Telling tales about Labour: what Ed Miliband could learn from Margaret Thatcher.

Author:Saunders, Robert

Of all the models on whom Ed Miliband might draw, Margaret Thatcher is perhaps the most improbable. More than two decades after her resignation, Thatcher's name still evokes a sort of righteous horror on the Labour benches; and few things more disillusioned the membership with New Labour than its periodic genuflections at the shrine of the Iron Lady. Politically and intellectually, the two share little in common. On a personal level, too, 'the grocer's daughter' seems a curious model for the son of a Marxist intellectual, whose natural register appears to be thoughtful and conciliatory, rather than strident or ideological.

Nonetheless, the parallels are intriguing. Like Miliband, Thatcher led the Opposition at a time of economic turmoil, marked by surging unemployment, rising prices and severe pressure on the public finances. Then, as now, grim economic forecasts echoed a wider narrative of decline, encompassing moral corrosion, political corruption and an apparent breakdown of law and order. If contemporary politics is framed by the deficit, the Thatcher era was dominated by inflation. In both cases, an economic pathology was invested with ethical and political significance, as an index of moral decline and a menace to national sovereignty.

There are analogies, too, between the parties they inherited. In 1975, Thatcher took on a party bereft of confidence and direction. The Conservatives had lost four of the last five general elections, and their most recent period in government had collapsed in disarray. The Conservative share of the vote in October 1974 was its lowest since 1918. The party was heavily in debt, and even the Tory heartlands seemed at risk from a Liberal revival in the south of England. The 'U-turns' and policy reversals of the Heath government suggested a party that had lost its intellectual coherence; a party, as Thatcher put it, that had 'lost [its] vision for the future' (MTFW 102629) (1).

The challenge before Miliband is hardly less severe. Labour polled just 29 per cent of the vote in 2010, its second worst performance since the 1920s. Outside London, it won just ten seats in the south of England - only half the total of the Liberal Democrats. It lost ground in Wales, faces an earthquake in its Scottish heartlands, and can expect further losses from the forthcoming boundary changes. Financially, the party is barely solvent, and its intellectual moorings have rarely been less certain. 'New Labour' has lost its resonance; 'Next Labour' is still an aspiration; and 'Blue Labour' remains opaque even to most of the membership.

There are similarities, too, in their personal circumstances. The two leaders share a problematic public image and a much derided voice; and in both cases, the new leader appeared to many commentators almost uniquely ill-suited to the challenge ahead. To his many critics, 'Red Ed' marks a retreat to Labour's 'comfort zone', just when it needs to reach new bodies of support. Thatcher, similarly, seemed too close to the party base; too prone, in Ian Gilmour's phrase, to view the world from 'behind a privet hedge' (Green, 2006, 21). With her affected accent and millionaire husband, Thatcher seemed hopelessly distant from the lives of ordinary voters; a 'brainy lady in a Tory hat', whose 'smug condescension' would shrivel the party's support (The Sun, 25.11.1971).

Thatcher won few plaudits as Leader of the Opposition and was regularly bested in Parliament. Yet by the time she faced her first election, she had captured the attention of the country, laid out a clear vision of Britain's problems and shifted public debate decisively to the right. This was not primarily a matter of policy formation. The 1979 manifesto was notoriously light on detail, and Thatcher insisted when pressed that she must see 'the books' before making commitments. Instead, she used the leadership as a pulpit, from which she established a distinctive narrative about her times. She had a keen understanding of the power of rhetoric, which she used to shrink the political space available to her opponents and to establish a favourable environment for her own policy preferences. At a time when the dominant narratives of British politics are being driven by the Coalition, there is much here from which Miliband could learn.

The Thatcher ascendancy

Thatcher came to the leadership amidst a mood of national crisis. The Labour manifesto, in October 1974, called it the 'most dangerous crisis since the war', a perfect storm portending economic collapse, moral corrosion and even the breakdown of democracy (Dale, 2000, 196). In an NOP poll, commissioned by the BBC in 1974, 65 per cent of respondents agreed that there was 'a serious threat' or 'some threat' to the survival of democracy, and financial journalists warned of an inflationary spiral that might destroy parliamentary institutions (Brittan, 1975, 132).

Thatcher thrived in such an environment, which played naturally to her own millenarian style. As Brian Walden noted in 1977, her speeches had a 'hectic and unusual' flavour, which 'often startled her audiences'. 'Instead of the reassurance we've come to expect from Conservative leaders, Mrs Thatcher's conveyed...

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