The right will deny it but Thatcherism’s day is done

Only Labour has the values and the vision to respond to the public appetite for an end to market fundamentalism and gross income inequality.

Always an overachiever, Margaret Thatcher has managed something in death that evaded her in life: she united Britain. The unity is not, of course, over the individual acts of her tenure, the cold-eyed dismantling of the coal industry or the privatisation of public goods, but in the acknowledgement, by left and right, that hers was an historically significant part in our politics and public life. Thus the adulation and rage that has been heaped on her memory in equal measure, have shared that assumption that her policies, and the political economy and philosophy she came to embody, were defining of their age and have overshadowed those that followed. 

However, amid the avalanche of comment that has followed her passing, one further, common conclusion should be discerned, though many on the right will deny it: her day, Thatcherism’s day, is done. And the politician or party that most closely grasps that essential fact and frames a future predicated on its truth will shape the next chapter in our public life, as she shaped hers.

Her era ended definitively, not in 1990 when she left office, nor even in 1997 when Tony Blair entered Downing Street and ushered in a period of Labour government which ameliorated the settlement left by Thatcher, but failed to fundamentally transform it. No, the moment the music stopped for Thatcherism was on 15 September, 2008, when Lehman Brothers filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, its foundations fatally undermined by the forces of financial liberalism and the selfish, greedy culture she legitimised, indeed sanctified. 

Some have been slow to recognise that fact, unsettled by the 'strange non-death of neo-liberalism', even in the teeth of its evident failure. I suspect, however, that Thatcher would have sniffed the wind and been among the first to sense its turning, to note the public discontentment with an era just ending and the demand for a vision of what might replace it. That, in part at least, was her great skill: her ability to sense that frustration with the economically constrained world of 1970s Britain could be translated into support for a dynamic, if destructive, mandate for change.  For our modern Labour Party, that lesson is perhaps the most important of all to be drawn from the legacy of Margaret Thatcher: that radical change is possible, even within our innately conservative, democratic culture, but only when the people are ready for change and only if the prescription on offer looks set to meet their demands.

For Thatcher, those demands were for economic security through price stability and industrial harmony, for a return, if you like, to the era of consistent growth, rising prosperity and cultural innovation which evolved through the 1950s and 1960s but which seemed to falter, then stall, in the stagflation and stultification of the 1970s. Her prescription was not so much new, of course, as new to Britain. Right wing economists and politicians, from Hayek, through Friedman to Minford and Joseph, had long advocated a radically liberalised, market-driven economy with a shrunken state counter-balanced and energised by powerful, individual consumers and asset holders. In this respect, Thatcher was not so much progenitor of the philosophy to which she lent her name but rather a sharp-witted vector for ideas whose time she thought had come.

What is the core demand of our age? And who is beginning to frame it? Not David Cameron, that’s for sure, with his millionaires’ tax cut laying bare his warped priorities. His economic strategy of reducing public spending as stimulus to hitherto ‘crowded out’ private investment is planted in the arid soil of Thatcherism, and is predictably failing to take root – as £750bn of corporate hoardings bear incontrovertible testimony. Nor indeed, in truth, is the issue of deficit reduction the only defining malady of our age. It is a symptom, and it must be treated, of course, but the British patient is far sicker, and the cure must be further reaching and longer lasting than any Thatcherite quack can prescribe.

No, deeper than debt and deficit  is a fundamental issue of economic injustice, the debilitating condition of gross income inequality and the yawning social, class and cultural divisions that are calcifying in modern Britain. And though reducing the deficit is a vital step towards creating the circumstances in which a more holistic cure might be administered, it alone is not enough to bring about the fundamental fairness in our economy that would mark its sustainable return to health.

Even some among those who marched for Thatcherism and who advocated trading equality for freedom in the name of economic reward are beginning to accept that the price was too high. As Ferdinand Mount, once policy director in Maggie’s Den, poignantly puts it: "it no longer seems adequate to excuse inequality as the inescapable consequence of market forces. For we were told that over time market forces would trickle all the way down to reach the worst off. That is not how it looks to the worst off today."

