Three years ago we presented an anatomy of Thatcherism, but today we are witnessing Mrs Thatcher’s vivisection of the Left.footnote1 Her third successive general election victory has intensified the crisis in the labour movement and is likely to precipitate both a merger and a split in the Alliance. It has also given her the time and room for manoeuvre to prepare fresh onslaughts on already demoralized and disorganized left-wing forces, whose various strategies are often at odds with one another and incapable of overcoming a sense of disorientation. But has the Thatcher Government consolidated its own position within the country as a whole? Talk of ‘two nations’, the ‘North–South’ divide and the Prime Minister’s own election-night commitment to bring Thatcherism to the inner cities and the North suggest that much is still to be done. Now seems a good time to take stock of Thatcherism and
Our earlier contributions argued that Thatcherism had created neither a new, national-popular consensus nor a new, organic power bloc. For us its novelty lay in two areas. Firstly, Thatcherism had closed the gap between the electoral ideologies of grassroots Tories and the political perspectives of the leadership—dislodging the old ‘One Nation’ and ‘Right Progressive’ Tories from control and reconstituting the Conservatives’ electoral base after the failures of the Heath administration. Secondly, in linking ‘authoritarian populism’ and ‘neo-liberalism’ to a new productivist ideology, Thatcherism was developing an implicit twonations strategy. This would benefit those who belonged to the productive core of the market economy through state benefits and the rewards of the market. In contrast, those who were marginal to (or lived outside) the market economy would experience deteriorating economic conditions and reduced social welfare. This two nations strategy would have a complex and uneven impact on such societal cleavages as productive/parasitic, rich/poor, North/South or employed/ unemployed; and would lead to an opposition between the favoured nation and contained, subordinate forces (including much of the nonskilled working class as well as ethnic minorities, single parents, poor pensioners, etc.) outside the South-East and in the inner cities everywhere. This emergent strategy could powerfully consolidate Thatcherism and leave the Labour Party to defend the weak and marginal sections of society. The fundamental political choice would then become one between a new, two-nation Toryism and the one-nation, right-wing social democracy of the Alliance. This forecast has only partly been realized. The danger for the Labour Party still exists but, at the time of writing, the Alliance’s future role is uncertain.
In addition we noted that Thatcherism had an explicit strategy to restructure the British economy as part of a re-invigorated, post-Fordist
Finally we suggested that, through their impact on the working class, petty bourgeoisie and fractions of capital, these structural changes in ‘the decisive nucleus of economic activity’ would be crucial in the struggle for hegemony. But we also pointed out that the reliance on market forces to secure sustained recovery eschewed substantial state direction and co-ordination, and thus ignored the fact that the long-term growth of manufacturing productivity and international competitiveness depend mainly on dynamic efficiency, active co-operation from labour within internal labour markets, and the facilitative and supporting role of the state. Nonetheless, the Conservatives’ warrant of autonomy persisted with general support from the City, mixed blessings from industry, and only muted opposition from organized labour in the private sector and divided opposition in the public sector.
In this context we argued that the Conservatives might succeed in consolidating an electoral coalition around the new growth industries, the tradeable service sector, and the consumer industries dependent thereon. If the trade union movement were also to recompose itself exclusively around the ‘privileged nation’, then the prospects for the Left would be dire. To win the next election with the present electoral system and the continued division within and among the opposition parties, Thatcherism would only need support from some 40 per cent of those who voted. In the event it secured 43 per cent and further strengthened its position among the crucial skilled working class in the private sector.