Ewan Crawford: 1980s political Punch and Judy is back

Piers Corbyn,  brother of Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, campaigns for squatters' rights in 1975. Picture: Getty
Piers Corbyn, brother of Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, campaigns for squatters' rights in 1975. Picture: Getty
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Left-wing Labour and the tight-fisted Tories are slugging it out in a one-sided battle just like the bad old days, writes Ewan Crawford

WHILE normal people were watching the triumph of Nadiya Hussain and her spectacular lemon drizzle cake in the Great British Bake Off, the BBC, true to its mission to try to provide something for everyone, also held out a comforting hand to political obsessives.

Over on BBC2, to an audience rather smaller than the 14.5 million who tuned into “bake-off”, schedulers decided to show a brilliant documentary on former Labour Chancellor, Denis Healey, who died earlier this month.

It wasn’t just the stark contrast in the subject matter that was so striking. If Nadiya’s victory spoke to a modern, multicultural Britain, much of the footage from the 1980s in the Healey documentary painted a very different picture of the UK.

Party conferences in smoke-filled halls alongside open-air mass meetings seemed to be the order of the day.

But more than cigarette or pipe smoke, it was the sheer level of anger that emanated from the screen that defined the political environment.

Anger within Labour from those engaging in a bitter civil war and anger aimed also at the Conservative government of Mrs Thatcher.

In one piece of footage of an open-air rally, the then Labour leader Michael Foot had to take the microphone from Healey to chastise those shouting him down for “playing the Tory game”.

The “Tory game” Foot was referring to was presumably the characterisation of Labour at the time as “loony lefties” incapable of being considered a serious party of even opposition.

With some poignancy a few days after the documentary was screened, it was announced that one of those Tories – Lord Howe, Mrs Thatcher’s first Chancellor – had also died.

But thinking about today’s political conditions it seems as if, at Westminster at any rate, rather than looking back in sorrow at a long-forgotten era, we could be on the verge of a 1980s comeback to go alongside the apparent never-ending appetite for eighties musical reunions.

Labour is once again collapsing and the Conservatives, as in Geoffrey Howe’s day, could soon be engaged in a bitter battle over Europe, with dire consequences for a Tory Prime Minister.

For the UK as a whole, the politics of the 1980s heralded transformative change.

According to your taste they were either the time when Britain cast off its reputation as the sick man of Europe and built a modern, successful country or when it became a profoundly unequal society with an over-financialised economy recklessly turning its back on manufacturing.

When politics becomes polarised, political leaders can become emboldened without feeling the need to reach compromise.

We saw some of this at the Conservative Party conference last week with Home Secretary Theresa May’s ugly speech about immigration.

The rhetoric, if not the policies, of George Osborne was much more inclusive. But no-one should be in any doubt about the extent of the Conservative ambition laid out in Manchester.

This is a Tory vision of a less welcoming and diverse country, with a dramatically smaller public sector and an end to the universal welfare state for everyone below pensionable age.

Like the relatively free run given to Mrs Thatcher in the eighties, until hubris, the poll tax and Europe led to her downfall, Labour again seem intent on opening the door to years of Conservative domination.

It’s not the froth of whether Jeremy Corbyn sings the National Anthem or is avoiding the Queen that is the real problem. It is the total farce of a leader actually embracing disagreement with his senior colleagues over matters as serious as Trident renewal and welfare reform. This is not “new politics”. It is terrible politics and will lead to electoral disaster for Labour sooner or later.

Intriguingly for Scotland, while Labour and the Conservatives seem locked in a struggle redolent of wrestling on ITV on Saturday afternoons, the SNP has clearly moved on.

In the early 1980s SNP conferences offered another kind of sport for those who enjoyed walk-outs, expulsions and general mayhem.

As late as 2003, working in the leader’s office, I remember the focus of conference being, out of necessity, inwards (never good) rather than outwards to the electorate. But those days are over.

In the Thatcher era, with the party of independence fighting for credibility, a big majority of Scots coalesced instead around demands for a devolved Scottish Parliament. Today, unlike then, faced with the prospect yet again of a long period of Tory rule, voters in Scotland have a real alternative in a proven party of government in the SNP.

As events unfold over the coming years the big question will be whether a broader coalition can be built around independence, in much the same way devolution did indeed become the settled will by the 1990s.

To achieve this, a number of conditions need to be met. The SNP needs to remain the party of government (or constitutional progress will stall), the economic argument needs to be front and centre and the political debate must be respectful and courteous so as many people as possible feel part of the mission those of us already convinced by independence are so enthused by.

On the economics, in the 1980s when independence was ironically off the table, such was the scale of the oil bonanza that an independent Scotland would have enjoyed huge surpluses and bequeathed future generations a rich legacy and net assets, rather than a share of UK debt.

Today, although the oil price will recover, the scale of tax revenues is unlikely to match those of 30 years ago.

But perhaps more importantly, people in Scotland appear more confident, with a Parliament firmly established and an economy with huge strengths.

Looking to the future, surely it is better to build on those foundations than accept a bad rerun of the Conservative Dominance and Labour Disarray Show from the 1980s.