Labour’s relationship with Thatcherism

by Tom Miller

I thought Stephen Bush’s piece in Progress was provocative and well argued, so I also thought it warranted a quick reply.

His basic claim is that ‘Labour ended Thatcherism’.

This is patently not true – the Progress deity Tony Blair himself disagrees with it in numerous bits of writing and his own tributes. And he led the bloody thing, after all.

But neither is the idea that New Labour was exclusively Thatcherite, because although Stephen’s article goes too far in declaiming and end to Thatcherism, it does make some good points.

Much of what New Labour achieved was at odds with Thatcherism, if we take that to mean an unrelenting class struggle, where the cost of everything to the wealthy is the supreme decider. Blair spent a fair bit of money on schools and hospitals (though he does seem rather keen to blame all this ‘excess spending’ on ‘Old Labour’ Gordon Brown – a hilarious label – now that it’s after 2008 and Blair still has John Rentoul to please). Nevertheless, the value of this spending cannot be denied, nor the fact that the most obvious inheritors of Thatcher wanted to cut it. Blair also introduced limited trade union recognition rights and some basic employee protections, it should be remembered.

On the other hand, when you evaluate the whole strategic effect, the objective results of New Labour, the point remains – firstly it failed to reverse the tide when that was the real challenge. Secondly, it failed to build a sustainable project, i.e. one supported by movement as well as country. What has not yet been repealed or overcome is simply because of the lack of legislative time more than anything else.

Opinion in the population is soft against what Thatcher represented, because unlike the right, the left had few powerful advocates – most Labour politicians of the era spent their time arguing against the left instead of the right, because that’s where they saw the short term career gains. The long term and solid progress of Labour’s cultural values was not given strategic priority.

The root of Labour’s failure to ‘end’ Thatcherism does not lie in an enthusiastic embrace, but in a much more tacit acceptance – the refusal to discuss anything concerned with reversing it.

The validity of this, however partial you may consider it, can’t be denied.

Secondly, there certainly was some limited actual buy-in to proper Thatcherite modes of thinking. As one example, the mode of public service ‘reform’ was based on part-privatisation and consumer accountability, rather than democracy, localism or mutuality. This was prefigured upon the dual ideas firstly that the state has reached the limit of its efficiency and social contribution, and that the market was generally a preferable method of accountability and delivery to democratic structures. This assumes of course that this was all put together on the basis of accepting the policy premise rather than an opportunistic political one – not that this would detract from my point at all.

These notions satisfy two tests. Firstly, they are proactively Thatcherite. Secondly, they were pervasive under Labour in government, and general trends of direction – towards conservatism.

Together with the more pervasive tacit acceptance, this is Labour’s part in the continuing hegemony of Thatcherism, which endures despite Ed Miliband’s occasional attempts to edge the frame leftwards.

So I think it’s right to say that Thatcherism survived, albeit in a more humane form, for a very temporary period.

We still might not be in a position to roll the whole lot back. But given that in large part the industrial imbalances it created left us vulnerable to downturns, both the left and right of Labour can now find some unity over this key strategic plank, the rebalancing of industry.

How far Labour can go in rolling back the rest will depend if it can win an election, and what pressures are acting on its leadership if it does. Perhaps it’s time to critically engage, and set about creating a left conception of what ideas like a ‘One Nation’ society or ‘predistribution’ might look like in practice. God forbid that this is left to the party’s short-sighted and sectarian hard right.

Beyond that, we still have a philosophy to reverse, and need a viable and rooted one to replace it with.