The left struggled to understand Margaret Thatcher. When it finally did, the result was New Labour

The New Statesman was at the forefront of anti-Thatcher campaigning. But in common with much of the left, it never properly understood the forces she unleashed.

In this week's centenary edition of the magazine, we republish a 1983 article about Margaret Thatcher by Angela Carter. Scornful and contemptuous, it exemplifies the way in which many liberal-left intellectuals and artists wrote about Thatcher, whom they despised like no other British politician of modern times.

They despised the way she spoke (the theatre director Jonathan Miller, the embodiment of champagne socialism, described her voice as sounding like a “perfumed fart”) and dressed. They despised her petit bourgeois, lower-middle class origins and arriviste aspirations. They despised what they considered to be her small shopkeeper’s mentality (the third album by the Eighties pop band the Blow Monkeys was titled She Was Only a Grocer’s Daughter – note the scorn of that adverb “only”) and hectoring manner. They despised her Victorian moralism and reluctance, as Britain’s first female prime minister, to call herself a feminist. They despised her audacity, conviction (“this lady is not for turning”) and resolution.

She was considered cruel and compassionless. The power of her ideas helped first to split and then slowly, painfully, to reform the Labour Party. She took on and fatally weakened the unions. She sought to remake the British nation through conflict (on her watch, there were prolonged strikes and inner city and poll tax riots). And yet, she kept winning general elections.

The New Statesman was at the forefront of anti-Thatcher campaigning. But in common with much of the left, it never properly understood her. Or, more accurately, it did not begin to understand her until too late and then, when it did, New Labour was the result.

The word “Thatcherism” – the doctrine combining economic liberalism and social conservatism – was first used in Marxism Today, the journal of the old revisionist wing of the Communist Party of Great Britain edited by Martin Jacques from 1977 until its closure in 1991. More than any other publication, MT offered a consistent and penetrating analysis of the Thatcher project. Jacques and Stuart Hall and Eric Hobsbawm never underestimated or scorned Thatcher. Instead, they understood from the beginning that we had entered a quite new era. In an interview with the NS last year, Hall said that Thatcher was what Hegel called a “historical individual”: her politics and contradictions “instance or concretise in one life or career much wider forces that are in play”.

As early as January 1979, before Thatcher defeated an exhausted Labour Party to become Prime Minister for the first time, Hall published an essay in MT, “The Great Moving Right Show”. It began: “No one seriously concerned with political strategies can afford to ignore the swing to the right.” What was happening, he said, “no longer looked like a temporary swing”.

Thatcher would not have agreed – she was a conservative after all – but there was something Bolshevik in her method and in the way a small group of highly motivated ideologues, several of them disaffected former Marxists, emerged from the margins to seize control of the Conservative Party. As Thatcher saw it, Britain had been enfeebled and impoverished by socialism. The welfare state had created a culture of “dependency”. The unions had for too long used their power to resist necessary labour market reforms. The nationalised industries were failing. Full employment was a chimera; instead, there should be a “natural level of unemployment”.

But the project was never as clear cut as some would like to have it. Although the health service and schools were deprived of resources throughout the Thatcher years and although public spending fell from 45.1 per cent of GDP in 1978-79 to 39.2 per cent in 1989-90, it in fact rose in real-terms in every year except 1985-86 and 1988-89 (largely because of increases in social security spending owing to high unemployment). And she raised as well as cut taxes: in his 1979 Budget, Geoffrey Howe reduced the top rate of income tax from 83 to 60 per cent (it was cut to 40 per cent by Nigel Lawson in his 1988 Budget) but raised the standard rate of VAT from 8 to 15 per cent. In 1981, Howe raised taxes and cut public spending in the face of fierce resistance from leading economists, but unlike George Osborne today, he had the flexibility simultaneously to cut spending and lower interest rates.

No one would doubt today that Thatcherism was profoundly disruptive, a counter-revolution against the postwar Keynesian consensus. It had real victims, caused waves of popular anger, and has left the Tories all but unelectable across large parts of the country. But in truth, that consensus was already unravelling before she came to power, undone by persistently high inflation, the oil price shocks of the early Seventies, deindustrialisation and union unrest.

With Thatcher’s death, at the age of 87, we are at end of an era in every sense. The financial crisis had already marked the end of three decades of excessive “financialisation” and free market hegemony, since when recession and mass unemployment have returned to Europe as the continent has embraced collective austerity.

“Economics are the method; the object is to change the soul,” Margaret Thatcher once said, a saying of hers I like very much and with which no Marxist would disagree. But the paradox of this strange and compelling woman was that her economic liberalism was at odds with her social conservatism: the destructive, amoral market forces she helped unleash and channel undermined her most cherished values. As a religious pessimist, a believer in original sin, she deplored the culture of hedonistic individualism that flourished in the 1980s and beyond. She naively believed the family, private property, the church and ancient institutions would help serve as bulwarks against permissiveness and chaos. She believed the fall of the Soviet Union and the defeat of communism would herald a new order of peace and free market prosperity under the rule of law. It did not happen. It could never have happened. 

Margaret Thatcher with Tony Blair. Photo: Getty

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 12 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Centenary Special Issue

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Why isn't Labour putting forward Corbynite candidates?

Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents. 

The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.

Although Khan, an MEP, was one of  the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.

For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat;  their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.

But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.

Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.

In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs.  Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.

But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim.  The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.

Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.

They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)

But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs.  That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”

Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.