Tuesday 9 April 2013

A Note on Thatcherism and New Labour

It is oft-noted that when asked what her greatest achievement was, Margaret Thatcher replied "Tony Blair". But is this really the case? Was the dearly departed having a laugh? Or were New Labour and the 'Third Way' a continuation of Thatcherism by other means, one that was all smiles, celebrity-savvy and had a better soundtrack? No. And yes.

Steve Bush's provocatively-titled Progress piece, Labour Ended Thatcherism is interesting for drawing attention to the discontinuities between Thatcher and Blair, but for all that ventures a fundamentally flawed position. Steve's argument is that Thatcherism was discarded and buried by 13 years of Labour government. He writes:
For 18 years, the Thatcherites tried to tell us that public services were at their best as a safety net. In the next 13, New Labour built more schools than a government had ever built before. It established academies that can go toe-to-toe with the private sector in terms of facilities and results. It built and rebuilt hospitals and clinics that rivalled any in Europe. Thatcherism thought the state couldn’t end poverty in Britain, Blairism helped to reduce it overseas. Thatcher thought that children shouldn’t be told they had ‘an inalienable right to be gay’. Blair led the greatest expansion of civil rights since the 1960s. Thatcher’s successors oversaw appeasement in the Balkans, New Labour stepped into the killing fields in Kosovo, Sierra Leone and Kurdistan. For Thatcherites, the private sector was an end. For Blairites, it was one of a number of means. Thatcher let the police grow into a underregulated and shadowy arm of the state; New Labour introduced the Hillsborough Inquiry and tackled institutional racism in the Met.
If you put it like that ...

Sure, the New Labour years chalked up some worthwhile achievements. It's one of history's little ironies that my erstwhile comrades on the far left still bang on about there being no difference between Labour and the Tories, while they busy themselves defending the very services 13 years of Labour governments rebuilt. Nevertheless, Steve makes a very serious error. What was it that Clinton said about the economy again?

If we accept New Labour wasn't Thatcherite, then it was certainly Neoliberal. While in his first term Blair signed the Social Chapter, introduced the minimum wage, legislation for mandatory trade union recognition and a populist windfall on the privatised utilities, the common sense of the period, of the deregulated market as the master, went fundamentally unchallenged. The neoliberal core of the Thatcherite project was accepted as the natural order of things, and was fostered by further deregulation, the spread of Private Finance Initiatives, and a whole bunch of measures that saw capital penetrate the fabric of the state to a degree that was not possible even under the period of high Thatcherism. Yet while New Labour was busy creating new business opportunities where none existed previously, the social democratic side of the project tried ameliorating the effects of increasingly free markets (where possible, using market-based solutions), while equipping workers with the education and skills that would enable them to compete successfully in a globalising economy.

Therefore, New Labour and Thatcherism are different and it's daft to pretend otherwise. But strip away the peculiar trappings of both and you bring out the fundamental identity of each. As the Tories once accepted the basic premises of the post-war settlement, so the centre left under Blair and Brown took the neoliberal settlement Thatcher successfully imposed as their starting point. In that sense, Thatcher's premiership was transformative, whereas the New Labour years were not.


Dave Riley said...

The Labor Party here in Australia achieved the same return for the bourgeoisie during the same period but without the brutalised head kicking edge. The Hawke/Keating ALP government was the model for New Labour under Blair.

Different? Sure. But it's primarily a difference in tactics.

As in New Zealand it was the social democrats that engineered and introduced the neo-liberal agenda. I think that in retrospect, the Thatcher approach may have been a ruling class mistake ... But then what we are finding is that while a return of Tory governance may offer a respite from labour parties they can be a bit of a lame duck as the restructuring agenda runs out of steam and hatred of government per se kicks in.

New Labour can't happen again as no one will believe its spin. Same here.

So this ebb is the Thatcher legacy via Blair and Bob Hawke et al. Whats' left to play around with are bottom barrel issues like jingoism and racism that mask further cut backs to the welfarish state and continuing privatisations.

Val Tinsley said...

Labour should be so proud of introducing the minimum wage a big pat in the back to Tony Blair as a ex union rep and a life member of unison I would love to see them introduce a living wage give the workers some self esteem stick your benefits give them a living wage help them feel proud that they can support their families they are saying the 70s weren't that good we worked full time got descent wages and mums could afford to stay at home with their children they had a choice now they haven't you need two wages to run a home still loads to do but you can do it

Phil (not Phil) said...

"I always thought my job was to build on some of the things she had done rather than reverse them" - Blair. From the horse's mouth!

Phil said...

Good to see you back, Dave.

Re: Australia, how was Labor able to overcome labour movement resistance to their neoliberalism?

Phil said...

Indeed, Phil. I think the experience of office had a 'conservatising' effect on Blair. The longer he clung on, the less social democratic he became, culminating in his endorsement of Dave's deficit reduction madness in his autobiography.

Jeremy said...

Between 1997 and 2001, the greatest Prime Minister since Clem...

Neil said...

Phil, I think there is a major contradiction in your piece and that is the idea that Thatcherism and Neoliberalism can be split. Neoliberalism is the economic model her government used and as such in reality it is the bulk of their political legacy, i.e. the economics are the fundamentals, by keeping this New Labour committed to this ideology, the rest is window dressing. Because of this economic position we saw the widening of the gap between rich and poor and the increasing privatisation of the economy under New Labour.

New Labour's economic illiteracy is that they incorrectly believe that you can employ the economics of the right to deliver the politics of the left, in reality this is not possible, as the economic position ultimately dominates.

Phil said...

Just a quickie as I'm at work - while Thatcherism is neoliberalist (is that even a word?), not all neoliberalism is Thatcherite.

