Owen Jones: The age of consensus is over. And I fear things are about to turn ugly


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Watching the trailer for The Iron Lady, the forthcoming biopic of Margaret Thatcher, I shuddered.

All the indications are that her adoring fans will have much to be pleased about: the film apparently champions their image of a determined leader battling against the odds, vindicated by events and toppled by the treachery of lesser beings. Her victims are largely airbrushed out of the script.

But for the left – even those born halfway through her rule, like myself – Maggie remains the stuff of nightmares. An ideological civil war raged in 1980s Britain: at times, like during the miners' strike, it felt an awful lot like the real thing. Those who "fought" on the losing side – like my family – were comprehensively defeated. We still live in the Britain that Thatcher built.

Thatcher was often nicknamed Tina – There Is No Alternative. The Tina mantra was her most important legacy: it sustained Thatcherism, even after she was toppled. People may have felt uncomfortable or even angry about soaring inequality, fat cats growing ever plumper and private companies raiding our public services. But, in the absence of any other apparently realistic alternatives, people were resigned to it all. They became facts of life. After all, with even Blair's Labour Party signed up to this agenda, what hope was there of anything else? We're three years into a crisis caused by market failure, but the Tories have cleverly spun it to launch an assault on the welfare state – and, in the most perverse of ironies, make the market more dominant than ever.

But outside political circles, there's a shift in the public mood: a break from the resignation to Tina. We're now in a crisis in which, on the one hand, the average Briton is suffering from the biggest squeeze in living standards since the 1920s, and, on the other, boardroom pay has leapt 49 per cent. The status quo is starting to feel untenable.

I've noticed it out on the stump. On my desk is a towering pile of rail tickets: over the past few months, I've had the privilege of speaking at dozens of meetings across the country. They have ranged from youth workers in Manchester, trade unionists in Swansea and students in Glasgow; on Thursday, I spoke to a packed meeting in Hull. It's been a moving and educational experience. A few are hardened lefties, like myself, but most are just ordinary people who are angry, indeed in shock, at what is happening around them. But, above all, there was a clear expression of revolt against Tina that – in my admittedly short lifetime – I have never experienced.

Perhaps the people who turn up to these meetings aren't representative. I doubt it, though. A poll at the end of last month revealed that 38 per cent felt the Occupy protesters camped outside St Paul's were "naive; there is no practical alternative to capitalism". Even as the world stares into the economic abyss, Tina still holds sway over a significant section of the population. But 51 per cent agreed that "the protesters are right to want to call time on a system that puts profit before people". Does anyone think for a second the same poll would have produced the same results before Lehman Brothers came crashing down?

Occupy is one symptom: the forthcoming public-sector strikes – the biggest co-ordinated industrial action since the 1926 General Strike – is another. Public-sector workers are generally dismissed as vested interests, but let's be clear: we're talking about bin collectors, lollipop ladies, teachers and care assistants here. Strike ballots have produced decisive majorities in favour of action, ranging from three to one to four to one.

Workers do not strike lightly: you lose a day's pay and man picket lines outside your workplace only if you feel you've run out of options. In theory, this is a strike about pensions – or, rather, a tax on public-sector workers to pay off the deficit using the deceit that pensions are becoming more unaffordable. But workers will really also be striking about cuts, the privatisation of the NHS and other services – and against the whole attempt by the Conservatives to use the crisis to push policies they would otherwise never get away with. These pillars of our communities will be striking against Tina.

And by God do we need alternatives. Unemployment soared by 129,000 in the past quarter; over a million young people are now out of work. In Stockport, where I grew up, youth unemployment has increased by 69 per cent in a year. Despite cynical attempts to insult the intelligence of the British people by blaming it on the eurozone crisis, here are the consequences of the Thatcherite economics comeback tour. Mass unemployment is here to stay, and, unless the growing numbers cramped into Jobcentres are given hope, anger and frustration may manifest itself in ugly ways.

That's why Ed Miliband's Labour Party has a responsibility to take on Tina. If his brother had won the leadership, it would have become even more entrenched: in one speech during the contest, David Miliband argued that Labour should learn from Rab Butler, the post-war Tory politician who forced the Conservatives to accept Clement Attlee's welfare settlement. But Ed Miliband made a different – and largely ignored – argument during the Labour Conference, that he had learned "that you've got to be willing to break the consensus, not succumb to it". Last week, he slammed "unjustified" pay rises for chief executives and attacked "predatory" businesses.

A break from Tina isn't there yet. Labour remains committed to widespread cuts, albeit not on the same scale as the Tories. Its opposition to, say, the privatisation of the NHS or the trebling of tuition fees is hamstrung by the fact that New Labour got the ball rolling in the first place.

But shifts in politics don't come from above, as the "Great Man" view of history would have it. It comes from pressure from below. As the public mood shifts with the ever-deepening economic crisis, Ed Miliband may find it impossible to ignore. It's what policy wonks call "the shifting centre-ground". Millions have written Tina off. Labour's leaders may be forced to follow, whether they like it or not.

Owen Jones is the author of 'Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class'

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