The eulogies and condemnation following Baroness Thatcher’s death are coalescing into two clear truths. The first is that her legacy will always be contested: the nationwide reaction to Margaret Thatcher’s death – if viewed honestly – is one of embittered polarisation.
The second is that the British Left must always recognise the pivotal role it played in enabling Thatcher to succeed and prosecute a political programme that damaged so many of the people that progressive politics exists to serve. The lessons of Labour’s failures during the dominant Thatcher period are as relevant today as they were during her time in office.
The British Left fostered, enabled and created Thatcher’s premiership. But since her death, nowhere in the admonition of her time in power from left-wing critics is there any acknowledgement of their own side’s failure immediately before and during the Thatcher years. Honesty is a two-way street.
This week, I spoke with a veteran of that period who served in the trenches of Walworth Road. ‘I’ll never forget how we insisted on making it easier for her,’ he told me. A press officer from the pre-spin days, he recalled spending days searching out officially-sanctioned Labour Party election posters calling for unilateral nuclear disarmament and gleefully ripping down and shredding every one he could find.
Equally when trade unionists – and I am proud to be one – recall the vituperative attacks upon them and all that then followed, they must also recognise the pivotal role of the trade unions in destroying the Callaghan government. Labour’s civil war ushered in a period of Conservative rule lasting almost two decades; during which the party became the political equivalent of Pavlov’s Dog.
The painful truth of that period is that both the Labour Party and the Labour Movement was a wretched, shambolic, incoherent wreck which guaranteed successive Thatcher victories. For so many of us on the centre-left of British politics, the rightful denunciation of the economic and social suffering causd by Margaret Thatcher to so many millions in so many parts of our country – both North and South – must be accompanied by this acknowledgement: an unelectable Labour Party allowed this to happen.
Never again. Margaret Thatcher is one of the principal reasons I chose to enter politics. Fear of the left’s amnesia in assessing the reasons for her electoral success is one of the principal reasons keeping me here.
Jamie Reed is Labour MP for Copeland.