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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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Inside a Ukip conference obsessed with Stoke

Now that Brexit has been achieved, the party of protest is focused on a by-election. 

On the roundabout outside the Bolton Macron stadium - the venue for the Ukip spring conference - a sheet was hastily draped. Daubed in black paint, it read “Bad Bootle bullshitter”.

The unknown critic was commenting on the recent travails of leader Paul Nuttall, who is standing for the party in the Stoke-on-Trent Central by-election, but whose campaign has been clouded by questions over his claims about the Hillsborough football tragedy

At conference, Nuttall kept away from the press. He had also cancelled a hustings appearance the day before.

But while many on the outside see Ukip as increasingly directionless, from the inside it's a little different. 

The thrum of enthusiasm which ran through the attendees at the stadium was palpable. The Lightning Seeds’ Marvellous - with lyrics promising “Things could be marvellous, things could be fabulous too” - was on a constant loop. Party stars like Suzanne Evans and Patrick O’Flynn rubbed shoulders with the rank and file.

From the start of the morning, the press were shunted upstairs to a media room. But while Nuttall was mysteriously hard to find for media interviews, those who support him were only too happy to share their strong beliefs in what the brand still stands for - even after the vote which was meant to be their raison d’être.

In the ladies’, a neat, petite woman with perfectly coiffed grey hair was fixing her scarf in front of the mirror. It was patterned in Ukip purple, to match her lilac top.

“I just love conference,” she told me. She was one of the minority of female attendees I saw during the day in a throng of besuited men of a certain age. The programme and speakers went out of their way to refer to all spokespeople as “spokesmen”, despite gender.

When Nuttall took to the stage - to, among other things, offer his mea culpa for erroneous website details - he got a rousing reception to match that of  Nigel Farage. 

The former leader is still a favourite. I caught up with two audience members following his speech, and they were positively glowing.

“He pointed out every single thing that Ukip is about and brought it up to the present. He says it as it is,” Marie Foy told me.

She comes from an old Labour family, but says the party is "no longer working for us". 

Her friend, Mick Harold, interpreted it as a case for ongoing radicalism: “What was important was the fact that he said we cannot move to the centre. Because if we move to the centre, then we just become like all of the other parties and we become pointless.

“We have to keep pushing our agenda. We’ve got to be different or there’s no point in us being there. That, for me, is the message that sticks in my mind from Nigel today.”

The idea of remaining radical and yet pertinent is a big one for party members.

Foy and Harold are both Ukip activists, who have spent recent weeks campaigning in Stoke. Harold knows the area particularly well - he came second to outgoing Labour MP Tristram Hunt in the 2015 election, who beat him by just 5,719 votes. 

“The radical ideas of Ukip are what resonates with the working people of this country," Harold said. "We don’t want the Labour party, we don’t want the Conservatives. We want something different. We want change, and that’s why Ukip have been so successful." Like Foy, he too is a former Labour supporter. 

“There are certain parts of Stoke now which are probably 50 per cent Ukip," he said. "The old Labour areas, the old council estates, they’re definitely moving over to Ukip.”

It may be the talk of the Ukip bubble, especially now Nuttall is on the defence. But with the by-election only days away, it won't take long to find out.