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To whom is Thatcher fanboy Starmer trying to appeal?

Instead of trying to woo Conservative voters by worshipping at the altar of the Iron Lady, Labour should instead look at the numbers who support a return to the post-war welfare state, writes NICK WRIGHT

WHEN Sir Keir Starmer said Margaret Thatcher had effected “meaningful change” he was, briefly, in accord with majority opinion.

If Thatcher transformed post-war Britain she was not the first. Clement Attlee, who led the post-war Labour government that introduced the National Health Service and nationalised the key industries — rail and road transport, coal and steel — that were essential if the profitability of British capitalism was to continue, was first.

His predecessor, Winston Churchill, wanted to preserve Britain’s imperial position and even set in motion plans to mobilise the defeated Wehrmacht once again against the Soviet Union.

If this was too much for the incoming Labour government, Attlee’s administration became no less an enthusiast for empire and the cold war.

When today Toothless in England campaigns for the nationwide restoration of NHS dental treatment, it bids to reverse the long-term damage done by Labour's decision to sacrifice free NHS dentistry (and spectacles) to pay for Britain's involvement in the US war against socialist Korea. The succeeding Tory government introduced prescription charges and today a third of working-age people fail to collect their prescriptions because of cost.

This was neither the first nor the last time the British people would have paid for imperial war with more than the blood of conscripts.

We should not discount the real advances that the working class achieved in this period. More or less full employment, mass public housing and better education and welfare marked a real change from the pre-war insecurity, homelessness, poverty and unemployment.

But if the context of the post-war “welfare state” settlement was the need to reconstruct a war-damaged economy it was also the price capital throughout the continent felt obliged to pay to blunt the advance of European socialism and maintain its power. Between 1950 and 1965 real wages rose by 40 per cent.

Thatcher did much to reverse the post-war settlement.

Her aim, driven by capitalist realism, was to find new sources of profit and reduce government spending.

Thus her time as premier saw two serious recessions. Driving down working people’s proportion of national income in the interest of profitability entailed an attack on working-class power and the trade unions. Privatisation was designed to unlock new revenue streams for capital accumulation, the attack on the welfare state was aimed at reducing public expenditure.

If this is what Starmer means when he praises Thatcher for setting loose “Britain’s natural entrepreneurialism” he is well out of touch with both facts and public opinion.

In reality, Thatcherism was disastrous for workers. Inflation in 1980 was at 20 per cent and even two years later was still at 10 per cent and only reduced to 4 per cent in 1987. In 1981 there were 3 million unemployed. In the main industrial areas of Scotland, Wales and northern England it was at 15 per cent. By 1984 it reached a high of 3.3m or 9.5 per cent.

The 1986 Financial Services Act deregulated the finance sector and shifted the economy even further away from production towards financial services and laid the foundations of instability that found its inevitable destination in the 2008 financial crisis.

Today, industry makes up less than 20 per cent of the labour force, agriculture under 2 per cent and services an inflated 80 per cent

Are Starmer’s latest contortions principally an attempt to win Conservative voters to vote Labour?

Even with today's 20-point lead, a more important priority is convincing Labour voters to continue to vote Labour.

It is not that contingent of Tory voters who worship the ghostly memories of the Iron Lady who might be tempted to change loyalties. The latest Conservative Home polling of actual Tory voters shows Reform UK attracts as many Tories as Labour. Rather, it is that much more significant proportion, a majority even, of Tory voters who want water, gas, electricity and railways back in public ownership.

It hasn’t yet dawned on this body of voters that neither the Tories nor Westminster Labour are prepared to deviate from the Establishment consensus on this question.

An even more productive source of Labour voters might be the 30 per cent or more of mostly working-class voters who rarely think it worthwhile to vote.

Starmer’s substantive purpose is to convince our ruling class — principally the monopolies, banks, defence industry, the upper ranks of the Civil Service, the military and intelligence agencies and the big business media and; above all, the US and Nato, that Labour in government would be a reliable custodian of the existing system.

To those in the labour movement who think he has already proven this beyond doubt reflect that when Starmer insists that Labour today is a different party he is reminding those set above us that the working-class movement has not disappeared and that the strikes of the past two years are a reminder of a potent force that is not subdued while the ceasefire demonstrations reflect a persistent and strengthening anti-war current.

Where the anti-austerity movement, the millions who desire a ceasefire in Palestine and the families of strikers converge, is over their growing understanding that Starmer’s Labour will not challenge either “fiscal responsibility” at the expense of the working class or Nato’s war strategies.

***

The Saturday marketplace in my town is a place where ideas are as freely traded as goods. Last weekend three encounters with Labour stalwarts brought out the anxieties felt by a wide cross section of Labour opinion.

The local party chair, during her stint on the refugee action group stall, was eager to talk up Labour’s chances as essential to get rid of the Tories but, when pressed on what changes a Starmer regime might affect, retreated into generalities, even on the question of immigration policy, so unpalatable was it to face the truth.

Another activist (a former branch secretary) was, in contrast, openly despairing, but ventured the hopeful thought that the Starmer strategy was to reassure (Conservative) voters but might reveal a more radical agenda after the election.

An active if erratic leftwinger had no time for such magical thinking and saw no point in remaining an individual member as the leadership ignores conference decisions, fixes selection meetings, purges critics and refuses to allow discussion.

These are pretty typical responses by regular Constituency Labour Party members. Trade unionists, both those carrying a party card and the much wider group who pay the political levy through their union, are overwhelmingly without illusions.

In part, this is the historical memory of Labour’s failure when in government to repeal Thatcher’s manifold anti-trade union employment laws but is driven more today by Starmer’s consistent failure to back strikers, his almost superstitious fear of picket lines and Westminster Labour’s failure to make the case for a full restoration of trade unions rights and support statutory backing for sector bargaining.

Neither TUC resolutions, Labour conference decisions nor the campaigning of bodies like the Institute and the Campaign for Trade Union Freedom have any effect on the Parliamentary Labour Party or the shadow cabinet.

This coming weekend the TUC special conference will discuss how to oppose the government’s latest offensive designed to sabotage strikes in services and the public sector.

Fiery words will be spoken and delegates will be filled with resolve that this Tory offensive will be defeated. But on the broader question of the balance of power between labour and capital, there is no confidence that Labour is on the side of labour.

Richard Tice, the present leader of Reform UK, honed in on Labour’s weak flank when, on BBC Newsnight, he played the classic fascist game plan calling for British wage rises as the key to reducing immigration.

When we compute the clearly demonstrated power of the broad movements against austerity and imperial war it becomes clear that the decisive factor in making profound changes in present-day Britain is the working class within which the trade union movement needs to become much more political in dealing with the power of our class enemies, wherever they are.

In another world …

The Financial Times this week tells us that the rating agency Moody’s cut its outlook on China’s sovereign credit rating because “there was rising evidence that the state would provide financial support for weaker regions.”

China’s predicted GDP growth this year is around 5 per cent, declining to 4 per cent next year. The prediction for the US next year is 1.5 per cent, and for Britain, it may not reach 1 per cent.

Nick Wright blogs at www.21centurymanifesto.com.

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