Tony Blair gushed over Thatcher in the wake of her death. “I always thought my job was to build on some of the things she had done rather than reverse them,” he said.
Since the 1980s, Labour leaders have argued that the party must shift right to become “respectable” and win elections. This means ditching left wing policies.
This is partly because Labour swallowed the lie that Thatcher was popular.
Thatcher won three elections and did win some working class votes. But the main reason she remained in office was because Labour failed to present a real alternative that could mobilise ordinary people to back it.
Blair argues that Labour’s landslide election in 1997 shows that he was right to shift to the right. But Labour won on the back of sheer hatred of the Tories, not because people backed a right wing Labour Party.
Blair’s ideas followed from the “new realism” of the 1980s. According to this, Thatcher had smashed the power of unions and won over workers.
For many on the left, this meant giving up on the working class as a force for change.
Labour’s failure to challenge right wing ideas has helped legitimise them. This sometimes made it harder to defend benefit claimants or immigrants, for example.
Yet attitudes in Britain don’t match up to Labour’s vision of what workers want.
Opinion polls show that most people still see themselves as working class. And mistrust of politicians, banks and police is rising.
A British Social Attitudes survey in 2010 found that 78 percent of people thought the gap between the rich and poor was too big.
The same survey in 2011 found that 36 percent wanted more public spending—up from 31 percent in 2010.
Labour leader Ed Miliband is following in Blair’s tradition. In the wake of Thatcher’s death he claimed that she had “moved the centre ground of British politics” and “defined the politics of the 1980s”.
But much of Thatcher’s achievements rest on Labour’s failure to challenge this. Many workers will be rightly angry to hear Ed Miliband praise her “political achievements and personal strength”.
Labour might think that ordinary people want a more cuddly Tory party to vote for. In reality they want to see an organisation that fights for the needs of ordinary people, rather than merely capitulates to the right.