The real lesson of Thatcher for Labour

by Jonathan Todd

Toby Helm and Daniel Boffey wrote in the Observer, the day before Margaret Thatcher’s death was announced, under a headline of “Labour plans radical shift over welfare state payouts”. But did their article tell us anything about the party’s commitment to the contributory principle that Liam Byrne didn’t tell us in his speech on William Beveridge over a year ago? And did their article tell us anything about our jobs guarantee that had not already been announced?

In short, the Observer splashed on a story devoid of new content at the end of the week in which George Osborne audaciously – but predictably – used the conviction of Mick Philpott to attack again on welfare. We must presume that Labour felt this attack strong enough to wish to respond to but lacked any new policy with which to do so.

Then Thatcher died and decisively moved the news agenda on. Perhaps we should be grateful to her for obscuring Labour’s lack of substance on this central and contentious issue. But is there anything else that Labour should be grateful to Thatcher for?

We should all, according to the words spoken by David Cameron on Downing street on Monday, be grateful to her for saving the UK. Her alienation of Scotland may yet, though, come to be seen as having contributed significantly to the breakup of the union.

While the decline of some industries may have been inevitable, her dearth of industrial policy stripped whole regions of alternative futures. Local government was gutted of capacity to respond to these changes, as power was concentrated in Whitehall by a government that claimed it did not believe in the role of the state. Ballooning welfare payments also meant that this state was hardly minimal.

All of these baleful legacies remain to be dealt with. Yet Martin Amis spoke for many on Monday when he told Newsnight that she was “a necessary prime minister”. Thus, the real question for Labour is not whether we have anything to be grateful to Thatcher for but why, even after all the suffering endured by areas within which our movement is woven most deeply, this view is widely held.

Is it because the rest of the country lacks the compassion to care for these communities? Has Thatcherism or capitalism itself made our fellow citizens spiteful and capricious? The truth is closer to home than that.

The British public turned to Thatcher and stuck with her through three general election victories because they concluded that the Labour party was incapable of doing what was needed. They may have had some sympathy for Labour and misgivings about Thatcher in their hearts but the dysfunctional 1970s and Labour’s failure to anticipate or adapt to these capitulations made up their minds decisively.

It is not Thatcher that Labour should lament but every party leader from 1959 who forgot that the right to buy council houses was in Labour’s manifesto at this general election, Harold Wilson for failing to reform trade unions when given the chance by Barbara Castle’s “In Place of Strife” white paper, James Callaghan for not averting the winter of discontent, and Arthur Scargill for strong arming the working class into a civil war in which both sides were wrong.

There was an alternative to Thatcher. It just did not come from Labour. We acquiesced with the abuse of trade union power. We spoke of “the white heat of technology” but failed to deliver a growth model that would have given a viable future to those worst served by Thatcher. We conflated public ownership with public service and were relaxed about their manifest inefficiency and abysmal performance. We accepted all of this as unavoidable and came to be synonymous with an acceptance of British decline.

In contrast, Thatcher had the strength to stand up the trade unions, defined a future of aspiration and betterment, and refused to believe that we could not be great again. And, bizarrely, as if it wasn’t obvious, we wondered why she kept winning elections.

We blamed the media. We drove many of those in our party with the surest grip of where the country was going wrong to form another party, splitting the anti-Conservative vote. Then we blamed them. And still the electorate voted against us. We offered no compromise. “What has happened today will make no difference whatever to the work I do for the Labour movement”, said Tony Benn as he lost his seat in 1983.

It was not the public that was wrong. It was Labour. The public would have been fools to entrust their government to a party incapable of confronting reality. They didn’t and nor shall they in future, which is why Labour’s lack of anything substantial to say on welfare matters. We are in danger of seeming to be the defenders of a status quo that the country cannot afford and which the public reject.

There is an alternative to Osborne. But we are not offering it. The suffering inflicted by Thatcher was the bitter fruit of a past generation of failed Labour politicians. It is for this generation to do better.

Jonathan Todd is Labour Uncut’s economic columnist

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17 Responses to “The real lesson of Thatcher for Labour”

  1. Nick says:

    Except you would have screwed the miners too.

    Labour has swallowed the green agenda hook line and sinker.

    That means no coal powered stations, and that means no market for the miner’s product coal.

  2. Nick says:

    Over 20 years, you’ve handed over 4 millions worth of benefits and services to Philpott and his brood.

    Is that value for money?

