Labour, Not the Tories, Must Become the Post-Thatcher Party

Labour officially unveiled their manifesto last week. It was undeniably Corbyn but made room for some moderate stances, plus it added up economically – well, mostly. From a party with Labour’s current standing, it was surprisingly solid.

Of course, to a Tory party that thinks anything above the most frugal public spending heralds the return of communism, the manifesto seems extortionate.

They’ve claimed it will hurt working families  - without ever quite explaining how - and that it isn’t properly costed, despite failing themselves to explain how they’d invest in the NHS beyond saying “we’ll keep the economy strong”.

Their most hysterically screeched claim is that Labour are dragging us back to the 1970s.

Is that the case? Labour’s manifesto does incorporate many of the post-war values trashed by Thatcher. And while undoing everything wrought by Thatcherism is unlikely, re-nationalising services and increasing the top rates of tax would mark a profound shift towards socialist thinking not seen since…well, the 1970s.

To free market devotees and certain right-wing tabloids, those certainly were the “bad old days”: strong unions, regulations, a culture of redistribution allowing for a strong welfare state. These things will rarely be popular with those who gain from our current, inequitable status quo. A small-state, sink-or-swim society works for them.

But for the majority of working Britons, things aren’t so peachy. Since 1979, they’ve seen a massive rise in income inequality that New Labour barely made a dent in, house prices boomed so that the average house price is well beyond the means of the majority (something that the 2008 crash hardly changed). Poverty rose under Thatcher so that 22% of the population lived below 60% of median incomes before housing costs. In 1979 it was 13.4%. Now it is 17%. All this while their safety nets are cut to tatters. 

even for those who think the 70s sent Britain too far in one direction, it’s clear that going full tilt in the opposite Thatcherite direction has reaped far worse consequences

Perhaps we should be scared less of the “bad old days” and more of the bad current days. Because no government since Thatcher's downfall has been able to repair the damage she did.

We hear plenty about how free markets open society up to entrepreneurism; how competition enables the best services to thrive, away from the stranglehold of a meddling state; how we shouldn’t burden wealth-creating private companies whose money will, somehow, trickle down and enrich us all. We constantly hear these mantras because they sound good on paper.

However, an ideology is only worth clinging onto if it produces results. If those results are ineffective privatisation, wages that barely cover food, and a financial sector prone to spectacular implosion, your ideology needs some second thoughts.

The 1970s weren’t perfect. But even for those who think the 70s sent Britain too far in one direction, it’s clear that going full tilt in the opposite Thatcherite direction has reaped far worse consequences.

It is possible for people who lived through a decade to become nostalgic. It's easy for others who never saw it, like me, to get rosy-eyed over a time they never knew. We can, however, at least be realistic about the time we do know; about its priorities, and the effect those priorities have. And when they’re compared objectively to those of the post-war period – a time when policy was centred around the welfare and aspirations of the many – the idea of 1970s values feels less threatening.

Alongside bashing Labour, the Tories did something else. Theresa May tried to define herself as a post-Thatcher prime minister. Labour cannot allow that to happen.

Even without Thatcherism there have been too many changes - demographics, technology, globalisation - to go back in time. However, Labour can incorporate some of the values of a more equitable, social-democratic time in uncertain 21st century. They can explain why certain 1970s policies might not be such a bad idea, and they can update others for a changed world.

More about the author

About the author

Harry Mason likes to call himself a freelance writer, even if his tax forms say he's technically a waiter. He graduated last year from the University of East Anglia, and writes predominantly about social politics and film. He looks forward to the day when he's able to grow a beard; until then, you'll just have to blame his so-called 'bleeding heart lefty views' on youthful naivety.

Follow Harry on Twitter.

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