Brian Monteith: To win, Tories must look to 1983

MARGARET Thatcher wasn’t slow to blame Labour for Britain’s ills, and the current crop of Conservatives should follow suit, writes Brian Monteith
Rubbish piles up on the streets during the Winter of Discontent  a vision the Conservatives harked back to in 1983, and again four years later. Picture: Getty ImagesRubbish piles up on the streets during the Winter of Discontent  a vision the Conservatives harked back to in 1983, and again four years later. Picture: Getty Images
Rubbish piles up on the streets during the Winter of Discontent  a vision the Conservatives harked back to in 1983, and again four years later. Picture: Getty Images

It is worth recalling the Conservative campaign that led to a landslide victory, for there were times before it when the party looked like it would enjoy only one term in office. Afterwards, it became the received wisdom that it had been the Falklands War that had convinced people that Margaret Thatcher was made of the Right Stuff, but that is far too simple an analysis and ignores the fact she still had to convince the voters that, able or not, she had the policies that deserved giving her another chance.

A closer study shows the signs of the improving economy after a brutal recession were already clear and that, thanks to Michael Foot’s blood-red manifesto, the public could see Labour had not learned from the experience of unrelenting misery that its close relationship with the trades unions had brought. A brilliant party political broadcast by Saatchi & Saatchi, showing the mountains of uncollected rubbish in the streets, the intimidating picket lines and how the nation had practically ground to a halt, brought it all back to everyone. It was negative campaigning at its best. For it not only used pure honest facts rather than exaggerated assertions, it also turned the Conservative messages of more jobs, weakened trade unions and promised tax cuts into positive policies of hope.

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The failure of prices and incomes policies, more accurately called price and wage fixing; the petty tyranny of exchange controls (remember having your £50 limit marked in your passport when you went on holiday to Majorca?); the subsidies to British shipyards to build a Polish merchant fleet to put our own sailors on the dole queue; and Denis Healey’s programme of cuts after that IMF bail-out to control the public debt mountain – Labour’s record was unrelentingly grim. All of this was cast up because, for the voters to put the bitter Tory medicine of initially higher taxes and further public spending restraint in context, they had to recall how terminal the British disease had been. People like to put pain behind them, but Thatcher could not afford to let the British public forget just how bad it all was. Indeed, she was still reminding us in the 1987 general election too.

Liam Byrne left the notorious No money left note. Picture: GettyLiam Byrne left the notorious No money left note. Picture: Getty
Liam Byrne left the notorious No money left note. Picture: Getty

As the images of economic horror were broadcast into our living rooms – in the days when most of us got our information from TV – the failure of 60s and 70s social democratic consensus built on the corporate state was in stark contrast to the sense of freedom that Conservatives were offering. Lower personal taxes, the majority of families becoming home owners, and building up our savings and capital through the ownership of shares were just over the horizon – the other side of the coin to Labour’s promise of servitude to union bosses, council-housing squalor and state rationing of everything it touched, from TV stations to telephones.

Fast forward to this general election and, as a public relations consultant, I am astonished, and, as a former Conservative politician, left incredulous, at the failure of the Conservative Party to present a credible and compelling narrative about the record it inherited from the last government. We have just come through what has been termed by some as the “great recession” and yet leftist politicians are repeatedly getting off without challenge with the assertion that the so-called policies of austerity are being endured because the Tories have intentionally made the poorest suffer for the benefit of the rich – when the evidence shows the wealthiest are paying a higher share of taxes than five years ago.

Where is the reminder of the state that our nation was in, a situation so bad that Liam Byrne, the Labour chief secretary to the Treasury, left a note saying “there’s no money left”? From 2008, when the financial crash started, through to the 2010 election, unemployment was rising and expected to reach three million. The Labour government plan to increase the employers’ National Insurance contribution – effectively a tax on jobs – would have ensured this sorry statistic was breached.

The Treasury had signalled that, with collapsing public finances and mounting debt, VAT would need to be increased to 20 per cent. This quickly became the benchmark by which the markets decided they would judge the next administration, whatever its colour.

When the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition was formed, it found the public finances in a worse state than anticipated and had no alternative but to reassure the markets by putting VAT up.

A review of public sector spending found contracts for aircraft carriers that risked becoming more expensive to cancel than continue and PFI/PPP commitments of £301 billion that were running many NHS trusts into the ground. The EU rebate had been tossed away, costing £9.3bn, our gold reserves sold off at a loss, the deficit was at £156bn and the national debt was expected to break £1.4 trillion within the next five years.

Nor should we forget – or be allowed to forget – Labour’s catastrophic failure to manage the regulatory system overseeing the financial institutions, creating the circumstances that precipitated massive banking collapses.

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Regular readers of this column will appreciate that I have many concerns about the coalition’s economic policies, but credit must go where it is due for facing up to a worse situation than it expected to inherit and developing a moderate programme for economic recovery.

Making the room for the private sector to create two million jobs and reducing the deficit by half compares well with what other countries in the European Union have experienced. The economic good news just doesn’t stop coming, while we have had neither the stark austerity of Greece or Ireland nor the shocking unemployment of Spain and Portugal. The recovery could have been more painful and might never have arrived if left to a further Labour government.

Only by reminding voters just how bad it was, and who was to blame, will the public appreciate what a return to Labour could mean, putting at risk the gains they have suffered for.