Labour’s relationship with Thatcherism

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 What has not yet been repealed or overcome is simply because of the lack of legislative time more than anything else.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.

The Tories and low pay

Matthew Hancock MP’s article on ConservativeHome is worthy of a little thought and debate. It’s welcome to see a Tory MP talking about the idea of siding with the low paid, bearing in mind that so much of the point behind what their organisation does is detrimental to them.

The Tory Party has steeled itself and committed to a programme of austerity which goes beyond simple cuts. Like most Thatcherite policy, it appears to be based on one single premise: the recipe for regaining national competitiveness is to raise incentives to inequality, and more importantly to raise the rate of exploitation for workers.

What’s meant by the rate of exploitation? Essentially, more work at less ‘cost’, that is to say, less cost to capital. It does of course cost workers more (and arguably also costs more to the wider economy – a tangent I’ll avoid here).

This is part of the reason it’s interesting that Mr Hancock raises the spectre of low pay. One would naturally assume that low pay would in fact be a policy aim. The idea of making it easy to fire workers at the drop of a hat is a key plank of his party’s policy offer, and seems aimed at increasing productivity through the use of fear of punitive action, for example. Reductions to benefits also fit this programme in theory – the whole prospectus is based upon the idea that reducing benefits is more likely to force more people into low paid work (thus increasing the rate of competition in fighting for scraps among those souls at the bottom of the pay scale).

There was of course a time when Tories believed in a ‘One Nation’ ‘consensus capital’ model. Unions were consulted. Increasing pay at the bottom was seen as a good thing – boats rising with the tide of prosperity. They actually understood that fulfilling the desire of the poor to consume (and thus realistically aspire to a more comfortable, fulfilling and healthy lifestyle) was good for economic growth as a whole.

The new right – revolution within capitalist politics

When the shocks of the 1970s sealed the deal of profit declines through the 1960s, many Tories seemed to resort to a tacit acceptance of some of the main tenets of Marxism. Some hallmarks are:

1) Innovation will not be enough to drive the growth of the future. Companies have now reached a ceiling of maximum return (illustrating what Marx labelled as the tendency of the rate of profit to decline). Companies now require subsidy via cuts in taxation and cheap selloffs of national assets if there is to be a healthy private sector.

2) The other source of growth is more difficult to attain, but involves squeezing more out of workers for less in return – hence cuts to out of work benefits, destruction of the influence of unions, use of the reserve army of labour to hold wages stagnant, legislating to increase casualisation, precarity, and thereby what we might call ‘labour market flexiblity’ – or more cynically, ‘things which make it easier to pay us less’.

3) The biggest benefits of these kinds are more attainable at economies of scale for developed, finance capitalist ‘big business’ than for shopkeepers. Empower ‘big business’.

4) The combination of the elements above makes it necessary to break from the Conservative political tradition of ‘One Nation’ ‘consensus politics’, and therefore given the emergent contradictions driven by lower rises profits, capital must attack labour directly and poltically.

All of these are assumptions of Thatcherism, but also themselves based on the observations of Marxism, in the sense of the domestic economy at least. It might be worth adding a fifth point that everything directly productive must be outsourced to low wage economies under authoritarian regimes, e.g. China, and a sixth about the strategic objective of totally gutting social democracy / creating a hegemony of the New Right – both of which shore the whole thing up.

What does this mean about Tory views on low pay?

In short, everything. It leaves us asking questions about the likes of Mr Hancock and the ‘liberal conservative’ wing of the Tory Party. Where are they, politically?

In my view, what looked like a victory for the Heseltine / Clarke tradition of the Tory left in the election of David Cameron was nothing of the kind. It was actually the nail in their coffin. They have now been effectively been replaced with drys who dress as wets, backed up by an insurgent Tory right who see it as their job to seal this deal, and are a lot more perceptive than they make out. As they see it, the Tory Party as a whole has succeeded in gutting Labour – they are now on a mission to rid the Tory Party of its genuine left.

I suspect that part of Matthew Hancock’s motivation is in the utterly transparent ‘strivers v skivers’ wedge that Cameron aims to drive into Britain’s working class as a whole. The idea that Tories are pro-pay is a useful one, because it actually cements in place the proxy-attacks on it they are making by trying to replace workers with welfare claimants who will work for less, or if forced, completely gratis.

This is, of course, nonsense – which is exactly why it needs some diversionary rhetoric.

But secondly, maybe Hancock actually believes what he is writing?

Capitalism is always stronger when the link between effort and reward is stronger, at every level of the income scale. That’s why, in the past, I’ve railed against rewards for failure for the highest paid. Now we must deliver rewards for success for the lowest paid.

