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 a Labour leadership candidate and MP for Pontypridd. 

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Labour is condemned to watch helplessly as Theresa May consolidates power

The Zombie Party is too weak to win and too strong to die. 

Labour’s defeat to the Tories in the Copeland by-election in Cumbria, which the party had held for more than 80 years, is a humiliation for Jeremy Corbyn and his moribund party. This is the first time a governing party had gained a seat in a by-election since Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives won Mitchum and Morden in 1982. 
 
The victorious candidate Trudy Harrison, who increased the Tories’ share of the vote in this former Labour “stronghold" by more than 8 percentage points, hailed the victory as “truly historic”, while Labour MP John Woodcock called it a “disaster”, and even the shadow chancellor and Corbyn ally, John McDonnell, conceded it was a “profound disappointment”. 
 
At a time in the electoral cycle when a credible opposition should be winning by-elections and riding high in the polls, Labour is in disarray: rejected, humiliated, ridiculed. It has all but collapsed in Scotland, where the Tory leader Ruth Davidson has emerged as the popular, unapologetic leader of Unionism. And in England the danger now is not that it will lose seats to Ukip — whose leader Paul Nuttall was rejected yesterday in the Stoke-on-Trent Central by-election, which Labour held on a low turn-out after a dispiriting campaign — but to Theresa May’s Conservatives. 
 
The Copeland result was a vindication for Theresa May. When recently I interviewed her in Downing Street she had a simple message for Labour: we are coming after your voters – and she is. 
 
Because of its embrace of the radical left and internal divisions, May accused Labour of abandoning many of its traditional supporters. The party was not responding to their concerns on issues such as “the impact of immigration on lower income levels”.
 
True enough: Corbyn favours mass immigration and open borders yet is an economic protectionist – a classic Marxist position but electoral suicide in our new emerging post-liberal era in which populist movements are rising across Europe and an America First nationalist is in the White House.
 
“I hope there are Labour voters,” Theresa May told me, “out there who will now look at us afresh and say, ‘Labour hasn’t responded to our concerns, it hasn’t recognised what matters to us, but the Conservatives have seen that and are responding to it. I want our greater prosperity not to be confined to particular groups of people or a single part of the country.”
 
The polls suggest that more than simply disaffected Labour voters are looking at the Tories afresh, as we embark on the epic challenge of negotiating the Brexit settlement.
  
May believes that Brexit was not only a vote to leave the European Union but a demand for change from those people – many of them in places such as Copeland - who felt ignored and excluded from prosperity and greater opportunity.
 
Her vision is for a “Great Meritocracy” (whereas Corbyn’s is for a socialist republic) combining greater social justice with enhanced social mobility. It’s an intellectually fascinating and ambitious project and, if successful (and many doubt her, not least her own right wing), it has the potential to condemn Labour to electoral oblivion.
    
The collapse of the Labour party as a stable and credible political force is dismaying. Many of the party’s problems precede Corbyn, who is sincere and determined but is not a national leader. But then neither was Ed Miliband, who misunderstood the financial crisis, which he believed had created a “social democratic moment”, and misread the country he sought to govern. Miliband treated politics like an elevated Oxbridge PPE seminar and introduced the new rules by which the party elected its leader, disempowering MPs.
 
The distinguished Cambridge historian Robert Tombs has called the European Union a system of “managed discontents”. Something similar could be said of Corbyn’s Labour, except that its discontents are scarcely managed at all.

Most Labour MPs despise or are embarrassed by their leader. The MPs are divided and demoralised, with some pondering whether to follow Tristram Hunt and Jamie Reed (whose resignations created respectively the Stoke Central and Copeland by-elections) out of politics. The Corbynites are breaking up into factions (one hears talk of “hard” and “soft” Corbynites), and Corbyn himself is incapable of appealing to those who do not share his ideological convictions.
 
For now, the Labour leader retains the support of activists and members and, crucially, of Unite, Britain’s biggest union and the party’s paymaster. But even his friends must accept that he is leading the party in only one direction – into the abyss.
 
On the eve of the two by-elections, Corbyn posted a message on Facebook: “Whatever the results, the Labour Party – and our mass membership – must go further to break the failed political consensus, and win power to rebuild and transform Britain.”
 
The statement was received with derision on social media. The idea that Labour can win power any time soon (notwithstanding some black swan event) is magical thinking. Corbyn’s personal ratings among traditional working class semi-skilled and unskilled Labour voters are catastrophically poor. He appeals to students, affluent metropolitans with degrees, and minority groups. As for the majority of the electorate, forget it.
 
MPs are reluctant to challenge Jeremy Corbyn because they know any leadership contest would revitalize his leadership, as happened last summer when the Welsh MP Owen Smith mounted an ill-considered and doomed “coup”. Nor is there a pre-eminent candidate waiting in the shadows to strike, as Michael Heseltine was in the last years of the Thatcher administration.
 
So Labour will continue to be the Zombie Party: too weak to win but too strong to die. Its founding mission was to defend the labour interest and to create a fairer, more ethical society. But Labour has lost its role, its confidence and sense of purpose. Obsessed by identity liberalism, bewildered by Brexit and led by a radical socialist, Labour can only look on helplessly as the Tories start to win seats in its former heartlands and hunker down for another decade or more in power.

This column was originally published in the London Evening Standard.

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.