Thatcher dominated my childhood, and changed politics forever when she declared the end of society. The left and the right is still recovering from her legacy.

I grew up hating Thatcher. 

I was thirteen when the Tories came to government in 1979. I was in my thirties by the time they were voted out. By then I was back in New Zealand.

Thatcher was the only leader I’d ever known.

In England in the 80s, I joined countless anti Thatcher demos, stood on picket lines during the miners strike, shoulder to shoulder with the friends I grew up with and their families, who were defending their jobs.

We had posters of Reagan carrying Thatcher in his arms in Gone With The Wind style (or was it Thatcher carrying Reagan?) because we hated Reagan too.

I joined Billy Bragg and The Specials in the Red Wedge movement. We really believed music would bring down the Tories. 

We set up ‘illegal’ debates between Sinn Fein and the protestants to talk about peace in Ireland. Thatcher had banned any media coverage of Sinn Fein.

At university, my friend Nat joined the Revolutionary Communist Party and door knocked for the Tories. His nutty theory was that the worse it got under Thatcher, the more likely the proletariat would rise up and overthrow the Tories.

By the end of the 80s my coat was covered in badges representing failed campaigns on the left. 

Why did we fail for so long?

I still remember the day the kids at my comprehensive school cheered Maggie’s 1979 election, and the shock of realising many of their families had voted for her.

She was cruel. She blamed the poverty that her own policies caused on the moral failure of the poor. She was a war-monger, a bomb-lover, an enabler of dictators. It was no accident that she resisted the fall of the Berlin Wall, the reunification of Germany, gave comfort to Pol Pot. For all her exploitation of Irish terrorism, she failed ever to condemn the bombing of the Rainbow Warrior.

It took us until the 90s before we answered a question that seems obvious today: How could such a woman have won three general elections?

We told ourselves in the 80s that she won because of the right wing newspapers, because she bought votes with North Sea oil revenues, because the Argentine junta gifted her a military triumph in the Falklands. All those factors played a part, but they were never enough of an explanation. Tony Blair quotes the Labour activist who said to him, after 1992, ‘The people haven’t voted for us for four elections in a row. What’s wrong with them?’

Neil Kinnock was my kind of Labour leader, a caring, decent and responsible visionary. But he lost because he led a party that always sounded conservative, as if the past Thatcher was sweeping away was better than any future we could articulate. Even as I stood with coal miners, holding ‘coal not dole’ placards, I wondered why we weren’t articulating something more constructive. In Sweden the left adopted the slogan ‘protect the worker not the job’, and succeeded where the UK left failed.

Thatcher had the advantage of a clear, coherent set of ideas that both analysed the cause of problems and proposed a solution; Her method was a forceful  TINA - ‘There Is No Alternative’. There always was a better way, but the left failed to articulate it credibly, simply. We refused to concede that our opponents brought a devastating intellectual force to the debate. We turned inward and stayed in the bunker. Our only defense was that she was wrong and ridiculous; nothing more needed to be said.

Labour split into two pieces. One, the Social Democrats, who had too little quibble with Thatcher’s policies or politics. Then the rump of Labour told working people it wanted to fix their lifestyles rather than being the party that advocated for their choices and their aspirations.

Earlier this week, before Mrs Thatcher died, I read an Economist story about the town of Harlow - a blandly middle township where, in the 70s, hardly anyone owned their own home.  

Today, two thirds of the residents do, thanks to Mrs Thatcher’s policy of allowing people to buy the home they lived in. 

The same was true in the village that I grew up in. Oh how we raved and ranted and marched and pressed against those council house sales. Then go round to my friends house to celebrate with her parents because they were about to buy the council home they’d lived in for twenty years. How did that happen, that we found ourselves on the wrong side of an argument about allowing people to own their home?  If owning your home isn’t a core Labour value, what the hell is the point?

