Margaret Thatcher caught the tide of change. Can Ed Miliband?

Inside Westminster: Today, there is only one politician who aspires to end the post-1979 consensus

Click to follow
Indy Politics

The first time I saw Margaret Thatcher up close was the morning after the 1984 Brighton bomb which almost killed her. Embarrassingly, I had slept through it, in another hotel half a mile away. I thought I was dreaming when I heard a radio report saying that a bomb had exploded at the Grand Hotel. In fact, my radio alarm had gone off at 6.30am, and it was horribly true.

I scrambled belatedly into action, catching up with the Prime Minister when she visited Brighton police station. She was remarkable that day. I assumed the final day of the Conservative conference would be called off, but she went ahead with her speech, declaring that all attempts to destroy democracy by terrorism would fail.

At the time I worked for the Liverpool Echo. Baroness Thatcher was not loved in that city and I can understand why people in the North and South have reacted so differently to her death. I recall the incredulity of a Merseyside MP who met Lady Thatcher to discuss job losses in his constituency. “Why don’t the unemployed fix people’s kettles?” she told him. Michael Heseltine worked hard to soften the blow of joblessness as Minister for Merseyside. But I remember Sir Geoffrey Howe, the Thatcherite Chancellor, suggesting an option of “managed decline”, adding: “We must not expend all our limited resources in trying to make water flow uphill.”

The last time I met Lady Thatcher was in 2009 when, characteristically, she turned up at a Westminster party for Frank Field to mark his 30 years as Labour MP for Birkenhead. She was frail and had to sit down. It was remarkable how, almost 20 years after she was forced out of Downing Street by her own party, she soon became the centre of attention.

Love her or loathe her, Lady Thatcher was one of the few politicians who made the political weather. She certainly forced Labour to change. She ended the consensus between the two main parties which had existed since 1945 by dramatically reducing the role of the state. It lasted 34 years until she won power in 1979. Today, exactly 34 years later , one politician aspires to end the post-1979 consensus. It isn’t David Cameron. It is Ed Miliband.

In the mission statement he announced at the 2011 Labour conference speech, Mr Miliband conceded that Lady Thatcher was right to let people buy their council houses, cut high income tax rates and reform union laws. But, he argued, too many of her changes were based on the wrong economic values. Although New Labour invested in public services and lifted half a million children out of poverty, “good times did not mean we had a good economic system,” he said. The “fast buck” culture which rewarded “predators” rather than “producers” ended in the financial crisis and taxpayers bailing out the banks.

After Lady Thatcher’s death was announced on Monday, Mr Miliband’s well-judged tribute included the phrase: “She moved the centre ground.” That is precisely what he is trying to do – not, of course, to the right like Lady Thatcher but to the left.

All very well. Until the dramatic entry, stage right, of Tony Blair. In an article for the New Statesman magazine penned before Lady Thatcher’s death, Mr Blair went public with his private frustration about the Miliband project, warning that Labour was in danger of becoming a protest party against the coalition’s cuts.

Arguing that Labour must remain on the centre ground as the Tories turn right under Mr Cameron, the former Prime Minister wrote: “The paradox of the financial crisis is that, despite being widely held to have been caused by under-regulated markets, it has not brought a decisive shift to the left. But what might happen is that the left believes such a shift has occurred and behaves accordingly.”

Blairites doubt the ability of any politician to move the centre ground from opposition. Lady Thatcher had the levers of power at her disposal. Moreover, there was a groundswell of public support for change after the wave of strikes in the 1978-79 Winter of Discontent.

However plausible the Miliband thesis, there is not the same anger today. People seem resigned to the age of austerity being with us for some time as our leaders eliminate a deficit many believe was caused by Labour. Hence the growing pressure on Mr Miliband from his own party to spell out how and when Labour would clear it.

Many of the tributes to Lady Thatcher omitted the fact that her 100-plus majorities in her second and third election victories were helped by a split between two parties on the centre left – Labour and the breakaway Social Democratic Party.

Today the right is split between the Conservatives and the UK Independence Party, a huge headache for Mr Cameron. In contrast, the centre left is united today. A crude but broadly accurate reading of the opinion polls since the 2010 election is that left-leaning Liberal Democrat voters appalled at Nick Clegg entering a coalition with the Tories have switched to Labour.

That does not suggest that voters are flocking to Project Miliband yet. Will the British people get the 34-year itch, as he hopes? To quote one of Mr Blair’s slogans, there’s a lot done, but a lot to do.