It’s hard to think that its 30 years since Britain was swept by a revolution. The left has always had a clear view of the social destruction caused by Thatcher to communities, especially in industrial parts of the UK during her 11 years in office. Its not my intention to repeat what has been said elsewhere on Thatcher but has the time come to ask could Labour have done more about ending Mrs Thatcher’s grip on power earlier. It must be accepted that Callaghan, Labour and the TUC played into her hands. Mrs Thatcher’s quoted St Francis of Assisi on the steps of Downing St and no sooner had she entered the door than she trampled all over the commitment.
Part of the reason why she got away with it was because Jim Callaghan was perceived as being soft on unions during the Winter of Discontent. This was enormously unpopular in the middle classes and paved the way for anti-union legislation that proved so successful in hammering unions during the miners strike. Britain’s economic problems in the mid 70’s, its commitments to fund Europe and the reversal on devolution in Scotland and Wales were all grist to the British right’s mill and gave Thatcher carte blanche to do as she wished.
So what could Labour have done then and are there lessons from 30 years ago that may be learnt applicable today? Could Callaghan have resigned as party leader immediately in 1979 instead of waiting another year? Callaghan did nothing about tackling the entryism of Militant Tendency as leader. The right of the party refused to accept the leadership of Michael Foot in 1980 and when Roy Jenkins returned from Brussels in 1981 provided the springboard for the SDP. Foot in turn did nothing about Militant and effectively the party was split with the right moving out and the left making the party unelectable. Set this against a background of Thatcher’s growing unpopularity as she trashed the UK’s industrial base. What is often forgotten is that Thatcher lost local elections and towards the end it they were very heavy loses. However she didn’t care as some where along the way she was let off the hook either by Labour, Galtieri, Scargill, Sinn Fein, Jenkins, the media and the TUC.
The 1983 General Election should have seen her off the pitch however it was the ultimate triumph. Her relationship with Reagan insured that Britain would be the preferred partner within NATO. The effective leader of the opposition was a retired teacher who pursued the PM over Thatcher’s decision to sink the Belgrano on live TV. By the time Kinnock took hold of the party and started the long walk back from the edge he was always playing catch up. It’s ironic that Labour never got rid of her, but it was her own.
Which brings me back to today, it’s tempting to draw parallels but I think few exist. There’s no ideological divide within Labour. Unions are not in conflict with government. Cameron is no ideologue. Britain’s economic woes were behind it as the UK voted in 1979 ($ reserves tripled under Labour, unemployment was going down and the economy growing) whereas I’m convinced that Britain faces its worse economic problems yet as a result of being outside the Eurozone and sterling declines in value. Thatcher’s embracing of Saatchi & Saatchi’s spin was her real legacy to politics, no modern campaign can be without it, perhaps creating the illusion was her triumph. We’ve been drawn into discussing the anniversary of her election not the departure of the Labour government. Are we still playing into her hands?