6 December 2023

Starmer’s embrace of Thatcher is no harmless exercise in political cross-dressing


Sir Keir Starmer wrote an article for The Telegraph last weekend. That is startling enough, for a one-time contributor to Socialist Alternatives, but what he said was more extraordinary and – for many – more inflammatory.

The Labour leader, explicitly ‘extend[ing] the hand of friendship to those who voted for the Tories’, attempted to portray himself as a change-maker, a transformative politician in a glorious tradition. Conjuring up that tradition, he cited Clement Attlee, as any Labour leader must, but sailed closer to the wind by naming Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. The eruption of fury from the left of his party may have been part of his intended achievement, in the hope that it will conversely endear him to voters of that quicksilver centre believed to be the key to unlocking electoral success.

To borrow a phrase, I was born a Tory and shall die a Tory, so am delighted to see the leader of the Labour Party acknowledge the significance of Thatcher and Thatcherism. Starmer talked of the way she ‘sought to drag Britain out of its stupor by setting loose our natural entrepreneurialism’, a sentiment which will have stung many traditional socialists, and imitation is, proverbially, the sincerest form of flattery. But this is just incoherent.

Sir Tony Blair acknowledged his debt to Thatcher. ‘My job was to build on some of the things she had done rather than reverse them,’ he remarked after her death a decade ago. But some of Blairism must have horrified her. The abolition of GP fundholding took away a key plank of the NHS internal market she had created months before her fall; the national minimum wage was antithetical to her notion of self-sufficiency, responsibility and enterprise; and she opposed devolution to Scotland and Wales as an item of faith.

Thatcher in her turn would hardly have seen continuity with Attlee. Although the National Health Service was so deeply embedded in the fabric of our political economy by 1979 as to be unassailable, she took on almost every other major reform the 1945 Labour government had introduced. Attlee took a fifth of the UK economy into state ownership, from the coal industry to the Gleneagles Hotel, while Thatcher released dozens of bodies into private ownership. She confronted enormous trades unions which by the 1970s saw themselves as a dyarchy with the elected government. And she shattered the post-War consensus which prioritised full employment and was comfortable with high levels of taxation and regulation.

How do we see Starmer as part of a coherent continuum? His ‘five missions’ include ‘business working with unions’, an Industrial Strategy Council, a publicly owned renewable energy provider and a ‘National Culture Infrastructure Plan‘. Thatcher would be dismissive of this level of dirigisme, while Attlee would wonder where huge swathes of the economic landscape had gone: where is the travel agency he bought in 1948? (Answer: Thomas Cook Group went into liquidation in 2019.)

Some will argue this doesn’t matter. As an election looms, Starmer is simply broadening his electoral appeal by trying to reassure wavering Conservative voters that he is no socialist ogre, but a pragmatist who will Get Things Done in the way his vaunted but varied predecessors did.

By tacking towards the centre, pulling the shades of Attlee and Thatcher with him, he wants to suggest that, for those unhappy with the status quo, he will bring change: but not so much change that those who are nevertheless fundamentally comfortable should fear putting a cross in the Labour box. As Starmer wrote, ‘Britain’s priorities are once again Labour’s priorities’, and ‘we extend the hand of friendship to you, no matter where you are or who you have voted for in the past’. It is a harmless exercise in political cross-dressing.

I disagree. It is the manipulation of history beyond its elastic limits. It is cherry-picking from a semi-imagined past to bring harmony where there was in fact discord. Worse than that, it seeks to suggest, as centrists always do, that ideology is an unnecessary and unpleasant sourness while goodwill can bring together the best of all traditions. Starmer is seeking to emphasise determination and character over ideas: don’t look at what I do, look at how I do it. It’s a misleading pitch being rushed past an electorate which has lost the energy to pay much attention – potted political history as a punchline.

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Eliot Wilson is co-founder of Pivot Point Group

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.