GE2015 minus 40: no, don’t tell me, I never forget a face…

Posted: 28 March 2015 in general election 2015, politics
Tags: , , , ,

Every so often, it occurs to me to wonder about the current state of our political parties. Not that they’re untidy or anything (they are), nor that they’re disorganised (they are), nor even that they’re comprised of the most incompetent politicians of my lifetime. By that last, I’m not talking about various politicians’ performance as ministers. There have been competent ministers in this government, and indeed, in every government I can remember. There have also been some who’ve been incompetent, some who’ve been dishonest and some who’ve just been too out of their depth to make a difference for good or ill.

No, I mean competence as politicians, in persuading other people that they are right and other people are wrong. The forthcoming election is going to be one lot asking you not to let the other lot ruin the country, while the other lot beg you not to let the first lot ruin the country. Rarely these days do you get a politician, through strength of argument, try to persuade someone that you should vote for them because of what they’ll do; it’s all about not letting “the other lot” screw things up, or continue screwing things up.

But, back to how I opened this. I wonder about the state of the parties mainly because I’m genuinely unsure which previous leaders of the parties would recognise the current iterations of their parties least

Let’s go back a fair distance. Say 40 years, March 1975. Back then, of the three main parties, you had the Labour Government led by Harold Wilson, the Conservative Party opposition led by a new-to-the-job Margaret Thatcher (she took over in mid-February) and finally the Liberal Party, led by Jeremy Thorpe.

Let’s take them one at a time.


The Labour Party: It’s certainly arguable that Harold Wilson was the most successful politician the UK had had since Churchill, and that he remained that way right through until Tony Blair’s emergence as a political force. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Wilson, in common with those other two, had few party political principles, and was more concerned with what could be done while in office than ideally what the party ideologues would have wished had been done. However, the ten months between the first and second 1974 elections certainly allowed Wilson to campaign on what successes there had been while in office. It’s also noticeable that his previous experience as Prime Minister between 1964-1970 meant that when he got back in, he didn’t have a ‘period of adjustment’ while he actually got used to being Prime Minister. But even Wilson, let alone those far more to the left in the party would have fallen off his chair at what the Labour party is today. During his time in office, the top rate of income tax was 83% on incomes equivalent to today’ money of about £180,000 per year. His government repealed the 1971 Industrial Relations Act, which among other things outlawed wildcat strikes and limited justifiable strikes. Wilson’s government enacted a raft of positive legal rights for union lay representatives and full-time officials, including paid release from work to undertake training in industrial relations and health and safety. Inflation increased (not necessarily as a result of this; as always, the global economy was blamed) and the economy took several years to recover. 

I’ve no doubt that Wilson would have recognised Blair as similar to those who occupied the right wing of Wilson’s Labour party. It would have astonished him, however, how the party itself had moved to the right during the 1990’s and 2000’s. And he would have been contemptuous, I believe, at the overwhelming number of MPs whose lives since school have been solely about politics, whose careers have been pushed forward because of their role as party and ministerial Special Advisors.

He’d have cringed at the egregious nature of what the Labour Party now regards as left wing policies.


The Conservative Party. It’s important to remember that when Margaret Thatcher took over as leader of the Conservative Party, she wasn’t anywhere close to being as right wing as she became in the next few years. But by the late 1970s, she completely gone over to the anti-Keynesian monetarist lot. She had been to the right economically of Ted Heath, certainly, but to be fair, that wasn’t difficult. While in Cabinet, as Education Secretary, she was derided as The Milk Snatcher for removing free milk from school pupils. Cabinet papers released much later revealed she had been against the policy but had been forced into it by the Treasury and went along with it because of the doctrine of collective cabinet responsibility. But in the early days of her leadership, she wasn’t looking to privatise everything in sight, and it’s forgotten than even when in power, there were real increases year on year in NHS funding, at a rate which would astonish today’s generation of labour, let alone conservative politicians. Unlike Wilson, however, she was an ideologue; it was just that her ideology moved to the right between 1974 and 1979, and even further to the right thereafter.

So what would the Margaret Thatcher of 1975 think of 2015’s conservatve party. To say “not a lot” would be to hugely understimate her contempt, I suspect. Again, like Wilson, she would have been surprised at the growth in special advisors, at the sheer naked greed of some politicans, and at the emptiness of the party’s offering in 2015. Unlike Wilson, Thatcher’s policies were ideologically driven; whatever you say about Thatcher (and let’s face it, most of it would be expletive laden), she knew what she wanted – even if that changed over the years – and could muster a decent argument about why it should happen. She’d be sickened by the lack of intellectual rigour and integrity in today’s Conservative Party, and would view with utter derision the mendacity and self-delusion to which some cabinet ministers aspire.


The Liberal Party. Nope. I’ve got nothing. The idea that the leader of what the Liberals became would not only go into government with a right-wing led Conservative Party, but would defend policies like the Bedroom Tax, the welfare butchery and the collection of personal data would so disgust Thorpe that I suspect he’d take to his sickbed and never recover.    

It’s 2015. Do you recognise your political parties? Because none of the leaders of 1975 would. At all. 

  1. In Wilson’s biography, written by Ben Pimlott, you find out that as a student Wilson attended meetings of Liberal students as well as Labour. For Wilson’s generation the Liberals were the left wing radicals and Labour were the socialists. The two were seen as different flavours.

    The Liberals consisted of social liberals on the left and economic liberals on the right. When the Social Democrats were added into the party in the 1980s it became a toxic mix of competing interests. All three components were incompatible. However this was OK because they were never going to have power so they could take 3 different policy positions. They could be opposition to Labour in the north with one set of policy and opposition to the Conservatives in the south with a different set of policies.

    Coalition with the Conservative Party in 2010 was easy for some of the economic liberals because they were essentially to the right of the Conservatives on those issues. The Cabinet jobs are largely spit along factional lines. Danny Alexander and David Laws along with Nick Clegg were in economic portfolios. St Vince is basically right wing Labour so he fits in nicely in business. The lefty social LibDems ended up in energy, home office etc where their caring credentials could shine.

    I think Thorpe would recognise how the Liberal Democrats in government resolved the century old split that even Lloyd George would have understood.

    Mrs Thatcher’s first Cabinet was characterised by the ‘wets and drys’, it was filled with Old Etonians, and as a member of Ted Heath’s cabinet she saw the negotiations of 1974 and difficulties of not getting a majority government. I think she would also have applauded Cameron’s single minded approach to austerity and reducing the size of the state. She was never able to curtail local government and smash municipal socialism, as she saw the North of England. Under Cameron starving local government of funds has gotten rid of 10s of thousands of public servants and created a whole raft of new privatisation options. She would approved of that kind of uncover attack on the welfare state and getting people to be self reliant. Thatcher would have applauded food banks as a Tory victory where charities and communities supported the poor not the state.

    In 1980/81 unemployment dramatically rose during economic recession to 3 million. Her Government had to re-calculate unemployment more than 20 times to statistically reduce the hugely rising numbers. She would look at the workfare schemes, zero hours contracts, forcing people into self employment as a brilliant advance in masking the true cost of economic decline.

    • I can’t agree with your conclusions. Maggie would have demanded the intellectual rigour that’s missing and has been missing ever since Cameron and Osborne gained control of the party.

      Thorpe wouldn’t have foreseen a time when Liberals could, for one example, voted for increased surveillance on the public. That would have been a red line, as would the Bedroom Tax.

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