It’s hard to get angry about the 80s (despite the Iron Lady)

19th January, 2012 1:18 pm

I have a problem. You see, when Ed Miliband says that the Tory-led government is taking up ‘back to the 1980s’, as he did in PMQs yesterday, I find it hard to get angry.

Just to be clear – I lived through the 1980s, and hated what the Tories did. I joined the Labour Party in the 1980s. I marched against apartheid, section 28, the poll tax and cuts to the NHS. I paid close attention to the lyrics of the Communards and Style Council. I dug deep for the miners. When John O’Farrell brought out his memoir of life in the 1980s, I could laugh because I was there too (in some episodes, literally). Like him, I remember that 1) Mrs Thatcher was in power during the 1980s. 2) I did not like her very much.

But the problem is that to be young in the 1980s was also a blast. Despite the enforced misery of a decade buttressed by Joy Division at one end, and The Smiths at the other, to be aged 13 in 1980 and 23 in 1990 was the best of times. Ed Miliband spent the same period at school and University, meeting the icons of the international left in his own home, interning in Tony Benn’s basement (and not getting paid), and getting into Oxford. I’ve never asked him, but I imagine he enjoyed the 1980s too. So for the generation who grew up in the 1980s, the charge ‘back to the 1980s’ doesn’t really resonate. For anyone younger than me, ‘the 1980s’ doesn’t mean much either. Who is aware of politics as a small child? All you care about is ice-cream.

What of the older generation? The generation of coal miners, printers, iron forgers and dockers who bore the brunt of sado-monetarism has a cause to twitch with anger when the 1980s is mentioned. But this section of society is small. Even at the time, whilst the mining communities, ship yards and industrial communities were getting a pasting, the middle class was growing, in size, confidence and prosperity. It wasn’t just about yuppies and the Big Bang. It was skilled workers, buying their council house, a car and taking a foreign holiday. As Neil Kinnock said, it’s hard to go to a worker with a new car in the drive and plenty of overtime and say ‘I’ve come to liberate you from your misery.’ The misery, as in the 1930s, was highly localised. It meant that 100 to 200 parliamentary constituencies, mostly in the Scotland, Wales and the north of England, could be safely written off by the Tories.

Always nicely behind the curve, I went to see The Iron lady last night. Our local flea-pit (sorry, ‘independent cinema’) hasn’t changed since the 1980s, so it was a suitable venue for our CLP outing. As part of Refounding Labour, we have decided to go to the pictures more often. I thought it was a remarkable Oscar-winning film about an old lady coping with grief and dementia. The politics was incidental. The historical narrative – the Falklands, miners’ strike, poll tax and her defenestration – was so lightly woven in and out of her struggle with the ghost of Denis, the pain of the absent Mark, who like Godot never came, and Olivia Coleman’s Carol that it almost didn’t matter. Olivia Coleman, by the way, wonderful in Peep Show and Rev, steps up to playing opposite Meryl Streep without missing a beat. She deserves a best-supporting actress Oscar nomination for her first proper film performance: unlike the real Carol Thatcher, who I’ve only been in a room with once, and thought an absolute cow.

The Thatcher movie will generate huge sympathy for Thatcher herself. It portrays her as courageous, taking on the establishment in her own party, winning back the Falklands, and pursuing her own ambitions and convictions. The miners, whose lives she has ruined, are outside her car, battering the windows. We do not see them, other than as a shouting, placard waving mob. Her children too, are outside her car, desperate for love and attention as she drives away to Westminster.

When she dies, there will a huge outpouring of nostalgia. Many will remember their own personal 1980s, some with anger, most with fondness. Cameron, who worked for her in her final months as PM, will be able to capture the popular mood. The nastiness of those booking in celebrations will reflect so poorly on them, I hope they see sense and abandon their plans. It will only take one Labour Party member somewhere in the UK to make a stupid comment on a blog for there to be a massive row about Labour not showing respect, and putting us off-side with the public. It’ll be Foot and the ‘donkey jacket’ (yes I know there wasn’t one) all over again.

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