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22 January 2012updated 11 Sep 2021 6:31pm

Thatcher shaped Labour’s left as much as its right

And the left should stop letting itself be boxed in by the Iron Lady's legacy

By New Statesman

It is frequently said that Margaret Thatcher one of the biggest influences on New Labour. What is less examined is the effect that Thatcherism has had on both the left of the Labour Party and broader left movement. This was, however, no less profound.

Thatcher rose from the ashes of a crisis for which the Labour Government and the unions were largely blamed. She took that moment of uncertainty, and used it to change everything. Once in power, she set out to deliberately break the settled consensus of British politics.
Thatcher’s government changed the central nature of economic policy in the UK, attacked the welfare state and destroyed both unions and the industries they represented. Britain became a testing ground for radical monetarism. We became a state small enough to leave 28 per cent of children in poverty, but authoritarian enough to spy on union and civic leaders.

New Labour was not the unbroken continuation of Thatcherism that some (even some key New Labour figures) like to argue. Their record levels of investment in the public sector would have been anathema to Thatcher, and they redistributed income in ways she wouldn’t have dreamed of. But they did nothing to change the economic paradigm they inherited, instead working around it or using it to their advantage to fund their priorities.
As a result, they also pursued measures that were as fiercely opposed by the left, both in Labour and more widely, as any of those brought in by Thatcher.

So some on the Labour left have been opposing the Government for over 30 years. That has changed the left and the way we view ourselves and our role in democracy. The question is, is that change irrevocable?

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While the left have a long and proud tradition of protest, the modern language of the left has become almost exclusively the language of opposition. Defend, stop, protect. The image of the left has become an image of protest. We march, we chant, we demand.

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Since Thatcher, the left have fought to conserve or restore what came before, while the right have imposed far-reaching culture-changing policies. David Cameron’s Government have taken up this “everything must change” mantra with alarming force. Within one term of office they will have changed so much of what we expect from government and the state.

If we expect nothing more of a Labour government than to restore damage done by the Tories, we will have allowed Thatcher to steal and pervert the mantle of the progressive. No wonder David Cameron is so comfortable with that crown.

If the left of Labour exists simply to oppose the measures we don’t like, we will never convince a democratic majority that a radical, workable alternative to Thatcherism exists. We become the new conservatives – speaking only of protecting and reinstating past glories.

While we can rightly be proud of the achievements that demonstrate the British left at its best – the welfare state, the NHS, universal education to choose just three examples – we cannot pretend that we ever achieved the egalitarian society we aspire to. Simply protecting our past achievements will not be enough to truly achieve our goals.

We need to regain the sense of purpose that imbued the post war Labour government, and gave them the confidence to change everything. We’ve spent far too long defending things from Thatcher and her successors. We need a new vision to implement. We need to find new visionaries with whom to build an alliance.

Thatcher left office 22 years ago. We’re 12 years into a new century. We need to stop letting Thatcherism box us into a defensive crouch and move forward beyond her and the effect she had on us and the nation.

Emma Burnell is a Labour activist and blogs at