Labour can succeed again – but only if it shuns the kind of unbridled arrogance we saw in the Thatcher era

Sean O'Grady
AFP/Getty

The thing I remember most politically about living through the 1980s was the arrogance. Everywhere. I think we may come to taste it again in the 2020s as we enter another decade of deeply traumatic economic experimentation feebly resisted by a divided and incompetent opposition.

The epitome and symbol of 1980s Tory arrogance was, of course, Margaret Thatcher. Hers wasn’t a born-to-rule type of hauteur of the kind we see with Boris Johnson and his predecessors in the Cameron-Osborne era. Thatcher’s was incubated by personal and political success. She wasn’t so bad at first, but by the end of her 11 years of political domination, even her own lot were tired of the imperial style. With every war she won and enemy she vanquished – Tory moderates, Falklands, miners strike, cold war, socialism, European Commission – the more it grew. With every election landslide – two in 1983 and 1987 – the sense of Tory permanence and invincibility swelled. All was vanity.

You don’t have to look very far now to gain an early premonition of how the 2020s might mirror that. Thatcher, like Johnson now, used to visit the North and decide that “we” must do something about the devastation that, in forgotten fact, Tory policies had helped exacerbate. The Tories and Michael Heseltine even took an interest in Liverpool, and gave it a garden festival. (Though the chancellor of the time also secretly proposed simply running the city down.)

The Conservatives in the 1980s, though nowhere near as much as now, made some inroads into the industrial north even as they were transforming it into the de-industrialised north. Not the pit villages that are now turning in some desperation to Brexit and “backing Boris”, but other places where the Labour Party had split into socialist and social democrat factions.

However, the Tories still derived much of their support, then as now, from the south, from the wealthier and from the older echelons of society, and they prospered. There was a brash comedy character invented by Harry Enfield, an Essex plasterer called Loadsamoney, who embodied that arrogance just as surely as the Tory ministers in their double-breasted suits and the City traders in the red braces and new Porsche sports cars. Cliches all, but a familiar enough sight then. As I say, arrogance was everywhere.

It was on the left too. There is a story that after one of Labour’s four successive crushing defeats in the Thatcher-Major years, one activist implored his local Labour MP to reassure him that there would be “no compromise with the voters”. Maybe it was the young Jeremy Corbyn who took that to heart – but it was basically where Labour went wrong, and is going wrong again now. Then as now, many in the Labour party insisted its policies were practical, affordable, popular and believable, and that their problems were down not to the leader but to the treacherous splitters on the right of Labour and their allies in the Tory press. The only point ever conceded was that the policies might have been better explained, even though the evidence was that when the electorate did understand them, they disliked them even more.

Is it time to mention Tony Blair and New Labour? Of course it is. It is never too early because, despite recent experience, general elections don’t come round very often and you don’t get many chances therefore to win power and help the people you are supposed to be in politics to help. Leave things too long and the children in poverty today will be having kids in poverty tomorrow.

What would a Blair of today do? What would a revived Labour Party fit for the 2020s do? Very simple.

First, make the most of Brexit by never mentioning Europe again. You cannot win with it. The left is actually right that Brexit derailed the election (though it was not the only thing by far). In 2019, Labour was either going to lose the Leave-inclined North or the Remain-inclined South. Under Corbyn, it tried to win both and lost both. Next time around, the Europe question has to stay dead and buried. Even if Brexit is a disaster, it is far too soon to talk about rejoining the EU, including the euro.

Second, take the most popular Labour pledges of 2019 and civilise them. For example, nationalise the trains as a public service, if you must, but this time don’t say the RMT can run them. Show how much they would cost the taxpayer to run and invest in – and show the benefits in concrete terms – new services, rolling stock, travel times, fares. Don’t bother trying to nationalise 10 per cent of everything that moves, or you’ll get teased about nationalising sausages.

Then the new shadow chancellor can make Labour’s spending, tax and borrowing plans less mind-bogglingly stratospheric, and have the Institute for Fiscal Studies approve them. They need armour playing against a Tory party that will use HM Treasury for political purposes.

Following that, take a clearer more responsive and empathetic line on all the issues that your voters are screaming at you about – immigration, crime, social cohesion, schooling. Limit your ambition to, say, six deliverables and put them on a pledge card. Adopt Tory fiscal plans, with modest adjustments. Court the hostile media. Support, loudly, traditional popular institutions such as the monarchy and armed forces. Set priorities that are in tune with the people’s. Embrace aggressive marketing techniques. Do anything to win power. Don’t be a proud, principled loser.

I was 17, a Labour member (“Young Socialist”), but too young to vote when Thatcher won her first election in 1979. Lots of Labour people, mainly followers of Tony Benn such as Corbyn, assumed she’d only last a few years before her monetarist market economics failed and the unions would bring her down like they did to Ted Heath in 1970-1974. That was indeed the arrogance of the left in that age.

It didn’t turn out as the Bennites thought. And so it was that I was 35 years old and had long since given up on Labour by the time the Conservatives were finally kicked out in 1997. By someone called Blair.

So all I am saying to the young socialists of today is: please don’t wait until 2036 or something to win a general election. Don’t be arrogant, like us boomers are supposed to be. Compromise with the voters, before it is too late. Pick your best, most charismatic figure no matter how old or young, their background or even their sex – provided they will beat Johnson. Get on with winning before you forget how to.

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