British politics is so tribal that it still has novelty value to say anything positive about a leader of another party – and doubly so when that person happens to be Margaret Thatcher.
Ed Miliband is set to do just that in a Radio four profile about his leadership tonight entitled: ‘What Does Ed Miliband Really Think?’ As Mark posted this morning, Ed is set to say of La Thatch:
“She was a conviction politician and I think conviction really matters. I think that in the 1970s, it was a similar moment, and that is the biggest parallel. It was a similar moment in the sense that a sense of the old order was crumbling and it wasn’t 100 per cent clear what was going to replace it…”
To be fair to Ed he seems to draw the comparison narrowly, admiring her style rather than her policies:
“The challenge of the future is who can rise to the scale of challenge that the country faces and who can create a project for how this country’s going to be run that is genuinely going to make our economy work, not just for a few people but much more widely.”
It’s become something of a rights-of-passage for Labour leaders to draw favourable comparisons with Margaret Thatcher in a bid to assert their suitability to follow her into Number Ten.
Tony Blair first hit upon the idea of praising her as a way of helping court the right-wing press, while the predictable anger from within the party and unions helped portray him to floating voters as a ‘different’ kind of Labour leader.
Gordon Brown then bent his knee to the Iron Lady, inviting her to tea at Downing Street and posed with her on the steps outside. He even offered to give her a state funeral (not at the same meeting, it is worth pointing out).
Now it is Ed Miliband’s turn.
There are two main reasons why the Thatcher comparison is deemed to have some value. The first, and most obvious, is that rather a lot of people voted for her in 1979, 1983 and 1987 and it would be nice if they instead voted Labour. Drawing comparisons with their heroine is thought to be smart politics, offering voters a rhetorical bridge to walk across.
The second reason is that Thatcher is invariably described as a ‘conviction politician’ and a ‘strong leader’. Qualities most leaders would want others to say they possessed. Yes, she was both, but she was also cruel, reckless and divisive. If he must draw parallels with Conservative figures for definition, then Ed would be better off sticking with the tradition of One Nation leaders like Disraeli and MacMillan.
In fact, the drawbacks of Maggie-love now outweigh their benefits.
Making comparisons with Thatcher’s strength and conviction implies there are no Labour figures for whom the same epithets equally apply. That clearly is not the case (although it is a moot point whether a comparison with Blair or Brown would generate even more controversy).
Finally, to have actually voted for Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister you need to be at least 42 years old. The law of diminishing returns surely means that Thatcher has less and less cache every time her name is invoked. Daring when Blair did it, the trick now seems perfunctory.
Rather than continuing the dubious tradition of Labour leaders genuflecting before this false idol, the challenge for Ed is to eschew comparisons with her style and actually emulate her record by coming up with a defining set of policies that will ratchet British politics in a new direction and set the terms of political debate for a generation.