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

Photo: Getty
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Ken Livingstone says publicly what many are saying privately: tomorrow belongs to John McDonnell

The Shadow Chancellor has emerged as a frontrunner should another Labour leadership election happen. 

“It would be John.” Ken Livingstone, one of Jeremy Corbyn’s most vocal allies in the media, has said publicly what many are saying privately: if something does happen to Corbyn, or should he choose to step down, place your bets on John McDonnell. Livingstone, speaking to Russia Today, said that if Corbyn were "pushed under a bus", John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, would be the preferred candidate to replace him.

Even among the Labour leader’s allies, speculation is rife as to if the Islington North MP will lead the party into the 2020 election. Corbyn would be 71 in 2020 – the oldest candidate for Prime Minister since Clement Attlee lost the 1955 election aged 72.

While Corbyn is said to be enjoying the role at present, he still resents the intrusion of much of the press and dislikes many of the duties of the party leader. McDonnell, however, has impressed even some critics with his increasingly polished TV performances and has wowed a few sceptical donors. One big donor, who was thinking of pulling their money, confided that a one-on-one chat with the shadow chancellor had left them feeling much happier than a similar chat with Ed Miliband.

The issue of the succession is widely discussed on the left. For many, having waited decades to achieve a position of power, pinning their hopes on the health of one man would be unforgivably foolish. One historically-minded trade union official points out that Hugh Gaitskell, at 56, and John Smith, at 55, were 10 and 11 years younger than Corbyn when they died. In 1994, the right was ready and had two natural successors in the shape of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in place. In 1963, the right was unprepared and lost the leadership to Harold Wilson, from the party's centre. "If something happens, or he just decides to call it a day, [we have to make sure] it will be '94 not '63," they observed.

While McDonnell is just two years younger than Corbyn, his closest ally in politics and a close personal friend, he is seen by some as considerably more vigorous. His increasingly frequent outings on television have seen him emerge as one of the most adept media performers from the Labour left, and he has won internal plaudits for his recent tussles with George Osborne over the tax bill.

The left’s hopes of securing a non-Corbyn candidate on the ballot have been boosted in recent weeks. The parliamentary Labour party’s successful attempt to boot Steve Rotheram off the party’s ruling NEC, while superficially a victory for the party’s Corbynsceptics, revealed that the numbers are still there for a candidate of the left to make the ballot. 30 MPs voted to keep Rotheram in place, with many MPs from the left of the party, including McDonnell, Corbyn, Diane Abbott and John Trickett, abstaining.

The ballot threshold has risen due to a little-noticed rule change, agreed over the summer, to give members of the European Parliament equal rights with members of the Westminster Parliament. However, Labour’s MEPs are more leftwing, on the whole, than the party in Westminster . In addition, party members vote on the order that Labour MEPs appear on the party list, increasing (or decreasing) their chances of being re-elected, making them more likely to be susceptible to an organised campaign to secure a place for a leftwinger on the ballot.

That makes it – in the views of many key players – incredibly likely that the necessary 51 nominations to secure a place on the ballot are well within reach for the left, particularly if by-election selections in Ogmore, where the sitting MP, is standing down to run for the Welsh Assembly, and Sheffield Brightside, where Harry Harpham has died, return candidates from the party’s left.

McDonnell’s rivals on the left of the party are believed to have fallen short for one reason or another. Clive Lewis, who many party activists believe could provide Corbynism without the historical baggage of the man himself, is unlikely to be able to secure the nominations necessary to make the ballot.

Any left candidate’s route to the ballot paper runs through the 2015 intake, who are on the whole more leftwing than their predecessors. But Lewis has alienated many of his potential allies, with his antics in the 2015 intake’s WhatsApp group a sore point for many. “He has brought too much politics into it,” complained one MP who is also on the left of the party. (The group is usually used for blowing off steam and arranging social events.)

Lisa Nandy, who is from the soft left rather than the left of the party, is widely believed to be in the running also, despite her ruling out any leadership ambitions in a recent interview with the New Statesman.However, she would represent a break from the Corbynite approach, albeit a more leftwing one than Dan Jarvis or Hilary Benn.

Local party chairs in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is profiling should another leadership election arise. One constituency chair noted to the New Statesman that: “you could tell who was going for it [last time], because they were desperate to speak [at events]”. Tom Watson, Caroline Flint, Chuka Umunna, Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall all visited local parties across the country in preparation for their election bids in 2015.

Now, speaking to local party activists, four names are mentioned more than any other: Dan Jarvis, currently on the backbenches, but in whom the hopes – and the donations – of many who are disillusioned by the current leadership are invested, Gloria De Piero, who is touring the country as part of the party’s voter registration drive, her close ally Jon Ashworth, and John McDonnell.

Another close ally of Corbyn and McDonnell, who worked closely on the leadership election, is in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is gearing up for a run should the need arise.  “You remember when that nice Mr Watson went touring the country? Well, pay attention to John’s movements.”

As for his chances of success, McDonnell may well be even more popular among members than Corbyn himself. He is regularly at or near the top of LabourList's shadow cabinet rankings, and is frequently praised by members. Should he be able to secure the nominations to get on the ballot, an even bigger victory than that secured by Corbyn in September is not out of the question.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.