In a Britain where 'Sids' in Surbiton have given way to Hedgies in Mayfair, where the new right’s promise of regional renaissance in our post-industrial heartlands is bitterly broken, the dream of a property owning democracy has become a deception  for those priced out of the market or onto the street. And where a decline in the union strength she once has held up as the disease of her age has mirrored the rising inequality that scars our own. The people know that, as Thatcher once put it herself, enough is enough.

Ed Miliband knows it too. That’s why he describes David Cameron as the last gasp of the old politics. That’s why he’s talking about reforming capitalism to reinstate fairness. That’s why he wants to build a Britain in which people earn a wage that allows them to live a life worth living, a Britain that competes abroad but also provides opportunity and equality at home, a Britain informed by our past mistakes of economic planning and statist solutions but one also aware of the crucial, modern role for public investment and renewed social solidarity. A One Nation Britain which heals the scars of the past by setting us on the path to a more equal future, in which everyone has a stake.

Labour is setting out clearly the policies we need to change our economy and realign finance towards productive deployment in the real economy, leading to living wages, high employment and long-term investment and to supplant the culture of flexibility, corporate cronyism and short-term return that have become the norm. We need a progressive tax system and strengthened representation for the people – in the boardroom, on the shopfloor and in Parliament too. We need to show the confidence and the conviction in our politics that the woman whose passing we mark today always had in her own. Inequality is the scourge of our society today, a society we believe in just as strongly as she repudiated it. Only Labour has the values and the vision to do something about it and in Ed Miliband we have a leader with the faith and the strength to get it done. In that respect, if in no other, he’s a true heir to  Thatcher and the right man to finally consign her legacy to the past. 

 

Owen Smith is shadow secretary of state for Wales (@owensmithmp

David Cameron leaves at the end of the ceremonial funeral of Margaret Thatcher in St Paul's Cathedral. Photograph: Getty Images.

Owen Smith is shadow welsh secretary and Labour MP for Pontypridd.

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Banishing safe seats, and other proposals to bridge the democratic divide

How to improve key areas of democracy.

Labour’s election train is finally pulling into the station, with its new leader announced in just over a fortnight. However, a summer absorbed in the party’s internal democracy has obscured a deeper truth confronting the country: the general election confirmed that unequal political participation rates in the UK – by age, class, ethnicity and region– have become increasingly hardwired into how our democracy operates.

IPPR’s new report underscores the scale of the democratic divide.  For example, less than half of 18-24 year olds voted, compared to nearly four-fifths of the over-65s, while three-quarters of "AB" individuals cast a ballot, against just over half of "DE" registered voters. Critically, this marks a sharp rise in turnout inequality over time. In 1987, for example, turnout rates by class were almost identical but have steadily diverged since.

Similarly, age-based differences have got significantly worse over time. In 1964 turnout for 18-24 year olds was 76.4 per cent, almost matching the 76.7 per cent turnout rate of those aged 65 or over. By 2005 only 38.2 per cent of 18-24 year olds voted against 74.3 per cent of 65+ year olds, with only a very slight improvement this year.

Underlying growing disparities of electoral voice are striking divergences in perceptions of the fairness and effectiveness of our democracy. For example, IPPR/YouGov polling suggests a striking 63 per cent of "DE" individuals think that our democratic system serves their interests badly, while "AB" voters are evenly split.

Given these signs of democratic distress, there remains a strong case for establishing a wide-ranging constitutional convention to reset how our democracy operates. Yet Westminster shows no appetite for such constitutional reformation, and there would only be so much a civil society-led convention could achieve in terms of practical change.

In our report we therefore propose a series of achievable reforms that could update the civic, institutional and technological architecture of our democracy in the here and now, with the explicit goal of ensuring that all voices are better heard in the political process.

On electoral reform, while we reiterate our support for proportional representation for national elections, we know this simply isn’t going to happen this Parliament. We had a referendum on change in 2011 and it was heavily lost. The energies of electoral reformers should therefore focus on extending PR in local government, where it is more obviously in the self-interest of the major parties, as a means of extending their geographical reach.

