RATHER than pillory the former PM, Labour must learn from her success to build its own construct, argues Gregor Gall
The celebrations that greeted the death of Margaret Thatcher last week were strongest among Scots. Several hundred people held an impromptu party in George Square in Glasgow, while Dundonian maverick MP George Galloway tweeted “Tramp the dirt down”, the title of a 1988 Elvis Costello song attacking the then prime minister. Comedian, Frankie Boyle, commented on Twitter: “Terrible news about Thatcher” with a link to a YouTube video of “Celebrate good times, come on!”
For this, they were roundly criticised – if not condemned – by the Daily Mail, David Cameron and Tony Blair as being distasteful and disrespectful. But if they were to be criticised, it should be because in celebrating Thatcher’s death they showed that this was the only sense in which they could beat her.
In other words because they were largely beaten by her, they could only celebrate her physical demise and not her political demise. Indeed, if Thatcher leaving office on 22 November, 1990, had represented the political demise of Thatcherism, the celebrations back then would have been much greater – and much more muted today.
So, the coverage of her death very much reminds us that – for Thatcher and Thatcherism – there were few political U-turns and no credible political alternatives to the devotion to the supremacy of the market.
Tina (“there is no alternative” to the market) did very much rule the roost back then and still does today. We need only recall that, in 2002, Thatcher was asked what her greatest achievement was. She replied: “Tony Blair and New Labour. We forced our opponents to change their minds.”
That was as good an indication as any that Thatcher and Thatcherism not only shifted the political centre ground to the right but also took certain issues off the table for political debate. The hegemony of the market became the new common sense. No longer did social concerns have the billing they used to enjoy. But before there is any danger of believing they swept away all before them, there is the little matter of the Left’s responsibility for the success of Thatcher and Thatcherism.
So, if those celebrating last week were a little more reflective, then they would realise that their inability to present and prosecute a credible and coherent political agenda was at the very heart of Thatcher and Thatcherism’s success.
As it was, they defended the status quo without the ability to politically imagine their own “third way” between the failing state-based system of the post-war settlement and Thatcher’s beloved free market. So, it was easy for her to pigeonhole them as the dinosaurs and herself as the moderniser.
Sure, there were colossal battles along the way – from the steel strike in 1981 to the miners’ strike and rate-capping and then the poll tax revolt. But in the key battles against organised labour and the Left, her opponents were a house divided. It mattered not that along the way there were actually some victories, such as the 1988 postal workers’ strike, the 1989 local government strike and the ambulance workers’ dispute of 1989-1990. These paled into insignificance compared to the defeat of the big battalions.
The defeat of the 1984-85 miners’ strike was a body blow to the labour movement that the victory on the poll tax could not overcome (especially as it was replaced by the council tax). Thatcher was driven from office as much by her growing unpopularity as by the splits in her own party over Europe.
The manifestations of the divisions of the Left against itself were legion. Then Labour leader, Neil Kinnock, rounded on a fight by Liverpool Council against rate-capping as being irresponsible. Meantime, Norman Willis, then general secretary of the Trades Union Council, had a noose hanging above his head as he addressed striking miners in Wales because of the lack of support they felt he had given them.
And all this must surely bring us back to the living legacy of Thatcherism. First, Labour seems to have learnt nothing from the helping hand it gave Thatcher in the 1970s. It was Labour, not the Tories, who imposed the first cash limits on the NHS and wage freezes on workers’ pay. Disillusioned by their own party attacking their interests, many workers decided to give Thatcher a go in the May 1979 general election.
Second, and despite the economic deregulation that she set in train with the “Big Bang” in 1986 (when she let the City operate unchecked) bearing a major part of the responsibility for the current financial and economic crisis we have been plagued with since 2007, the market pretty much still reigns supreme.
Labour under Ed Miliband and Ed Balls has neither repudiated the continuation of the party’s neo-liberalism nor caught the tailwind of the popular revulsion against the domination of our lives by the market. If it had, the party would have put forward a coherent and integrated set of alternative policies to those of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. So, the Left needs to be big enough to take its share of the blame for the creation and success of Thatcherism. If it does not, it is destined to repeat the same mistakes as before. That way leads to the prospect of Miliband and Balls in Nos10 and 11 Downing Street in 2015 continuing with the same basic policies of the current government.
This would no doubt revive the fortunes of the Tories as the mass of ordinary voters turn away from the party they thought was going protect and support them. It would be like Groundhog Day, showing the lessons of history still had not been learnt.
The Left needs more than little pyrrhic victories of celebrating Thatcher’s death if it is to revive and have influence.
It must look at how Thatcher constructed a popular alliance that ruled the roost for so long in order to work out how it can construct its own one that can be equally radical and equally effective. The Left in Scotland – given both its greater historical and contemporary strength than the Left south of the Border – could have a significant role to play here. Time will tell.
• Gregor Gall is professor of industrial relations at the University of Bradford