Notoriously, when asked what was her greatest achievement, Margaret Thatcher answered: “Tony Blair and New Labour”. Margaret Thatcher was not known as a humorous woman, so one has to assume that she was not being facetious. And the point remains; Labour was swept to power in 1997 and, despite some distinctly non-Thatcherite legislative achievements (the minimum wage) the rationality underpinning the Labour government – privatisation, the free market, interventionist foreign policy – remained similar to that of the Thatcher years.
Now, in 2013, with the financial collapse of 2007-8 and the formation of a Conservative-led coalition in 2010, things are very much starker. The boom years which allowed a general feeling of well-being to cover the continuities have given way to an economic crisis in which the conflicts are much starker. Yet in the midst of what is quite clearly a systemic failure of the economics that Thatcher championed, Labour’s reaction to it – and to the ideology of austerity that is being promoted as the route back to “business as usual” -remains shot through with fear. Faced with the effect of cuts, Ed Balls’ response is to promise that Labour will keep the cuts and possibly make more of its own. Faced with the effective destruction of state education, Stephen Twigg’s response is a near-Trappist silence. Faced with an unprecedented assault on the living standards of the poor and disabled, Liam Byrne’s reaction is to parrot Tory language of sanction and desert, of “hard-working families” rather than citizens empowered as of right. Faced with a society in which low pay is endemic and living standards in free-fall, it falls back on vague language about “predistribution” which, as far as I can see, amounts to little more than asking big business to play nice (some chance). This is an opposition that could not get its Peers out to amend the Health and Social Care Bill, but whips its MPs into line to attend Parliament’s tributes to Thatcher.
It’s the politics of fear. The irony of course is that one of Thatcher’s principal legacies is a feral tabloid press, that has up until recently been allowed to operate effectively outside the law, and whose symbiosis with the Tory Party has been cemented over Oxfordshire hacks and kitchen suppers; but Labour in government was just as guilty of cosying to media empires. Labour is notable for not standing up to tabloid bullying; some, like Liam Byrne, appear to have made their life’s work out of parroting its lies.
Labour needs to decide where it stands. Is it prepared to offer serious alternatives to the failed economics of austerity, and to learn to speak once again for the most vulnerable in society, rather than joining in the chorus of demonisation? Is it prepared to argue once again for an active, interventionist state which can become the engine of real improvements in the lives of ordinary people, as well as driving sustainable economic recovery?
At the moment the signs are not good. Labour happily whips its MPs to attend more than seven hours of eulogies to Thatcher, as part of a Parliamentary system that devoted a small fraction of that time to voting through measures which have blighted the most vulnerable people’s lives. Rather than joining in the tributes, a party which predominantly represents those communities that Thatcher destroyed might make more impact by staying away; the rows of empty opposition benches as an eloquent testimony to the fact that Thatcher divided Britain like no other leader in modern history, and that Labour will not accept this particular variety of cant.
But that would require courage, and above all the courage to realise that at this late stage of capitalism, we are not living through “business as usual”. As Tawney famously wrote, to kick over an idol you must first get off your knees: this is no time to be frit.