The John McDonnell Column
I am writing this just before the day of Thatcher’s funeral — a day on which I will go about my usual constituency and parliamentary duties. Whether she is alive or dead is a matter of indifference to me but what I am concerned about is that her ideas live on within sections of the Labour Party.
We shouldn’t underestimate just how far the ideas associated with Thatcher permeated the higher echelons of the Labour Party under Blair, Mandelson and Brown and how much they still have a grip on elements within the Party. One of the most important roles that the left can play in this next two years in the run up to the construction of Labour’s manifesto for the next election is to ensure that we kill off the ideological inheritance of Thatcher within the Party.
This also means destroying the hallowed myth of the history of Thatcher that still grips some recent Labour leaders and, judging from the nauseating tributes to her in the House of Commons debate, even has a hold on some present Labour MPs. Thatcher did not come to power with a coherent ideological programme. She was an opportunist with a set of deep seated traditional Tory prejudices. She was provided with some basic ideological positioning by a largely forgotten eccentric called Keith Joseph. He had picked up much of the emerging neoliberal line of thought that had come to dominate the right in the United States, which had been experimenting with the implementation of these ideas particularly in Latin America.
David Harvey’s book on the development of neoliberalism is the best description of how this strain of thought emerged and gained a hold on the right at a time when they were bereft of any alternative to either social democracy linked to Keynsianism or the then still existing centralised planning of the Soviet Union. Thatcher allowed Britain to become one of the laboratories for this neoliberal experiment and our people to become the subjects of the experiment.
The policies were crude and extremely basic. Monetarism was introduced to control the monetary supply which crashed the economy and allowed unemployment to surge. Cuts to public expenditure, public sector jobs, wages, benefits and pensions were critical in enabling taxes to be cut for the companies, corporations and the rich. Privatisation and the sell off of public sector assets, including the utilities and council housing, were important to open up areas of the economy for profiteering that previously private speculators had been denied access to. The Big Bang deregulation of the City launched the casino economy that set in train the speculators’ feeding feast that laid the foundations for the banking crisis of 2007. To quell any resistance, basic trade union rights were withdrawn and democratic local government was either abolished, in the case of the GLC and the Metropolitan authorities, or hamstrung with cuts in powers and funding.
We all know the results of this lethal cocktail of what became known as Thatcherism:
- suffering and deprivation that has left their scars on our communities and our people even to this day,
- an economic system that allowed speculators to bring our economy to near destruction in recent years
- and a society gorged in greed that almost lost its way in terms of the basic humanitarian values of solidarity that binds a community together.
The problem we have is that many of the ideological underpinnings of Thatcher and many of her policies have been retained to this day within the Labour Party. Austerity measures to solve the current economic crisis are still being advocated by Ed Balls. They might be lighter and over a longer timescale than the Coalition’s austerity programme, but they are still based on public expenditure having to be constrained to enable the unrestrained free market to solve the economic crisis.
The proposals from Labour on regulating the finance and banking sector are so weak that Thatcher would be pleased to see the speculators will be allowed to return to business as usual under a Balls chancellorship and would be immensely satisfied that public ownership and democratic control of the banks is not even on Labour‘s agenda. Although thankfully some lessons have been learned about Thatcher’s and New Labour’s own binge of privatisation, there is no still commitment to end all privatisation under an incoming Labour Government or reverse the privatisations that have taken place and to return rail, the public utilities and any health services privatised back to public ownership.
There is also no commitment to scrap Thatcher’s anti-trade union laws or restore democratic rights to local councils. The fear of backing any industrial action by trade unions displayed by Labour’s leadership demonstrates just how far Thatcher’s antipathy to trade unions has shaped the reactions of many sitting on the current Labour front bench.
Let us now turn the death of Thatcher, and the debate around her role and influence, to our own advantage. Let us expose the appalling permeation of the Labour Party by her ideology and use it to begin a thorough process of rooting out its remaining vestiges from the Party’s thinking and policies as we prepare for the coming election.
John McDonnell is MP for Hayes and Harlington, the Chair of the Socialist Campaign group of Labour MPs and the Labour Representation Committee.