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Can Labour learn from Thatcher and turn the wheel of history?

To overthrow the neoliberal settlement, the party must emulate the radicalism of the Conservative prime minister.

Overthrowing the neoliberal settlement.
Margaret Thatcher in a Challenger tank during manoeuvres at NATO training ground near Falling Boste in 1986. Photograph: Getty Images.

Thirty years on from the miners’ strike, it is often said that Margaret Thatcher was motivated by seeking revenge for the electoral defeat which the Conservatives suffered in the 1970s in the midst of another strike. But the story of the 1984-5 pit closure programme was more than political spite. It wasn't for backward-looking reasons that the Tories put the mining communities through a year of hell. Instead, she had a political project to change the face of Britain forever. But in order to force this change on the country it was necessary to do lasting damage to the forces which were ranged against her. And the miners were precisely one such force.

There are moments in a country’s life when the existing political and economic arrangements are no longer sustainable. One such moment was in 1945 when the troops came home from the war and elected a Labour government which put into place a new settlement that lasted until the election of Thatcher and the defeat of the miners. The post-war settlement had run its course.

I was an activist at the time and wanted Labour to move the wheel of history in a progressive way and build a democratic socialist society. But the party was physically and mentally exhausted. And so the country’s social and economic structures were moved to the right.

The key turning point surely was the assault on coalfield communities. We can learn lessons about how the Conservative Party acted at that time; they were ruthless in the execution of their plan. They were prepared to use any means necessary. The Tories manipulated the benefits system to use the starvation of miners’ families as a political tool. They interfered in the criminal justice system to mete out punishment where it sometimes felt that to be a striking miner was in effect to be criminalised. They damaged the integrity of the police - particularly the Met – who were used as a force to achieve political objectives. We know that the most senior mandarins in the civil service, the nation’s legal advisors and even the security agencies were used.

In a liberal democracy like Britain, there is a myth that the whole state apparatus – especially the police, civil service, army and judicial structures – is meant to be politically and socially neutral. The Tories paid no attention to protecting this neutrality. They lied to the nation about their true intentions. And they did not tell the truth about the true levels of coal stocks and the dangers to the nation’s power supplies. In this way, Thatcherism was secured; an era of market triumphalism, gross inequality, an economy which works for the richest but not for the majority, and where public services are demeaned and downgraded. The wheel of history had turned.

But in 2008, the economic crisis revealed a neo-liberal settlement collapsing under the weight of its own internal contradictions. The crash was brought about by the Thatcherite model of a banking system out of control, unconstrained markets, a weakened state and declining spending power as a result of gross inequality.

I entered 10 Downing Street just after the crash. It is clear to me that without an active government, and the power of the state acting in the general social interest, the whole system might well have collapsed. The Thatcherite settlement faced its moment of greatest peril. As Boris Johnson said in a moment of great candour and using precisely the language of history’s turning points: "We all waited for the paradigm shift, after the crash of 2008. The left was ushered centre stage, and missed their cue; political history reached a turning point, and failed to turn. Almost a quarter of a century after the ... transformation that Mrs Thatcher did so much to bring about – there has been no intellectual revival of her foes..."

Boris pretends that the country faces a choice between 1970s leftism and Thatcherism. The Tories chose the latter. And so the Conservatives and their Lib Dem colleagues in government have set about using state apparatus for their own political means, much like Mrs Thatcher had done in the miners’ strike. But David Cameron is not turning the wheel of history. Instead, the state is being used to preserve the Thatcherite settlement.

The coalition parties simply want to see an intensification of all that was wrong with the Thatcher era. Increased inequality, a divided society, fragmented communities, a rampant individualistic ethic, banking untouched, our economic structures unbalanced and sometimes uncompetitive, unconstrained markets, food banks, and a weakened public sector.

To achieve their aims, the Tories have sought to use the boundary changes gerrymander. They imposed a Lobbying Bill which restricts the campaigning activities of trade unions and civil society organisations while freeing up corporate lobbyists as well as individual voter registration. Some of them are known to be privately relishing the prospect of a Yes vote in the Scottish referendum. They have sought to cow the civil service by outsourcing with the objective of damaging its neutrality. The BBC faces continual threats to its independence. The Tories have also made a number of attacks on the constitution, such as limiting access to judicial review and legal aid. All of this is an attempt to secure the dying Thatcherite legacy.

But just as Labour’s 1945 settlement eventually became unsustainable, so has Mrs Thatcher’s. And it is only the Labour movement that can ensure that we as a country move beyond the neo-liberal consensus. As Ed Miliband put it: "We need to rebuild our economy from its foundations. That is the task of the next Labour government. The way we do that is with a simple idea, a simple idea that expresses who we are as a party. We understand that the way countries succeed, the way economies succeed, is when you have an economy made by the many, not just the few at the top; when you back the people who do the hours, who put in the shifts..."

In 2015, we could see the wheel of history turn in a progressive direction once again. Will it be forward to the past with Cameron and Clegg? Or can the Labour movement fulfil our historic task of providing a paradigm shift so that we can finally move on past the Thatcherite settlement?  

Jon Trickett is the shadow minister without portfolio, Labour deputy chair and MP for Hemsworth