  3. John Reid says:

    Regarding the labour members who did things that resulted in Thathcers. Popularity, you can add, allowing militant to infiltrate the party in 1964, introducing the closed shop and flying pickets in 1975 and undoing Heaths induatrial relating act, plus letting Tony benn convince our party we lost the 79 and z83 elections as they weren’t left wing enough,, to that,

  4. Terry Casey says:

    Yes we have carried on since the appearance of Blair as the mini Tory Party, our politicians have been scared off by the word socialism, nothing in 13 years happened to advance the WORKING class, the wealth gap has widened until we cannot see the other end any more.
    the workers of this country were worse off when labour left office than when they came in, yet the city and industrialists were cleaning up. what kind of socialist party is that?
    Maggie Thatchers Funeral will take place next week and I have to say I hate her for what she has done to my country, she did what she did for her people but I also hate the Labour Party for never rectifying the damage she did and even worsening the lives of their people.
    I here a lot of people say it doesn’t matter who you vote for as they are all the same, I have fought Labours corner and stupidly thought they would make a difference for my people, they were right I was wrong, today we will see our sycophantic MPs eulogising a person who has done our movement so much harm, the hypocrisy leaves a smell that will linger long after the day is over. the mini Tory Party paying homage to their God.

  5. paul barker says:

    Thanks for a thoughtful & honest article. Unfortunately for you, I am a Libdem, you dont need to convince me. I wonder what the general response will be ?

  6. John Reid says:

    Terry cases ,you hate labour for not undoing what Thatcher did, I went into politics to fight thatcher,after 26 years of labour membership it’s not letting those who made labour unelectable over take the party ,is now the real reason I’ve been active in the Labour Party,

  7. Henrik says:

    @Terry Casey – there you go, comrade, breathe deeply, let all that bad stuff out. Shriek your hate and rage from the rooftops, that’s the way to create a coherent alternative vision of how the country might look under Labour, all right.

    I know I’ve said this before, but the key difference between the Right and the Left is that you lot think the Right is just BAD and WICKED and EVIL and IT’S NOT FAIR that they loll around in their chateaux, nibbling roasted swan thighs while the peasants starve in the, um, I don’t know, housing estates or something – and the Right thinks you’re wrong. Not evil, not wicked, just, you know, wrong. Mistaken. Under a misapprehension. Unable to read or understand history. A little bit amusing, especially when you get into these periodic rages.

    Will someone in what used to be a great party please just man up and start trying to convince folk why Labour is worth a vote? Please?

  8. Terry Casey says:

    Nick it may surprise you that it was Thatcher who initiated putting more and more people on benefits to camouflage her disgraceful unemployment figures, she started the system that allowed Philpot to be, sadly none of the governments that followed would or could change that system being afraid of the consequences that caused its initiation.

  9. Ex-Labour says:

    An excellent article I think and its echoes much of what I have been saying in my responses to other articles. Where is the Labour alternative solution ?

    I lived through the miners strike and still live in a now ex-mining community. Thatcher defintely needed to take on the unions, particularly Scargill and the NUM. However her mistake was not only to wipe out the unions, but also the coal industry and the associated communities it supported.

    Having defeated the union, a plan should have been in place to absorb any workers made redundant, invest in inefficient mines with new technology and reform trade union law to the extent that it left many workers rights untouched but curbed the power and excesses of union leaders. Sadly this didn’t happen and as the coal mines closed, our local steel works closed as they had to switch to alernative fuels, and the chemical plants which used coal as a based to manufacture chemicals closed as they lost their primary source of raw material and finally the engineering and services companies which supported these industries also went with them. My local area has lost 25,000 jobs since the demise of mining and we have had little government investment to compenate and create alternative emploment.

    For balance it must be said that 13 years of Labour did nothing to address this either.

    In my area people still hate Thatcher with a vengence, but there is a realisation, albeit small, that in that period the miners were architects of their own downfall to a certain extent.

  10. Felix says:

    Usual Uncut stuff, eulogise the right, and not a word of sympathy for the widescale suffering inflicted. Just your usual Blarite vanity trip.

  11. Felix says:

    “We are in danger of seeming to be the defenders of a status quo that the country cannot afford and which the public reject.”

    Are you saying we cannot afford the 2.6% of the welfare bill that pays for out of work benefits, (and which are the automatic stabilisers) or the 54% spent on pensioners?

