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Laurie Penny: What Margaret Thatcher means to my generation

We are living in the shadow not of Thatcher herself, but of Thatcher the icon.

Why do young liberals hate Margaret Thatcher? It's a fair question, given that many of us, myself included, were still potty-training when she left Downing Street 20 years ago. We weren't on those picket lines. We weren't in those riots. We weren't even old enough to understand why our parents had lost their jobs. So why the drunken half-jokes about dancing on her grave? Why, after two decades, is it still so personal?

It could hardly be anything else. Today's young people are living in the shadow not of Thatcher herself, but of Thatcher the icon. Thatcher for us isn't a real politician with convictions and committees to attend: she is an image, the wicked witch in the woods, the rubber mask of neoliberalism in drag gurning down at a generation just beginning to understand how it has been cheated. In most respects, we still live in a Thatcherite society, atomising itself into marketable units at the expense of the social. Thatcher has become part of the creation myth.

Young people who weren't born during the poll tax riots focus their alienated rage on the image of Thatcher, because, in neo-Thatcherite Britain, images are all we have. The Iron Lady and her cronies instigated the junk-food principle of politics, whereby hungry, needy people will invariably swallow something that isn't good for them if it has a recognisable cartoon face on it - even if, as the coalition cabinet proves, it is sickeningly rich and stuffed with yellow preservatives.

Handbags at dawn

For young women, Maggie casts a second shadow over the entire notion of female empowerment. Twenty years after she left office, it is depressing rather than encouraging that Thatcher is still the enduring Anglo-American model of a woman in a position of political power, one to which all women seeking public office, from Sarah Palin to Harriet Harman, are eventually expected to respond.

Thatcher was no more a feminist than Bradley from S Club 7 was ghetto, but she created a brand of female empowerment - all heels, warmongering and expensive handbags - striking enough to replace the erstwhile aspiration of real woman-power.

There were good reasons for her stylistic self-management; the electorate was always far more likely to accept an Iron Lady than a woman of flesh and blood. But that handbag hovers over today's ambitious young women like a sartorial guillotine, reducing feminism, along with progressive politics, to a lifestyle choice, and neutralising it in the process. As the recession has given the lie to the dream of perpetual growth, young people have begun to develop an idealised, almost pantomimic understanding of what was lost.

Ask any 20-year-old for a Thatcher slogan and they will tell you, "She said there's no such thing as society." We understand, and painfully so, that we now live in a country where community has been replaced with an image of community that can be broken up and sold back to us at a profit.

This is what the "big society" is all about: not cuddly One-Nation Toryism, but the logical conclusion of Thatcherism, with the corporate iconography of society replacing the social even as the welfare state is destroyed. It is no accident the Camerons have employed a stylist and a photographer at public expense, while it has been decided that "wasteful" quangos such as the Youth Justice Board ought to be axed. In personality politics, image is everything.

We may be too young to remember Thatcher high-heeling it out of No 10, but our leaders still dance to the rhythm of her politics and our aspirations are still dominated by her project. The mythology of Thatcherism is more than mortal. When Elton John is called upon to sing her eulogy, he will no doubt conclude that the country burned out long before her legend ever will.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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Labour tensions over pro-EU campaign grow

Andy Burnham warned Alan Johnson of danger of appearing part of the "establishment case". 

Compared to the Conservatives, Labour is remarkably united over the EU, with the entire shadow cabinet and 214 of its 231 MPs backing the party's In campaign. Only a handful have joined the rival Labour Leave group, though sources are confident that more, potentially including shadow ministers, will do so when David Cameron's renegotiation concludes. 

But there are notable tensions within the In campaign. At this week's shadow cabinet meeting, which received a presentation from pro-EU head Alan Johnson, Andy Burnham warned of electoral damage to Labour if it was part of the "establishment case" for staying in. Burnham emphasised the need for the party to differentiate itself from Cameron and business leaders, I'm told. Angela Eagle also spoke of her concern at the number of eurosceptic Labour supporters. 

Just as the SNP surged following the Scottish independence referendum, so some shadow cabinet members believe Ukip could do so after the EU vote. One told me of his fear that those Labour supporters who voted Out would make "the transition" to voting for Farage's party. Ukip finished second in 44 of Labour's seats at the last election and helped the Tories win marginals off the opposition. 

Among Labour's pro-Europeans, the fear is that the party's campaign will be "half-hearted". Jeremy Corbyn, a long-standing eurosceptic (who some believe would have backed withdrawal had he not become leader), struggles to express enthusiasm for remaining In. Speaking to the New Statesman, former shadow Europe minister Emma Reynolds warned: 

"The British public will expect the Labour Party to have a clear position. And we do have a clear position and that's that we're going to campaign to stay in the EU. Trying to fudge the issue or hedge your bets is not going to go down well with the British public. Of course we need to talk to people about all aspects of the EU, and that will involve talking to people about immigration, but there isn't a 'maybe' on the ballot paper it's a binary choice between remain and leave. We have to be clear with people where we are because they won't thank us for being wishy-washy."

Labour's Brexiters draw comfort from the dearth of MPs campaigning for EU membership. Kate Hoey told me: "I have been genuinely surprised how few supposedly 'pro-EU' Labour MPs have been prepared to come out and speak publicly of their support for staying in. They know, as those of us campaigning on the Leave side know, that thousands and thousands of Labour supporters, all over the country, want to come out and they are not going to receive a great reception on the doostep". 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.