British politics is going through a period of turbulence. It is becoming increasingly fragmented and has seen a resurgence of the left-wing. The forces which shape the politics of today extend much further than the past 20 years. In fact, it is Britain’s most controversial Prime Minister, whose influence has a great impact on today.
Margret Thatcher first became Prime Minister on the 4th May 1979 and remained in office until the 28th November 1990. In this period she was able to develop her own form of Conservatism, which was to have a significant impact on British Politics.
Thatcherism is a blend of neoliberalism and neoconservatism which hinges on the concept of the free market as a necessary safeguard to individual freedom. It attempts to promote minimal state regulation and intervention, free markets through control of the money supply, low inflation, privatisation, and constraint on the power of the labour movement through the removal of trade unions’ rights and powers.
Nigel Lawson, Thatcher’s Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1983 to 1989, described Thatcherite ideals as “free markets, financial discipline, firm control over public expenditure, tax cuts, nationalism, ‘Victorian values’ (of the Samuel Smiles self-help variety), privatisation and a dash of populism.”
The impact on the Conservative Party in undoubtedly huge, however, the most interesting legacy of Thatcherism can be seen in the Labour party. The election of Thatcher in 1979 marked the beginning of the Labour Party’s 18 years as the opposition party.
During the Thatcher years, the Labour party was struggling electorally. After being defeated in 1979, the party became divided, which resulted in an internal political struggle between the left and right wings of the party. The outcome of this struggle was the election of Michael Foot as leader and his leftist policies. Most notable policies include unilateral nuclear disarmament, leaving the European Economic Community, as well as NATO, which were presented in the party’s 1983 election manifesto, which severely missed the political climate at the time, and became dubbed the “longest suicide note in history.”
Thatcherism has significantly changed British society, for example the Right-to-Buy programme turned the majority of the working class into homeowners, as it allowed people for the first time to buy their council house. Michael Heseltine, the Secretary of State at the time, noted that “no single piece of legislation has enabled the transfer of so much capital wealth from the state to the people.” Thatcherism also significantly reduced the power of trade unions and changed the nature of the British economy, in which the majority of all industries (including those traditionally under state control, such as utilities and communications) were privatised.
It was clear from Labour’s time in opposition it would not be possible for the Labour party to be re-elected while standing firm against these changes in British society. So, how can Thatcherism be said to have allowed for the resurgence and electoral success of the Labour party in 1997?
From the mid-90s, the Labour party began to reinvent itself under the leadership of Tony Blair. It attempted to rebuild trust with the electorate by moving away from its traditional socialist values. This was first done through the reform of Clause IV; a part of the Labour Party’s constitution which committed the party to its socialist ideology. In 1995, the Clause was amended and instead committed the party to a “dynamic economy,” which can be seen as an abandonment of its socialist goals. Tony Blair, himself, confirmed the strength of Thatcherism when he claimed that “the presumption should be that economic activity is best left to the private sector.”
Blair was able to remodel the Labour Party in such a way due to the fact that trade unions had been emasculated and the traditional working class reduced. Blair needed to win back the skilled working class and the aspirational middle, which had been won over to Thatcherism with the Right-to-Buy scheme.
Most significantly the Labour Party’s most successful years were during the time of New Labour and Blair’s embracement of Thatcherism and neoliberal economics.
What does this mean for Labour today? Corbyn was elected leader of the Party in 2015 with nearly 60% of the vote. His leadership has seen a rise in leftist rhetoric, talk of nationalisation, and a firm stance against privatisation. The Labour party is still dealing with deep divisions surrounding Corbyn’s policies, and he is not necessarily popular with the wider public either. All of which demonstrates that Blair’s centrist politics and Thatcher’s legacy play an influential role within the British politics, which seem to stand in the way in the full approval of Corbyn and his policies today.