In addition, the reduction in the number of MPs provides an opportunity to chip away at the number of safe seats. More than half of seats are "safe", a number that has grown over time, even allowing for the electoral earthquake in Scotland. Safe seats typically have lower levels of participation, lower turnout rates, and less electorally powerful voters. While safe seats will always be with us in a first-past-the-post system, too many can be damaging to democracy.

Given this, we have recommended that the various Boundary Commissions of the UK be given a new duty to consider the electoral competitiveness of seats – ie. to tilt against the creation of safe seats – when boundaries are redrawn. The priority would be to meet their current duties of ensuring the geographic coherence of a seat and roughly equal electorates.

However, where these duties can be met we suggest that the Commissions should consider revising boundaries to reduce the number of safe seats, as a step to increasing participation and the voting power of the average elector. Of course, this will clearly not "abolish" all safe seats – nor should it  but it could help re-empower millions of voters currently with little meaningful say over the outcome of elections and force political parties to up their game in safe seats.

At the same time, the transition to the individual electoral registration process risks excluding millions from the franchise, people who are disproportionately younger, poorer or from an ethnic minority. For example, there are clear inequalities by age and ethnicity in terms of who is registered to vote: in the 2010 general election, for which figures are most accurate, 90 per cent of people aged 55-64 were registered, compared to 55 per cent of those aged 18-24, while nearly 20 per cent of BME individuals were not registered to vote, compared to only 7 per cent of the "white British" population.

There are simple steps the government could take to ensure all who are eligible are able to vote: extending the registration deadline to December 2016, and making support available to local authorities to assist registration efforts, weighted towards authorities with higher levels of under-registration, could help reduce inequalities.  In the longer term, electoral registration officers should be given new duties, and the Electoral Commission more powers, to drive up registration rates, with a particular focus on presently under-registered demographics. 

Finally, we recommend introducing a Democracy Commission. At present, the Electoral Commission effectively regulates elections and party funding. Democracy, however, is far richer and broader than electoral processes. It is about formal representation, but also about participation and deliberation, in what Marc Stears has called "everyday democracy".

A statutorily independent Democracy Commission could give institutional ballast to the latter and help reinvigorate democratic life by providing research, resources and capacity-building to facilitate local, civil society-led initiatives that aim to increase broad-based levels of powerful democratic participation or deliberation in collective decision-making processes.

For example, a Democracy Commission could work with the GLA to introduce participatory budgeting in London, assist the Greater Manchester Combined Authority in instituting a public deliberative body with real teeth over how to integrate health and social care in the area, help the Scottish government conduct citizens’ juries on the future constitutional shape of the country, or support civil-society experiments to bring people closer to collective political decision-making processes in their locality.

We are living in a paradoxical political era, where growing political inequality is accompanied by ongoing social and technological change that has the capacity to collapse unnecessary political and economic hierarchies and build a more inclusive, participatory and responsive democracy. However, there is no guarantee that the age of the network will necessarily lead to democratic revival. The institutions and technologies of our political system, products of the 19th century, are struggling in the fluidity and fracture of the 21st century, inhibiting democratic renewal.

With our economy post-industrial, our ways of communicating increasingly digital and more networked, our identities and relationships ever more variegated and complex, it is therefore critical public policy seeks to update the democratic infrastructure of the UK, and, in so doing, help reverse entrenched political inequality.

Such an agenda is vital. If we simply accept the current institutional arrangements of our political system as the limits of our ambition, we must also content ourselves to live in a divided – and therefore inherently partial – democracy. Yet our democracy is not immutable but malleable, and capable of being reformed for the better; reform today can make democratic life more equal. After all, the story of British democracy’s evolution is one of yesterday’s impossible becoming today’s ordinary.

Mathew Lawrence is a research fellow at IPPR and the co-author of "The Democracy Commission: Reforming democracy to combat political inequality". He tweets at @dantonshead.