    Given the established position on welfare of all Uncut contributors that Labour should capitulate fully to Osborne’s position, I can be in little doubt that when you employ the term welfare bill, you are being as deeply dishonest as he is, and using it as a synonym for unemployment benefit. The electorate deserves better than dissemblers like yourselves.

  12. Robert says:

    The Labour government of the late 1970s actually remedied many of the problems of the the mid 1970s by the time it left office in 1979, so much of Thatcherism was unnecessary. The problems started when the Labour Party shifted to the hard left after 1979 and right-wing MPs split to form the SDP in 1981. I have no doubt that Labour would have returned to power in the 1980s if it had avoided an insane civil war from 1979 to about 1982. The 1980s would have been a difficult decade but slightly more humane.

  13. Robert says:

    I agree Felix.

  14. John P Reid says:

    felix, do all Uncut articles have to sympathise with those of us who suuffered under thatcher, We suffered under Thatcher becasue laobur kept losing elections, and the reason we kept losing was because labour was out of touch with the electorate, and it wasnt even the feeling that the majority of Labour members actually wanted policies like leaving weurope of the loony Left of harrungey council, it was the sensible people in Labour were side lined, by left wingers having their voices heard louder than the rest of us,

  15. Dominic says:

    It’s pretty clear that the Tories have done a great propaganda job, now as then – describing, ramming home (and not to mention exacerbating) a problem for which they are the solution and for which Labour is squarely to blame: the fiscal gap, and particularly the welfare bill.

    I don’t agree with them, but I see how effectively they are making their case. They are making themselves ‘necessary’ all over again. They control the agenda and they own the ‘solution space.’

    Everyone reading this must, surely, agree that we should not let them own that space.

    The question immediately becomes: what can we do to make Labour the answer? Jonathan leaves it to this generation of leaders to “do better”. But isn’t this the place to make suggestions for those leaders? What would a compassionate one-Nation Labour policy on welfare look like?

  16. Kevin Barry says:

    Most people I know are ‘aspirational’ and hope to do the very best for themselves, and their families, who isn’t? Unfortunately, the term itself has been used so often as to be rendered useless. I have read more a few blog pieces today, and they all refer to 1959, and the ‘right to buy’. I don’t have any strong political objections to such a policy. My concerns are rather more prosaic, that is to say, in 1959 we had sustained and massive completion of council properties. There was competition between the two major parties in the numbers they would build, with the Conservative government building a total of 300,000 properties a year. So when it came to 1959 election, and there was choice between Macmillian and Gaitskell, Macmillian won – with a large majority. In fact people were allowed to buy their council properties from the 1950s onwards. Local authorities were given the choice of deciding whether to sell or not.
    Today circumstances are very different, we are building nowhere near the social housing needed,with millions on council waiting lists, and those who are earning £30,000 plus are unable to get mortgages. This crisis has grown over the last thirty years under both parties, with neither willing to grasp the nettle, take the hard decisions – or build more housing.

  17. uglyfatbloke says:

    Thatcher definitely alienated Scotland, but actually the hatred of her protected Labour in Scotland for years; people voted Labour to keep the Tories out. The Blair and Brown years have achieved the antithesis of that. The Scottish Labour MPs were powerless under Thatcher, gormless under Blair and useless sycophants under Brown. There are duff MPs in every party, but in the Scottish region of the party uselessness seems to be a qualification. What makes it worse is that they get promoted to positions of responsibility where they can make fools of themselves to a larger audience. Every time Murphy, Curran or Darling open their mouths a few more voters start sliding toward the gnats,
    It’s actually worse at Holyrood, where the Hesitant Tendency has utterly failed to keep up with the aspirations of the electors. Mid-term in a second session…six years in power and the gnats have (at least) a 15 point lead in the polls. It’s even worse for the Glib-Dumbs, since they are looking at being reduced to 2 Scottish MPs at the next GE, but they are in deep trouble anyway right across the country. Labour has the prospect of gaining loads of seats in England in 2015, but losing so many in Scotland that Ed won’t have an overall majority.
    There used to be a big difference between voting intentions for Westminster or Holyrood which kept Labour representation strong, but unless there is a radical improvement the position of the Gnats and Labour (in terms of MPs) will be reversed and THEY will get 80% of the seats for 40% of the vote….of course if Darling (supported and advised by Osborne) stays as the leader of Better Together the Salmondistas will win the referendum, so it won’t matter what happens in Scotland.

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