This is out-and-out Wilson style social-democratic reformism. It would have been just as at ease in the party of MacMillan or Eden. But the same rhetoric, in justifying the attack on welfare claimants, is part of what is helping to completely throttle that tradition.

Tories on the genuinely moderate wing of their increasingly extreme party are stuck in a confused mental eddy in wider history, and their number is tiny.

They want to move with what they seen as a One Nation style Cameron Conservatism, that actually means delivering better lives for the targets of austerity, whose impoverishment is necessary for austerity to work – the ‘nasty medicine’ that ‘the patient’ ‘must take’.

The offer of a Tory left including Cameron’s platform is completely false – an inherent lunacy. Cameron and the so called moderates of the Conservative Party owe so much more to its inverted-Marxist right than they do to its paternalist left.

If Tories like Hancock (or indeed Heseltine or Clarke) genuinely want a capitalism that raises living standards at the bottom, it would have been necessary to kick up a much bigger stink in a much more organised and factionalist fashion, a long time before now. His article, which is serious and worthy of consideration by conservatives, will amount to little more than a murmur. Sadly, it is a day at the office.

The part of the Tory Party which actually wants low-paid workers to do better speaks from history’s landfill. The worst part? They never even realise they are there.

Pay is stagnant. Living costs are up. Tory policies have exacerbated and encouraged this ongoing process. Usually, they have done so as a deliberate political objective – however nicely Cameron sells it all.

I won’t go into Labour here, but in my view only a well organised and modern workers movement can create a context for reform, now. It could do with allies in Parliament.

What is ‘one nation’ politics?

“Well, society may be in its infancy,” said Egremont slightly smiling; “but, say what you like, our Queen reigns over the greatest nation that ever existed.”

“Which nation?” asked the younger stranger, “for she reigns over two.”

The stranger paused; Egremont was silent, but looked inquiringly.

“Yes,” resumed the younger stranger after a moment’s interval. “Two nations; between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by a different breeding, are fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws.”

“You speak of–” said Egremont, hesitatingly.


At this moment a sudden flush of rosy light, suffusing the grey ruins, indicated that the sun had just fallen; and through a vacant arch that overlooked them, alone in the resplendent sky, glittered the twilight star.

-Sybil, or the Two Nations (Disraeli, 1845)

History pleases me, especially given the dire content of the present. And one of the lovely things about history is there where we cannot agree much about the future, the past is something in which we can all take any stake we choose.

Ed Miliband’s conference speech marked an ascendency of trust from both party and press, though I have some scepticism as to how much conference speeches influence a sceptical public these days. In any event, it’s certainly sparked some thinking among people whose views I appreciate. I have had some interesting thoughts triggered since by two people whose views I respect, despite the wild divergence of their politics. One is conservative, Ashton Cull, who chaired Conservative Future locally when I was at uni in Manchester. Another is Liam McNulty, who it would be fair to describe in the broadest terms as a Marxist.

I’ve been prompted twice to ask myself what is really meant by ‘One Nation’. On one level, the adaption of Tory rhetoric, expecially class collaborationist Tory rhetoric, marks a reactionary step for the leader of a Labour Party. At the same time, the founding ideas of the philosphy of One Nation Toryism find themselves significantly left of Blairism, which accepted the ceaseless march of a society moving apart from itself – the poorest satisfying themselves with the workfare crumbs of those who got ‘filthy rich’ and (sometimes) paid their taxes, the middle bought into wrestless neutrality with tax credits.

Consider this:

“If a society that has been created by labour suddenly becomes independent of it, that society is bound to maintain the race whose only property is labour, from the proceeds of that property, which has not ceased to be productive.”

– Disraeli

This is no Marxism. But the mutual obligation implied can have ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ obligations, and is just as rightly the property of social democratic reformists as it is moderate Tories. So for that reason, whatever the merits of reformist social democrats, it is far from charlatanism for them to take up the slogan. And further, it may well be a way of blocking together part of the professional so-called ‘middle class’ workers with the lower paid parts of the working class who are currently being hit with the freight train of austerity – making this part of the ‘middle class’ a progressive one. As a front in totality, if theis is a majority, ‘One Nation’ can be a broad project which is also some distance left of the common sernse, and also potentially hegemonic, if done right. Anyway, this is basically my response to those (such as Liam) who might believe that the notion is wholly useless to the left. It’s not revolutionary, but it can just as much be consciousness raising and majoritarian as it can be damaging. It depends on the substance.

The seeds, by the way, of the left undoing that, are treating supplicant, weaker groups and individuals as part of a different nation – one where food banks or immigration detention centres are acceptible human situations, while a land accross the social waters knocks back a Friday night Sauvingnon or two.

