Labour needs to talk about what Thatcher got right

17th April, 2013 11:15 am

The reaction of those on the left to the death of Mrs Thatcher can, generally speaking, be divided into two distinct categories. There are those, like Ed Milliband, who have released statements praising Mrs Thatcher’s personal qualities and political impact whilst making clear, as respectfully as possible, the party’s disagreement with her politics and legacy. Others have not been as kind. The always tactful George Galloway simply tweeted ‘tramp the dirt down’, whilst some in Brixton, Bristol, Glasgow and Liverpool took to the streets to demonstrate their disapproval (who knew Barnardo’s was an emblem of Thatcherism?).

What has been lacking on the left is a substantive and vigorous discussion of what Mrs Thatcher got right, an absence made partially explicable by the Labour Party’s own Thatcherite heritage.

Ed Milliband’s Labour Party, not to mention that of Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and John Smith, has long accepted some of central pillars of the Thatcherite consensus. The efficacy of privatisation, when done correctly, is widely accepted. I see no great desire within the party to re-nationalise water, gas, aerospace, oil or steel. Nor is there any rush to unilaterally disarm, raise the upper rate of income tax to 83% or invite Bob Crow to Number Ten for beer and sandwiches. Why then does the party find it hard to praise Mrs Thatcher for those of her policies which it now accepts? If party members don’t want to return to the economic models, statism and trade unionism of the sixties and seventies why not praise in some way the Prime Minister who decisively, and in many regards positively, broke free of them?

Such recognition does not, after all, require us to absolve Mrs Thatcher of her many sins and utterly disastrous miscalculations.

The answer I believe lies in one of the Labour’s greatest insecurities: its claim to still be a socialist party.  Labour politicians and activists find it hard to praise some of Mrs Thatcher’s policies precisely because it reminds them that she effectively destroyed, first electorally and then ideologically, the legitimacy of some of postwar socialism’s basic premises. Many, even those who totally reject the era’s left-wing militancy, feel an apostate’s guilt at having ‘given up the cause’. Others, usually on the left of the party still feel ashamed at what they see as the tragic defeat of socialism in the 1980s, and New Labour’s supposedly unprincipled and grovelling acceptance of the Third Way.

Neither form of self-flagellation and denial is either necessary or productive for it is only by both praising and criticising the policies of Mrs Thatcher’s government can the party, and then hopefully the public, gain a clearer sense of what it believes and stands for. Reflecting upon Thatcherism’s legacy in a more honest fashion will allow us to contemplate, debate, articulate and clarify our belief in the advantages and disadvantages of neo-liberalism, trade unionism, privatisation, re-distribution, statism, regulation, and the limitations (both moral and utilitarian) of market-orientated public sector reform.

Such deliberation should not be constrained by the lingering notion that socialism has been betrayed, because in reality socialism never has been, and never will be, a unitary and codified ideology that uncompromisingly demands strong trade unions, nationalisation, high taxation and burdensome regulation. At its core, despite Marx’s protestations to the contrary, socialism is and always has been a moral philosophy; a scepticism and appreciation of inequities and productive capabilities of capitalism, twinned with an unflinching desire to institute greater equality in both procedure and outcome. It is only through a discussion of Mrs Thatcher’s achievements, as well as her many failures, that the Labour Party can begin to define anew what socialism means in the 21st century.

To report anything from the comment section, please e-mail [email protected]
  • Daniel Speight

    So Kawan Patel I’m not going to argue with this –

    …in reality socialism never has been, and never will be, a unitary and codified ideology

    I’m not even going to argue with this –

    At its core, despite Marx’s protestations to the contrary, socialism is and always has been a moral philosophy; a scepticism and appreciation of inequities and productive capabilities of capitalism, twinned with an unflinching desire to institute greater equality in both procedure and outcome.

    But in no way does that justify this –

    It is only through a discussion of Mrs Thatcher’s achievements, as well as her many failures, that the Labour Party can begin to define anew what socialism means in the 21st century.

    This is nonsense in the Anthony Painter style of his Alice in Wonderland ‘social democracy means what I want it to mean’.

    This is just so wrong –

    Thatcherism’s legacy in a more honest fashion will allow us to contemplate, debate, articulate and clarify our belief in the advantages and disadvantages of neo-liberalism, trade unionism, privatisation, re-distribution, statism, regulation, and the limitations (both moral and utilitarian) of market-orientated public sector reform.

    What form of socialism, or if you prefer social democracy is this supposed to represent. If you feel so strongly in favour of parts of neo-liberalism, privatisation and market orientated public sector reform there are already ideologies from the other parties that will suit you very well. Why do you wish to pollute the Labour Party with this crap.

    • Dave Postles

      Quite so. It’s just dispiriting that people even contemplate writing this stuff.

      • Particularly on a Labour website, I mean, if you agree that much with Thatcher, why not be a Tory?

        • JoeDM

          Seems to me that the article merely restates the New Labour approach to pragmatic politics. The same sort of european style ‘social democratic’ centrist politics that Cameron and Clegg have pushed on with.

