Paying tribute to the longest serving 20th century prime minister following her death, David Cameron sought to cement her legacy by reflecting “we are all Thatcherites now”.
This is not strictly true. What we have become, because of Margaret Thatcher’s eleven-and-a-half years in Downing Street, is a broadly capitalist country. Our mainstream political parties may disagree about how to tackle the injustices that arise from capitalism, or whether they ought to be tackled at all, but none of them advocate its overthrow.
The ideological quandary Labour faces, then, is this: how does a party whose existence historically has been premised on representing workers’ interests remain relevant in a post-industrial society? Britain has advanced into the 21st century, dependent on business and global trade at the expense of manufacturing and traditional industry. In many respects, Labour remains rooted firmly in the previous century, unable to grasp the pace of change in its hope that the neo-liberal consensus instituted by Thatcher is an unfortunate phase rather than the permanent political reality.
With its application of ‘traditional values in a modern setting’, New Labour claimed to have found the answer. Instead, it merely avoided the problem. Its lasting legacy of a more socially liberal Britain did not extend to a critique of the economic consensus and, to the disappointment of many on the left, the governments from 1997-2010 showed insufficient concern about rampant inequality. The uneasy coalition between the traditionalists and the modernisers was only ever viable so long as Labour kept winning elections.
Tempting though it would be to demand wholesale personnel and political overhauls after such a disastrous election performance, redefining what the party stands for is the main challenge facing whoever is announced as leader on September 12. This necessary soul-searching exercise rules out Jeremy Corbyn, the current front-runner, along with Liz Kendall, who is lagging significantly behind in the polls; both are running reactionary, regressive campaigns that inadequately address the ideological quandary outlined above.
Kendall has borrowed New Labour rhetoric with her vision of a party that marries aspiration with compassion. However, assuming that she would be a credible prime minister on the basis that she is running on a similar platform to that which secured three successive election victories is to embellish greatly the strategic prowess of Tony Blair and his inner circle. History, written as it is by the winners, is all too willing to swallow the Blairite myth that Labour’s resurgence began in 1994, paying insufficient heed to the progress made under John Smith’s leadership before his untimely death. Had he lived, Smith would have become prime minister despite straying from the New Labour gospel that elections can be won only from the centre ground.
That does not mean, of course, that Labour should disown the policies that transformed Britain and the strategy that allowed it to dominate the political scene for more than a decade. Corbyn has suggested that, rather than engaging with the prevailing neo-liberal consensus, Labour should pretend that it does not exist by retreating to its left-wing comfort zone. Doing so would turn the party into a glorified protest movement rather than a government in waiting, condemning it to perpetual opposition. Corbyn’s status as the idealist candidate is baffling given that Labour ceded control to the far left in the 1980s to catastrophic consequences; no matter how many lively rallies and packed meetings took place extolling the virtues of socialism, its agenda was electorally ruinous. History would repeat itself before our eyes.
Corbyn’s emergence from nowhere as the clear favourite speaks volumes of the low-key campaigns run by Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper, and the serious disengagement by the party from its disgruntled membership. Cooper is particularly well qualified for the job, having served in the cabinet under Gordon Brown and held the coalition government to account excellently in her capacity as Shadow Home Secretary. Yet the perception that she has been too cautious, only now abandoning her supposed strategy of being inoffensive in order to win second preferences, may prove fatal to her chances.
Burnham, her most convincing rival, is accurate in his diagnosis that the party has become too timid. If properly costed, the big idea of his campaign to incorporate social care into the NHS could be revolutionary. He is, however, mistaken in thinking that Labour has been most effective when it has inspired the electorate through radical ideas. If anything, the creation of the NHS, the welfare state and the introduction of the minimum wage were examples not of Labour leading the way in establishing a progressive Britain, but satisfying the public’s pre-existing demands.
Cooper understands the struggle for Labour’s survival much more clearly than her three opponents do. Unlike Burnham, she has identified the failure of centre-left parties across Europe as stemming from their inability to counter the accepted narrative that investment in public services caused the global financial crisis. As far as uniting the party after a bloodletting leadership contest, Cooper is the most capable of reaching across the aisle of Labour’s broad church, offering a commitment to social justice and equality on the one hand and fiscal responsibility on the other. Her vision is understated but effective: asserting Labour as Britain’s internationalist party; eliminating child poverty; recasting the role of the state so that it is seen as enhancing, rather than restricting, the opportunities available to individuals and businesses. Here Labour can find a clear identity that will allow it to flourish in the 21st century.
No matter how unpopular the government becomes because of its cuts to tax and public spending, Labour requires a highly improbable swing to win back power in 2020. Before the party focuses on doing so, it must acknowledge that Thatcher has changed the terms of the debate, and therefore redefine its purpose in a post-industrial society. Only Cooper has the intellectual rigour and force of personality to save Labour from this existential crisis.
Photograph: Steve Punter via Wikimedia Commons