No doubt pressure for this kind of ‘two-nationism’, of making positionally weaker humans into ‘others’, will surely form the substance of the Tory response to this speech – alongside subsequent a Blairite call to triangulate it (or as I prefer, ‘submit’). Labour, after all, isn’t learning – right?

But moving back, I was moved to a deeper thought about what social democracy in the first place means to me by Ashton (whose opinion I value and await).

He asks:

…This has been niggling me for a couple of days. How do you feel about the One Nation rhetoric?

Very much in favour. For me my social democracy can basically be summed up as ‘settled consensus that we have obligations to each other, that bodies must carry them out in a way which is widely democratically accountable, and that fulfilling them helps to make us each more free’ [*].

I don’t think that society and the state are the same thing, but I also think it is artificial to seperate them when the goal of the state is to serve society, when much of society benefits from the state, much of society works for it, and pretty much all of society to some degree or another pays for it.

What I’m saying is that I think the heritage of One Nation stretches beyond individual philanthropy, though Disraeli himself probably would not have approved. I think it stretches from one nation Toryism, deep into social democracy. Economic liberalism is not totally alien to it either, but I think that there is still a mad dash for economic liberalism which is massively socially divisive, and is as contrary to One Nation philosophy as exiling the rich.

Anyway, I think it’s a bold move, and whether Tory or Social Democratic, the driving feature is basically human compassion – something that I think is the main thing our society is forgetting, lamentably. I don’t want someone ruining my mortgage or cutting my wages – nor am I happy to see people spit in the face of bus drivers.

Common manners and respect need a big return, in society and in the economy.

Anyway, here’s my family secret. A political one too.

When I was very young, indeed before I can remember, my father was awarded custody of me. I have lived with him and my Stepmother since when he met her (I was three). My biological mother has been estranged to me for what I make twelve years, for various reasons, though I am considering getting in touch with her now.

Anyway, turns out that one of Ashton’s predecessors as the Tory Chair at Manchester Uni was her father**. Uber One-Nation MP. I never met the bloke, and having politicised into the left at a young age, and with a class background of skilled manual labour via my father and his family, it rather shocked me. His wife was descended from Charles II! Mad.

Oh well. There is plenty of determism aside from the genetic.

The fact is, as happy as I am to accept the rhetoric of One Nation, if I was a Tory, I would be a Thatcherite. I respect ideological leadership, sticking to guns, and having guns to stick to in the first place.

I think if there is to be one nation, that’s all well and good. And if the term helps gain support for it, that’s just as well.

But Disraeli’s mistake was that he thought a society that encouraged freedom and was at ease with itself was the rightful gift of the honourable rich.

But wealth is not gained for honour. Nor is it spent in the pursuit of obligation.

Wealth under neoliberalism is precisely and literally the privilege of being in a different nation. If the poor don’t like tax, they buy less food. If the rich don’t like tax, they move. The same logic applies to pay rises in the two nations.

We need One Nation. ‘Middle class’ workers are essential to engendering this. But it’s not the disadvantaged who split the nation in the first place. If the nation is to be brought towards a tolerant, pluralist and relatively equal place – ‘One Nation’ – then democratic and civic power over divisive market dogma must be massively increased, and on terms which are inclusive of the disadvantaged – our subaltern ‘second nation’. It’s simply not One Nation if they are forced into a cramped island with no way out. And make no mistake, that’s where they are headed, and have been headed for decades.

This inclusion is not something achieved through centrist vaccilation. Particularly in this climate of divisive attacks, and the intended resentment culture that now sits in place of solidarity. In situations where forces are jockeying beneath the surface for position, it’s achieved by creating a social coalition which is broad, yes, but also genuinely progressive, and has reason to be. Good luck getting that from establishment wets! It’s a path we have tried for years.

There are very, very few ‘progressive’ Tories. Show me a Tory as left wing as Disraeli these days, and I’ll show you a Compass member. Leadership towards a more cohesive society isn’t just something the broad left has a claim to.

When it comes to questions of motivation and material ability, they are the only forces in the country capable of taking the claim up, and the labour movement in particular the only one with the withdrawable surplus and power in numbers for the battle ahead.

The die is cast. The struggle of note will therefore be that to achieve leadership within the paradigm itself.

My next post will be about the virtues of populism. It will be shorter.

* Note – perhaps I should have added in ‘that economic class as related to ownership is a major obstacle to this’?
** In the interests of my own credibility, not that proper lefts judge us on lineage, I should point out that I am also descended from a Communist militant immigrant bus driver from the T & G who sacrificed his life to fight Franco. I think that means I genetically average out somewhere near Roy Hattersley.