  • NT86

    New Labour should have pursued a German style model built on a social market economy. That would have accepted the necessity to make reforms from the 1970’s with the role of markets given more prominence, but there’d be clear brakes, limits and responsibilities in place. Germany’s economy hasn’t been hindered by that at all and has maintained its manufacturing industry. Is Angela Merkel a proponent of big state socialism too???

    Neo-liberal economics benefited many (as seen by the many Thatcher supporters), but it also destroyed once thriving and close knit communities. How can you seriously ignore the human cost that’s still with us until today? Of course socialism isn’t going to make a re-appearance at any point in Britain. Yet those communities could have had some semblance of work if Thatcher had made reforms that were steadier and more moderate.

    I’m not opposed to privatisation at all. Provided that it’s in the appropriate sectors like retail. Thatcher didn’t touch the NHS, nor did she privatise public services. Her successors seem hell bent on thinking it’s alright to add a market ethos in spheres which are there for the public good NOT for the profit of CEOs and shareholders.

    Feel free to bandy false labels like commie scum and hard leftist around though…

    • AlanGiles

      Very good post. It is just a pity that Blairism wasn’t shoved down the six foot hole with the Iron lady this morning.

  • There certainly should be a wish to renationalise the utilities. In those areas we have a cartel which does very well at the expense of the user. So, no, she didn’t get that right.

    I also think that we need to move away from the wasteful showpony of Trident

    Most of all, ‘market-orientated public service reform’ has largely been a failure, and we need to be moving towards that realisation.

    • Dave Postles

      On her own criteria, the outsourcing has failed: economic, efficient, effective – they exhibit the contrary daily.

  • AlanGiles

    “Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and John Smith, has long accepted some of central pillars of the Thatcherite consensus. The efficacy of privatisation, when done correctly, is widely accepted.”

    Pass the sickbag, Alice!

    To be candid what a fawning article. It would have been nauseous enough if written last Monday, but now…. One can only assume Mr Patel had his tongue firmly in his cheek and his Mrs. T boxer shorts on when he penned this.

  • BusyBeeBuzz

    Apparently she believed in the ‘rule of law’ which (if true) has to be a good thing.

  • Serious question: is this a guest post by a Tory?

    • BusyBeeBuzz

      Is such paranoia the reason why comments take about a week before they appear on this site? Surely they vet contributors before they allow them to write a blog! A greater problem is (whether wittingly or unwittingly) too many Labour members are Blairites. It is only one small step from a Blairite to a Thatcherite.

  • Pingback: What Maggie Got Right | through a glass starkly()

  • Plenty to disagree with in this article. But I will refer to just one comment, probably made in passing. “Invite Bob Crow to Downing Street for beer and sandwiches”. Whilst the days of beer and sandwiches have long gone – governments of all colours ought to be inviting Trade Union leaders of all colours to Downing Street. The reason we got so much wrong in office when it came to the realities of what many workers experience in the workplace is precisely because we didn’t talk enough to Trade Unions. Trade Unions are a perfectly legitimate part of our democracy and ought to be consulted by all governments – even this coalition. When we are in office, they should be listened to even more. With regard Bob Crow in particular; it remains a source of huge regret that the workers he represents no longer wish to affiliate to our party and I hope that we will reflect and work to ensure all Trade Unions see their political home to be this party.

  • Dave Postles

    Oh look: a petition about NPower avoiding its taxes. Sorry, you were saying? I’ll post it here; it’s perhaps not entirely relevant, but it should give S. Candelas a thrill.

    https://secure.38degrees.org.uk/npower-tax

  • Rosie2

    “…….no great desire within the party to re-nationalise water, gas, aerospace, oil or steel. Nor is there any rush to unilaterally disarm.”
    Really? Speak for yourself, you don’t speak for me.

  • Rosie2

    You are Tony Blair and I claim my £5.00….

  • robertcp

    Blair and Brown often praised Thatcher, so I see no need to praise a late politician who left office more than twenty years ago. Labour’s approach should be to move away from the mistakes of the Thatcherite era, which included New Labour to a depressing extent.

  • Alexwilliamz

    Very confused. Is this from 1997? “The efficacy of privatisation, when done correctly, is widely accepted. I see no great desire within the party to re-nationalise water, gas, aerospace, oil or steel.” Not OK done correctly, is some caveat, but no privatisation efficacy is both questionable but more importantly it MUST have LIMITS. Not everything should be placed at the altar of the market. the reason why a number of those items is not re-nationlised is to do with cost than political will be many in the country. More and more people are beginnning to move in favour of things like utilities and railways moving back into public control. You may speak for yourself but not for many, why is it some people find it so difficult to accept that people might belive in something and that ideology is not in itself bad. No wonder so many people see no reason to get involved in politics.

  • Pingback: Thatcher and Labour()

x

LabourList Daily Email

Everything Labour. Every weekday morning

Share with your friends










Submit