The rest of your comment is the point of the article - "strip away the peculiar trappings of both and you bring out the fundamental identity of each."

Neil said...

Think you've been too kind to New Labour in this post, and to be clear once you strip the peculiar trappings of both away you are left with very similar economic results.

Gary Elsby said...

Maybe Labour should introduce the living wage just like Labour has done in Stoke.

Coming next though is the attempt to make workers toil with a reduced wage for those that work outside the normal working week.

That's why labour is a dirty word in Stoke.

Muslims were being slaughtered until Tony stepped in and women were as ignored before him as they are now he's gone.

Anonymous said...

interesting post. i think, broadly speaking, the history of neoliberalism can be divided into two phases: the first, under reagan and thatcher, had as its mission or task the dismantling of the institutions of the welfare state and the destruction of whatever modest gains social democracy and keynesian macro-economic policies had achieved. consequently, i think its focus at that point was on the economy. with the election of clinton in the us and blair in the uk, neoliberalism became the consensus or the perspective from which various institutions were rebuilt and it informed and guided most social policy. in other words, at some point in the mid-nineties, it entered a "constructive" phase.so your point about blair is well taken. of course, at that point, there was no effective opposition to the market taking over every sphere of human activity. to quote polanyi "the market has done its work." it's all pretty bleak, but i suppose the question remains, is there a way to overcome the market without lapsing into fashionable communitarianism or something worse, i.e.the kind of desperate populism that seems to be emerging in certain quarters.

Chris said...

New Labour didn’t end Thatcherism but applied it more vigorously and systematically than Thatcher did. Thatcher was clumsy and uncoordinated by comparison.

I have worked in the public sector all my adult life, during the New Labour years, our Building Cleaning service was privatised, i.e. the cleaners were screwed, our Building works department was privatised , the leisure centres were sold off, managers pay increased massively in comparison with the workers, competition was brought into the public sector, the idea that people were now customers was introduced, private sector attitudes were adopted and they were regarded as the beacon, the example to follow.

The promotion of gay rights etc was simply a continuation of the identity and individualistic policies of Thatcher, she should take as much credit as Blair for this.

New Labour were the natural extension of Thatcher and the Condems are the natural extension of New Labour.

Anonymous said...

It depends what data you look at. Child poverty: rocketed under Thatcher, decreased under major, and shot up again under Blair.
Privitization: More under New Labour than Thatcher. Labour began the process of NHS privitization with foundation hospitals and practice based commisioning.

Speedy said...

I think this post is correct.

I'd also observe that there seems to be some truth in the trope socialists do not understand capitalism, insomuch as they were happy to make hay from the economic conditions created for them, but failed to notice the smouldering at the corner of the barn... which went on to burn the whole place down.

NL forgot the basic rule of Marx - capitalism cannot be tamed. It is no one's slave. It enslaves.

Thatcher was a Cold War politician so she had a chance at making social democracy work. After the Wall came down the gloves were off, so NL were always going to lose.

The only hope for social democracy is a properly unified EU, unriven by national interest. No one is making this argument, but it is the only hope if you want to return to a fairer society. The unions should be uniting across Europe and educating their membership accordingly. Someone has to start somewhere...

Alex Dawson said...

Anyone involved in representing and organising working people in trade unions for any period will tell you that the Labour government of 1997 was, in contrast to what went before it, radical and positive.

Many on the left characterise the New Labour Fairness at Work laws as "crumbs from the table" but it is arguable that the trade unions would have collapsed without them and right now there would be zero defence for many workers against Coalition attacks.

It is a common mantra to say that New Labour failed trade unions by not rolling back the laws against secondary action, but I think that's a straw man. The biggest failure was to allow bosses to organise against trade union recognition campaigns and make it impossible for trade unions to win a foothold in the private sector - in particular the service sector which remains almost entirely union free.

Ed made some noise at the outset of his leadership around giving unions more organising tools. This is particularly important in light of the massive fragmentation and decentralisation now going on in the public sector.

A lot rests on the Labour approach to Employment law and trade unions if they win the next term. If they are not bold, and unions do not reverse the decline, I fear there will be no alternative but Little England neoliberal toryism for the next decades.

Speedy said...

@ chris

"the idea that people were now customers was introduced"

Living as I do in a Latin state which experienced no Thatcherite "revolution" I have to say I can see the upside of this.

Here - in every public-facing outlet from the local council to the theatre, the people, taxpayers - are treated at best with indifference and worse with breath-taking contempt by often unmotivated, unsackable staff who act like they're doing them a favour.

I remember as a kid my dad used to go on about "little Hitlers", a phrase long-since died out in the UK but has come to mind more than once here.

I've lived in full-on communist states (where the attitude was much the same), Thatcher's Britain, and now here. Socialist utopianism is all very well but the daily grind is something else.

In my experience the citizen gets treated with more respect when engaging with public services in the post-Thatcher UK than in societies with systems supposedly more devoted to their welfare and empowerment. Bit of a paradox, innit.

Chris said...

Speedy - wherever there is a disconnect between produce and consumer you will get problems. Under a capitalist system consumers are treated as people to manipulate, to delude. So you get horsemeat sold as beef. In the public sector you don't get the council treating people with more respect but less. The council employs it's own marketing teams to inform customers of the things they do, but they fail to mention all the things they don't do or have stopped doing. The relationship is a fundamentally dishonest one. The solution to the problem you identify isn't to turn people into customers but to empower people and give them genuine control.

In the age of austerity this dishonesty is highlighted in all its sickening superficiality, cuts to care of disabled people is sold as empowerment, the marketing men are really busy at the moment, while the carers are show the door!