THERE’s something strange about going on holiday for a fortnight and coming back to find a right-wing Tory MP from Chingford giving a speech on how those who receive benefits should be made to work, the hard left is poised to take over the Labour Party, and there is a massive crash on the stock market. Instead of a two-week break, it feels like going through a time warp and re-emerging in the 1980s. I almost expected to hear that Spitting Image was back on our television screens.
The Bennites have been replaced by the Corbynites, Norman Tebbit has long since stepped aside for Iain Duncan Smith, and time will tell if yesterday’s losses on the FTSE were like the Big Bang, but the pattern of politics is all too familiar for those of us whose formative years were the 1980s.
For those who have been hankering after an end to the years of “managerial politics” or wanting to see “clear blue water” between the main parties and an end to trying to appeal to the same people on the centre ground, this retro turn of events is a cause for celebration.
During the 1980s the Bennite MP Chris Mullin published his acclaimed novel A Very British Coup, later a TV mini series, which looked at what would happen if Labour had an uncompromising left-wing leader [Harry Perkins] who became prime minister. In the TV series only a military coup stops Perkins from delivering his socialist mandate. The problem for current Labour members about to anoint Jeremy Corbyn as a real-life Perkins is that Mullin’s work was fiction. The reality is that British voters never came close to voting in Labour when it moved to the left and instead went for a right-wing Tory government.
The left-wing leadership of Michael Foot and then, initially, Neil Kinnock allowed the Tories to move away from the centre, to the right and still win handsomely. Under Thatcher and then Major there was unprecedented privatisation, huge tax cuts, enormous cuts in public spending and a serious clampdown on trade unions. It was only when Labour moved to the right and took the centre ground that the groundbreaking reforms of the left such as the minimum wage, devolution, the social chapter with employment rights, thousands of new hospital and school buildings, the Human Rights Act and Freedom of Information happened.
If we are returning to the 1980s, then the lesson of that decade is that the winners are those who believe in a smaller state, lower taxes and a far less supportive welfare state. Within five years the Tories’ centrist leader David Cameron, who spent so long detoxifying the party brand, intends to resign. His successor may be able to get away with them becoming “the nasty party” again and still win.