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.