It’s an 1980s thing  

Written by Total Politics has a free weekly Friday email bulletin. Follow this link to register. on 2 December 2011 in News
Striking was acceptable in the 1980s, but the decade called and she wants her laboured exaggeration back, says Martin Shapland

Public sector strikes, riots in the streets, public sector cuts – Labour and the union left has been a keen to draw as many parallels with the 1980s as they can scrape together.

“Cameron and Osborne are trying to drag us back to the 1980s,” moans Ed Balls, Unite's Len McCluskey bangs on about "the Thatcher standby", "the Conservative dog returning to its anti-union vomit", and even the plucky Morning Star pitched in on Wednesday, publishing a poem entitled 'Sometimes I Feel Like I'm Back in the Eighties'. Bless. No wonder it’s going bust.

I can understand the political strategy here – Thatcher was a divisive figure who ran an ideologically obsessed government that  did think unemployment was a price worth paying, which did want to see privatisation and cuts to shrink the state and whose instinct for compassion came somewhere after champagne-induced frolics – the problem with trying to link the supposedly ‘Tory-led’ government of today with Thatcher’s reign is that while the unions and Labour seem to be stuck in a 30 year time loop, the rest of us have moved on.

The Iron Lady may be getting headlines again, at least in the media section of the broadsheets but two tribes are not going to war and we are not re-running the class and industrial conflicts which scarred a generation. I’m finding the tortured insinuations that we are heading back to that lost decade of shoulder pads, Rick Astley and bad hair rather tedious.

Lazy parallels between today and the 1980s are overblown and incomparable. The strikes this week were the largest in a generation, say union bosses, trying to evoke the spirit of the miners' strikes 25 years ago that lasted a year, not a day, and involved the closure of a whole industry and the economic stagnation of vast swathes of the country, not asking workers to pay a bit more to ensure affordable pensions long term.

In an interview for the Guardian Ed Balls in all seriousness tried to link increases in VAT, public spending cuts and a struggling economy to a Thatcherite crusade, instead of a debt crisis.

Perhaps the unions and Labour are trying to hold on to what they’ve got? Memories of glories and struggles long-faded? The coalition has actually done all it can to avoid conflict, indeed protect the working class, from cuts as far as possible, be it asking public sector workers to take pay freezes rather than face sacking, up-rating benefits 5.2%, with inflation, and raising the income tax allowance directly benefiting millions of lower paid workers.

The coalition is under pressure. The economic situation doesn’t look good and the autumn statement only confirmed that borrowing is up, growth is down and a fresh batch of Osborne’s number one nemesis - winter snow - might actually tip us back into recession. At least the government is straight up about it even if Alistair Darling is in a room somewhere sipping whisky and dancing to Welcome to the Jungle.

But that doesn’t mean the coalition is an ideological monstrosity hell-bent on making cuts to encourage privatisation and free market economics at any price. There is no tainted love with unemployment as a means to bring down wage inflation. It’s not trying to redefine the role of the public sector, or crush the unions

Indeed this coalition is neither conservative nor liberal. It’s progressive, in favour of gay marriage, rejecting abortion controls and maintaining the 50p tax rate and making healthcare a priority, It’s pro wealth creation, cutting business taxes and redirecting investment to the north through regional development agencies. It talks tough on illegal immigration and sense on rehabilitation for criminals; The rose garden white wedding made the coalition a government of pragmatism, not ideology, indeed it is ideologically bereft; a good thing, it means it’s not responding to prejudices but looking to do what works.

Which is why the ‘ideological cuts’ rhetoric is failing to resonate with the public. The only dinosaurs trying to drag us into the past are the unions greasing up for rolling strikes and Ed Balls rerunning the failed ‘borrow today, pay for it tomorrow’ economics we are now paying for.

People understand that the deficit has to be paid down and accept that means cuts, taxs and yes, pain. Telling people that the pain can be deferred or curtailed by borrowing more money or by basing your entire economic policy on taxing the banking sector out of existence isn’t just disingenuous, it’s dishonest and it won’t work.

Deep down, Labour knows that. It knows that the coalition is trying to downsize the deficit, not the state and it knows that most voters support that.

If the left's only hope is to hope people respond to that 1980s vibe, they're livin' on a prayer. Times have moved on. It’s time the left moved with them.

Tags: 1980s, Ed Balls, Left, Public sector strike, Unions

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