Thatcher changed the course of history; in so many ways for the worse. She made a more unequal country where the poor kids I went to school with were denied opportunities. Today my friend’s parents have watched their old Council house fall apart because they’ve been in and out of work, and haven’t been able to afford to maintain the house. On the other side of the village, wealthy ‘life stylers’ now live in the beautiful cottages. They recreate a fake village life, and commute to London for work. My old primary school has been turned into an exclusive private prep school. 

Whole regions of the country were devastated under Thatcher, never to recover. Industries were killed off rather than reformed. 

She damaged her own party and made it unelectable. Like the Republican party in the US today, Thatcher ditched compassionate conservatism, where those in power believe its their duty to look after those less fortunate. Thatcher declared the end of society, and announced the new era of the individual. Community was a socialist construction, she argued. Self-promotion, get-rich-quick, greed-is-good, Dallas and shoulder pads were the new order. It's hard not to see the roots of the 2008 crash in the spirit of Thatcherism two decades earlier. 

Voters rejected Thatcherism in a landslide in 1997.

But if the left is to stop another Thatcher, it also has to take responsibility for enabling her politics. It must never again become conservative and resistant to change. If you do not adjust as society changes (for surely there is such a thing as society), then change will be forced brutally upon you by a Thatcher, or a Douglas. We are reformers not advocates for yesterday. 

In a 1987 article that seems stunningly prescient and relevant today, Tony Blair noted:

“Her slogan in 1987 was ‘power to the people’; her Conference speech borrowed a phrase – ‘an irreversible shift in power in favour of working people’ – from Labour’s 1974 Manifesto. In other words, even Mrs Thatcher has had to pretend that she is extending opportunity and power.”

Opportunity and power for working people - these are the core values of the Labour movement. Thatcher never stood for them, but her success rested on her ability to persuade people she stood for them better than we did.

There is a nuance that many fail to grasp: The left’s job is not to mimic the right, nor is it to follow public opinion blindly; What the left has to understand is that our principles, our advocacy of opportunity and power for working people, are universally popular - and therefore if we are not popular it is only because we are not being true to our own principles. 

So often the left confuses unpopularity with principle. That is the only way Thatcher could ever accomplish what she did.

When she left government, Thatcher became a "geopolitical consultant" for the tobacco company Philip Morris. That tells you everything about who she really represented, and how little she cared for people.

The Sun newspaper headline this week said it all; ‘Maggie dead in bed at Ritz.’



Comments (6)

by Andrew P Nichols on April 10, 2013
Andrew P Nichols

There always was a better way, but the left failed to articulate it credibly,


Still doesnt both in Britain and here - labour in both countries under the greasy Miliband and colourless inoffensive Shearer respectively are still fundamentally wedded to the current socially and environmentally destructive neoliberal economic paradigm as a bland PC Conservative/National Light.  That's why I support the Greens who are the true progressives.

Of course this would be useless in GB with their FPP electoral system (which allowed Thatcher to win handsomely with a minority of the popular vote) but entirely rational in NZ with MMP.

by Tom Semmens on April 11, 2013
Tom Semmens

"...Tony Blair quotes the Labour activist who said to him, after 1992, ‘The people haven’t voted for us for four elections in a row. What’s wrong with them...?’

Blair's quote is complete rubbish. As per usual, Josie Pagani is full of fanciful received opinion masquerading as fact. that Pagani persists in uncritically worshipping every self-serving utterance of Blair, exposed nowadays as a total political fraud, speaks volumes to how politically obsolete her thinking is. Let's look at the Conservatives electoral record from 1979-1997:

1979 - Turnout, 76%
Conservative 43.9% (339 seats)
Labour 36.9% (269 seats)
Liberal 13.8% (11 seats)
Swing to the Conservatives, 5.2%

1983 (the so-called Falklands war "landslide") - Turnout 72.7%
Conservative 42.4% (397 seats)
Labour 27.6% (209 seats)
SDP-Liberal 25.4% (23 seats)
Swing to the SDP-Liberals, 11.6%

1987 - Turnout 75.3%
Conservative 42.2% (376 seats)
Labour 30.8% (229 seats)
SDP-Liberal 22.6% (22 seats)
Swing to Labour, 3.2%

