Forest of Dean & Wye Valley

Breaking the Thatcherite consensus

In Editorial on October 24, 2013 at 12:40 pm

It’s all relative of course, but to those of us with a sense of history, the “Macmillan years” back in the 1950s must seem like the golden years of Tory rule. It wasn’t just that, in Macmillan’s own words, we’d “never had it so good”. More significantly it was a time when the Tory administration seemed happy enough to accept the post-war reforms brought in by the Attlee Government as a continuing basis on which to build our society.

The “mixed economy” included all the industries and utilities brought under public control by Labour. Council homes were still available to those in need – and were still being built. Local authorities still had a freedom, and the power, to run their own affairs. Meanwhile, some councils were groping their way towards re-defining the tripartite system of education and introducing new comprehensive schools. The NHS, as founded by Nye Bevan, continued to be a model for all. And it had finally been accepted by the Government that we were no longer an imperial power, and could no longer act like one.

Those were the years described by commentators as a time of “consensus politics”. But this consensus was, of course, finally broken by Margaret Thatcher in the 1970s, in her determined purge of anything that could be seen as collective or socially-orientated. She herself declared that (in her view) “there was no such thing as society – only individuals and their families”. The structure of our public services was sold off (in a purge that Macmillan likened to “selling off the family silver”), our industrial base disintegrated and unemployment soared. Of course some got very rich in the process, and a new term, “Yuppie”, was coined for those in the City and elsewhere who were making “loadsa money”.

It was a dark, ugly phase – but one which also seemed to establish a new consensus. Nearly everything that the Attlee Government had achieved was swept away. But when “New Labour” was returned to power in the 1990s there was no attempt to restore the collective basis of our society. To put it crudely, the Blair regime seemed happy to continue, in broad outline, with the changes wrought by the Thatcher regime, merely smoothing away the rougher, more jagged, edges.

Now we have the Tories back in power. Under Cameron and Osborne (with the backing of their tame allies, the Liberal Democrats) the Government seems intent on carrying Thatcherism even further. Now it’s the very foundations of the Welfare State that are being undermined. No longer is welfare seen as something which we should all benefit from, as a society, but is identified as merely a meagre handout for those at the bottom of the heap. The ugly face of “means testing” has re-emerged, and the philosophy behind it is now all too prevalent. And it’s all being done under the guise of “balancing the books” and sorting out the economy.

Of course the devastation caused by the Cameron Government over the past three years has already been documented in the Clarion, and readers hardly need reminding of it. But the point is here, how should the Labour leadership react? Under Ed Milliband, can it build a credible opposition – one that can win the next election AND break the neo-Thatcherite consensus while its at it?

As we go to press, the Labour Party has been meeting in conference. It’s been a time to spell out where it goes from here; the campaign issues that it should be pressing home, and the policies on which they’ll be based. So far there are a few “straws in the wind”. For example, we should approve of Ed Milliband’s promise to repeal the iniquitous “bedroom tax”. Or Ed Ball’s statement on Radio 4 that he would be happy to use the word Socialism. And, in a defining moment, Milliband’s lead in opposing possible military involvement in Syria, successfully changed the ball game. Meanwhile, Ed’s speech to Labour’s conference was a tour de force that had delegates riveted. It was certainly both a change of style and content from the sort of speeches we used to get from New Labour. No doubt the Tories will soon make their views clear – and we can judge them accordingly. The Daily Mail has already made its position clear! It was, it said (amongst other things), a return to “’70s style Socialism”. If only!

But statements made by some other Labour leaders indicate that we’ve still a long way to go. All too often there seems to an obsession to fit in with an agenda drawn up by the Tories. It’s now up to Labour to draw up its own agenda.

So far the campaign against the Government’s “slash and burn” policies has been vigorously fought by pressure groups, campaigning on a number of fronts – such as opposing cuts in our social infrastructure, trying to save the NHS, or the trade union campaigns for jobs. And more power to their elbow. We need to build such campaigns to focus public attention, to involve the public and to ensure that issues don’t just slip under the radar.

But such campaigns, though necessary, are not enough in themselves. It’s vital that we carry them forward on to the political front. We must persuade voters that the policies pursued by the Tories are based on self-interest and the philosophy of greed. Indeed, it’s the Tory leadership that’s out of touch with the ordinary voter.

We need to persuade voters that there is another way, based on different values and perspectives. We may not be able to re-create what Ken Loach labelled “the spirit of ’45”, but we should surely try to emulate the principles behind it.


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