East meets Westminster: Third Way is the only way for Labour to grab power
- Credit: PA
THE PASSING of Baroness Thatcher has prompted a raft of nostalgia towards her years in power, write Richard Porritt
In many ways those were simpler times – it was a straight battle between left and right and Labour was the party of protest.
Labour leader Ed Miliband now admits that his party should not have blindly opposed everything which Thatcher’s government proposed in the 1980s.
But a red mist descended over many on the left. They struggled to understand how she could wield so much power and at times destruction and yet still the public voted for her.
They were confused by tempting tax breaks, the promise of a financial market that could be used to reward ordinary folk and a sudden willingness (after some notable, bloody battles of course) of the working classes to shrug and turn their backs on the union movement.
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For years Labour leader Neil Kinnock fought internal battles in his bid to modernise the party. He had recognised the need to shift firmly to the right but never quite had the brawn to take on the party. And the fall-out was that Labour was unable to project a united front and the electorate’s head collectively span.
All the while no-one dare step out of line against the Iron Lady. It was a rather unfair fight, looking back.
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On the news programmes and documentaries there has been as much coverage of the riots, strikes and discord as the financial big bang, flag waving and harmony and the claim that Baroness Thatcher was hated is true in some quarters. But for a leader so despised she won three elections – David Cameron would love to be that hated.
Whatever anyone’s view of her policies, she cast a shadow over British politics which remains even though she is now gone. Her legacy, though, casts longer shadows on the left than the right.
Without Baroness Thatcher’s dominance of British politics the Labour party would not have been forced to completely re-think their strategy. They would not have been dragged in to the 21st Century – firstly by Mr Kinnock and then more decisively by John Smith and of course Tony Blair.
It was interesting to hear Mr Blair’s tribute to the Baroness in the hours after her death. To call it glowing would be to downplay the brightness of the praise – and yet he voted against her repeatedly through Labour’s darkest decade.
What he recognised was that without her Labour might never have won another election. Mr Blair, Gordon Brown and Peter Mandelson spotted that to topple the Tories Labour had become as radical as Baroness Thatcher had been.
It is not clear if Mr Blair’s comments about Labour last week were prompted by the nation looking back to the black and white days of 1980s politics but they are certainly timely; casting Eds Miliband and Balls as similar to Baroness Thatcher’s famous wets.
He warned: “The risk, which is highly visible here in Britain, is that the country returns to a familiar left/right battle.
“The familiarity is because such a contest dominated the 20th Century. The risk is because in the 21st Century such a contest debilitates rather than advances the nation.
“This is at present crystallising around debates over austerity, welfare, immigration and Europe.”
He went on to explain that Labour at times should distance themselves from protesters and campaign groups. He said that they must not become the party of sympathy towards those who are being hit by Tory cuts.
Mr Blair, whatever people think of him, also won three elections – from a position of some hatred. He knows what it is like to be in a seemingly endless slog of opposition and he knows what it is like to have to make the decisions at the sharp end.
And yet much like the Tories of the 1990s, Labour now appears desperate to ignore all the lessons of the past. If they do move further away from New Labour values – and the centre left – they risk the same lost decade as the Tories endured.
Central Suffolk and North Ipswich Tory MP Dan Poulter said: “I agree with Tony Blair’s analysis of Labour’s current situation. They are on the wrong side of a number of the big issues on which Britain’s future balances – particularly welfare and benefit dependency.
“Labour is sacrificing a long- term strategy for short-term populism.”
But it is a warning that must be heeded in Number 10 as well. A lurch either way for any party that has been successful in the centre ground is political seppuku. People trust the centre ground – if New Labour was flawed in the eyes of the electorate by the time it stumbled to its death the Third Way certainly was not.
It was passed from Mr Blair (less so Gordon Brown) to Mr Cameron and just like Mr Miliband should not ignore its obvious advantages neither should the Prime Minister.
Some noisy party members or out-dated backbenchers should not be dictating the positioning of the party. Baroness Thatcher was not for turning and neither should today’s leaders be.