1992 - Turnout 77.7%
Conservative 41.9% (336 seats)
Labour 34.4% (271 seats)
Liberal-Democrats 17.8 (20 seats)
Swing to Labour, 3.2%

1997 - Turnout 71.3%
Conservative 30.7% (165 seats)
Labour 43.2% (418 seats)
Liberal-Democrats 16.8% (46 seats)
Swing to Labour, 8.8%

What these figures tell me is:

1/ The Conservatives, even at their height, never commanded the support of more than a third of the British electorate. The "wildly popular" Thatcherism was confined essentially to the home counties and the imagination of the Murdoch press.
2/ The FPP electoral system is fundamentally unfair and flawed, with a few percentage points providing for wildly flucuating results - in 1997 the Lib-Dems had almost exactly the same vote, but got 20 more seats.
3/ Thatcher would have lost in 1983 - despite the war with Argentina - under a proportional system.

If you are going to use quotes from war criminals, try and at least use ones backed up by the facts.

by Josie Pagani on April 11, 2013
Josie Pagani

Thanks for your comment Tom. But this is exactly the arguement we used in the 1980s - that in fact the British people didn't vote for Thatcher, and we won! Except that's rubbish. You're assuming those people who voted for the SDP were left-leaning. In fact they were rejecting Labour. Depressing to see that after more than 30 years since Thatcher's first election, the far left is still making these arguements. It was exactly that kind of bunker mentality in the opposition that allowed the Tories to stay in power for 13 years. I learnt from that. You're also stirring the pot to suggest that if someone quotes Blair's useful insights before 1997 about Labour's 13 years in the wilderness, that they are therefore endorsing everything Blair did after 1997 in government - the Iraq war, the dismantling of the NHS system, charter schools...Which I do not. To suggest otherwise is mischievous and an insidious way of stifling debate. 

by stuart munro on April 12, 2013
stuart munro

Blair will win you no friends Josie. At his best he represents history, and the party needs to be looking to the future.

Thatcher was big on Hayek, who, like the other soviet survivor Rand, is forgivable but not extendable to western countries that were never crippled by that particular brand of soul-destroying despotism.

The wasteland that is Britain today owes much to Thatcher, as the diminished prospects of most New Zealanders can be sheeted home to Roger Douglas and far too many grey figures in the Labour party.

Until you acknowledge it you cannot be effective against further incursions - and if you're not effective, why on earth would anyone vote for you?

Key is on the back foot, you should be eating him alive. And you're not.

by Josie Pagani on April 12, 2013
Josie Pagani

Stuart, I'm not particularly interested if Blair is winning frinds of not. I'm interested in how Labour with its popular principles managed not to be elected, allowing someone like Thatcher to govern. A topic on which Blair in opposition had some useful contributions to make. The crucial insight is that you can't just poke out your tongue and call people you don't like bad people, refuse to engage with their arguments and believe that that is enough to win government. You have to engage with the arguments and present a viable alternative. The idea that I have to apologise for Roger Douglas or Thatcher is just laughable when I spent the 80s and 90s fighting against them here and in the UK. Or the idea that I'm not taking on the arguements of the right today, every week in the media equally silly. You should engage in the arguments in my blog rather than take the easy path of attacking the author.

by stuart munro on April 12, 2013
stuart munro

Josie, sometimes the 'you' addressed is the party.

What the left has to understand is that our principles, our advocacy of opportunity and power for working people, are universally popular - and therefore if we are not popular it is only because we are not being true to our own principles.

This is true of democratic governance in general. If it is done properly it ought to be popular. Key is not popular because he is not representative of majority interests or opinions.

But Labour is not routinely picking up that slack, and my perception is that tainted third way inspired memes are preventing a proper engagement on the issues. If Labour just wanted to win, it would have promised to reverse the asset sales whether it meant to or not. But as it happens reversing them is consistent with most of the values Labour used to hold, and at current interest rates, perfectly affordable.

The path to a resurgence for Labour might have more to do with resolving such issues that with inventing a local variant of the tainted spin of Peter Mandelson.

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