure to get a grip and reassure a public witnessing the hitherto certainty of economic and social advancement dissolve before their eyes. They, in turn, blame the politicians. “A plague on all their houses” is the curse; messy minority government is the result.

In many respects it feels more like the 70s than the 80s. Stagflation. Political atrophy. Social unrest. Cameron and Obama both risk single-term ignominy; playing the parts of Heath and Carter respectively.

70s or 80s. But which was worse? Nixon or Reagan? Noddy Holder’s sideburns or Freddy Mercury’s moustache? 26% inflation or 3 million unemployed? Paul McCartney’s Wings or Paul McCartney’s Frog Chorus?

These latter are days that must not come again.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut.

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3 Responses to “The 1980s comparisons are easy to make, but wrong”

  1. John P Reid says:

    It’s ben suggested that Had Denis Healey won the 1980 leadership election ,he would have lost the 83′ election and won the 1988 won, As at least after the recent election loss we haven’t had trony Benn try to convince us that we lost last time because it wasn’t left wing enough, so there is a difference between the 1980’s and now, we are not seinging so far towards the left that it’s likely to put us out of pwer for a generation

  2. swatantra says:

    Ah those were the days my friend.
    But whatever became of the Unions?

  3. Nick says:

    The first group are idealists, blanching at the crippling cost of studying for a degree


    They aren’t complaining at the cost. The cost is the same if the government funds them, or they fund themselves. No one is discussing why it costs 9K a year for a philosophy degree.

    If the OU can do it without subsidy at 5K a year, where is the other 4K a year going? It’s a lot to spend on looking after little Johny who has got to pissed to stand up.

    The real reason they are protesting is that the government want them to take the risk of their education. No problem there, I don’t see why someone who doesn’t go to uni should fund them. No the problem is then you’re going to tax them and remove the benefit.

    Heads you lose, tails we win being all political parties attitudes.

    The problem has one cause and it can’t be solved. Governments have committed fraud by hiding most of their debts off the books. Far from being a trillion in debt, its closer to 7 trillion when you include the pensions. This on an income of less than 0.6 trillion.

    That debt figure doesn’t include bailing out the NEETS either.

    So with a deficit of 150 bn, the government is spending well beyond its means, and even its means won’t pay for the debts.

    Labour constantly ignores this and waves its hands around. It then sticks its head where it can’t see or hear the truth.

    So its coming. It’s the legacy of all parties not to address the debts. Combine that with the rampant criminality in the commons and the lords, and the public have realised. Its every man and woman for themselves. After all, they are only following the leaders.

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