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The Thatcherite agenda lives on more for Blair than for Britain

The poll conducted by You-Gov Cambridge and published this week in The Guardian shows that the British are more ready than the Americans, French and Germans to affirm their continued belief in the values of fairness, compassion, and concern for others, and to look to their government to act in line with those values.

The poll’s message is salutary, coming as it does in the week of Thatcher’s funeral and a few days after Tony Blair’s advice to Ed Miliband that he should not risk any re-affirmation of traditional Labour values. We are a less Thatcherite country than her acolytes would have us believe, and the route to electoral success for Labour is a braver one than Tony Blair understands.

It was always the guiding principle of the Blair government that the Thatcher legacy was too well-entrenched and too valuable to be challenged – and his most recent confirmation of that provides a telling insight into how New Labour wasted an unparalleled opportunity. He seems not to remember that Margaret Thatcher was thrown out in 1990 by her own party or to notice that her death has revived bitter memories of the division and damage she created. For him, it seems, the whole of the Thatcherite agenda lives on.

Both then and now, however, Tony Blair commits a fundamental error in his analysis of how political opinions are formed. What he fails to recognise is that it is only a small minority, whatever their position on the spectrum of political views, that has developed a fully coherent set of beliefs and principles.

The majority are perfectly capable of holding in their minds quite contradictory notions and allegiances and of nodding in agreement to any one of the propositions offered from any part of the political spectrum. What matters, what determines the way they will think on any particular issue, is which of those contradictory values is closest to the surface, or in other words has the greatest salience for them, at any particular time.

As we confront the various issues and challenges that are the stuff of politics, we will find that each of them can be defined and described according to competing narratives. The challenge, particularly for a party of the left that stands for change and therefore progress, is to produce narratives that explain difficult and complex issues most persuasively and relate them most accurately to the values that voters hold.

Our problem is that the values we stand for have become submerged under the tidal wave of free-market propaganda; but the You-Gov Cambridge poll shows that they live on. If we are to give them new potency, we need to show not only their intrinsic value but their relevance and effectiveness in the solution of current problems.

We do not meet this challenge by accepting Tony Blair’s advice. His response to the apparent Thatcherite hegemony, now and when he was in government, is and was to move the whole of Labour’s agenda rightwards. The values of our opponents were affirmed; the principles and policies that the voters knew were those that Labour had always stood for were abandoned.

But the voters’ agenda had not moved rightwards in totality. They had, it is true, become disillusioned with some elements in Labour’s programme – elements that needed updating and re-thinking – and they had been persuaded by an effective competing narrative to support some elements in the programme of our opponents.

But for the large number of voters who continue to embrace the values of community and compassion, the wholesale move rightwards was confusing and uncomfortable; it left Labour voters with a sense of abandonment, undecided voters with the perception that there was no real alternative to Tory extremism, and voters who normally voted Tory quite unpersuaded that New Labour was a convincing alternative.

The challenge of finding convincing narratives changes as circumstances change; the issue as to who has the most persuasive narrative to explain those changes is therefore constantly redefined. The Global Financial Crisis was not, as Blair argues, an event that left opinion unmoved; the voters, it may be safely asserted, are desperately keen to escape the wreckage and to find a way forward.

Their immediate and now weakening adherence, in the aftermath of the crisis, to neo-liberal orthodoxy was in many ways a reflex action; a dash back to mother’s apron strings in times of danger. But that is no reason to concede the whole of the issue to the Tories and to make no attempt to increase understanding of what went wrong so that we can avoid such crises in future.

The only people who might think that this is a correct response are those who believe that the Tories are right and that the whole issue was the fault of supposedly “big” government; even precious few Tories now truly believe this – but Tony Blair apparently does.

His advice is, in other words, not only defeatist in electoral terms, but also a betrayal of the interests of most people. If he genuinely believes that George Osborne has got it right, then he should be honest enough to come out and say so. Otherwise, he should surely welcome and support the effort to help towards learning and applying the necessary lessons from the debacle.

To take up that central challenge is not only a duty but an opportunity – to reject the canard that we have to choose between social justice on the one hand and economic efficiency on the other.

We should now argue that there is nothing economically efficient about running the economy in the interests of the few, about keeping large numbers out of work, about leaving manufacturing flat on its back, about using vast amounts of money from both the taxpayer and the central bank to boost the banks’ balance sheets while both demand and investment remain depressed.

We should take the argument forward on our terms, making it clear that we don’t have to choose; social justice is not an obstacle but the path to greater economic success. The solution to our economic problems does not lie in piling burdens on the most vulnerable, but in creating a more inclusive and equal society in which everyone – as contributor and beneficiary – is able to share. We must develop a narrative that convincingly explains the failures and – in accordance with the values that we share with so many of our fellow-citizens – takes us forward in both social and economic terms.

One Comment

  1. John p Reid says:

    Even though I campaigned for Bryan in 87 and 92 popping from Hornchurch toDagenham, I first met Bryan in93 during him sharing a stage with Mrs Thatcher when they both shared a stage to call for a ‘no’ vote in a referendum on Maastrict, Bryan had in the past admired Blair even though he didn’t agree with Blairs call to end clause4′ but I’m surprised part form having the higher rate of tax at 40%’there was no difference between the 92 and 97 manifesto, and Bryan was part of the architect of the 92 manifesto which was the blue print for New Labour

    See other post for comments own ether Blair should comment now, he did win 3 times after all,

    Thatchers ousting was because she was passed it, and her leaving resulted in the Tories winning in 92′ yes there’s been hostility towards her this week, quite rightly, but new labour didnT agree with everything Thathcer did,

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