Left-leaning politicians and political commentators tend to only invoke the name of our first woman to be Prime Minister in two ways: with the deafening thunderclap of pure evil or with a conciliatory tone; expressing the validity of many of her arguments. If the left truly want to be in a position to change the country for the better though, we need to begin thinking about Thatcher not just as a towering, transformative ideological figure, but also as an astonishingly talented political strategist.
On the 28th March 1979, a longstanding Labour Government was brought down by a vote of no confidence in parliament. What had been a slim majority won by the intensely machiavellian but strangely popular Prime Minister Harold Wilson had dissolved and the former Chancellor, now Prime Minister, James Callaghan was relying on the votes of minor parties – in particular the Liberals and the SNP – to stay in power. In 1967 Callaghan, as Chancellor, had been forced to devalue the Pound Sterling due to complicated economic circumstances, including a large balance of payments deficit and in 1978, as Prime Minister, he presided over the most aggressive period of industrial action in modern British history, known as the Winter of Discontent. With the rubbish uncollected and the dead unburied, the image of Labour as a party in the pocket of megalomaniacal unions was seared in the public’s imagination, and for many remains there still.
That gamble, that leap away from the hallowed political centre ground created the world we live in today
As the government fell in 79 and the General Election began, Thatcher could have chosen the safe road that many in her shadow cabinet recommended: making the election about competence (as Blair would go on to do in 1997), but Thatcher, an adherent to the emerging Austrian School of economics, saw an opportunity to do away with what she saw as the evils of socialism and break the post-war consensus on welfare capitalism. That gamble, that leap away from the hallowed political centre ground created the world we live in today, and Thatcher’s neo-liberal consensus lives on. If the devaluation in 67 was the beginning of the collapse of the postwar consensus, the Winter of Discontent was its death knell. Welfare capitalism could no longer continue and, as Labour were only offering a continuation, whilst the Conservatives were offering a new ideological direction, Thatcher won the 79 election, and two more after that.
When this government falls, it will fall hard
If Labour are to learn anything from this it should be that the public can be convinced of the need for ideological change once a broken economic system has collapsed. The 2008 crash was the neo-liberal consensus’ 67 devaluation, the untold economic damage that the deepening of the austerity program under this Conservative government will cause could be its Winter of Discontent. The Conservative majority could be whittled away through by-elections, causing George Osborne (formerly Chancellor now Prime Minister) to rely on the votes of Liberal and SNP MPs. When this Government falls, it will fall hard and Labour have a simple choice of how to respond.
Labour can cling to a failed economic system (that collapsed on their watch), promising to spend a little bit more money on public services whilst keeping taxes low – an economic strategy pursued by Gordon Brown that left us vulnerable to the banking crisis in 2008 and left public services so badly underfunded that only sharp tax rises could save them, or stay true to their core beliefs and break the neoliberal consensus.
Every disaster is an opportunity; Margaret Thatcher had the courage to seize hers, Labour should not let theirs slip.