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 consider its future. In our previous article we started with a critique of Stuart Hall’s well-known account of Thatcherism as a form of ‘authoritarian populism’, and then moved on to develop our own analysis of it as a political movement, accumulation strategy, hegemonic project, and attempt to recompose the state. In particular, we focused on four areas: the political and institutional preconditions for the rise and consolidation of Thatcherism in the ‘dual crisis of the British state’ and the crisis of the postwar social democratic settlement; the ‘two nations’ character of its political strategy and its effects on the redistribution of resources and the recomposition of electoral forces; the neoliberal post-Fordistfootnote2 accumulation strategy which began to emerge after Thatcherism had consolidated its hold over government in 1982; and the continuing reorganization of the British state and its relations to civil society and the political economy. Four key points are worth noting.

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 international capitalism. It adopted a neo-liberal accumulation strategy which involved the deregulation of private capital, the privatization of significant parts of the public sector, the introduction of commercial criteria into residual state sector activities, and the promotion of an open economy. Its post-Fordist components included the furthering of flexible accumulation based on new technologies, products and services; and a dual labour market in which a high waged, skill-flexible core was opposed to a low-waged, time-flexible periphery.

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.

Labour had probably lost the election before the first shots of the campaign were fired, as it is now clear that some sixty per cent of voters had already made up their minds. Even so, with around 40 per cent of electors still to decide, the Labour Party could have mobilized a majority for a short-term electoral coalition. After capturing 3–4 per cent of voters from the Alliance in the first week of the campaign, however, Labour was unable to make further gains. Apart from the Tory gutter press (which is always with us), there are no obvious scapegoats for this failure. Indeed, in contrast to 1983, the campaign itself was one of the most professional and disciplined since the war; the leader was credible; and the activists were united, at least for the duration.

The campaign material comprised a monthly Briefing during the preelection period plus a Local Election Special, weekly background briefings for target seats, various editions of Key Statistics, information packs on the Tories’ broken promises, on defence, and on local elections, an election briefing book, a brochure from Trade Unions for a Labour Victory (tulv), and draft press releases for candidates. There was also an Election Briefing almost daily during the campaign. These materials, generally of a very high quality, were backed by a computer link-up to many constituencies so that responses to any campaign developments could be immediate and co-ordinated. Labour Central Office also produced twenty-one leaflets on all major policy issues, together with eight posters/car stickers, nine different clipsheets, seven direct mail drafts, and seven booklets; tulv issued a further six leaflets. Clear propaganda roles were given to Labour Weekly, Labour Party News and New Socialist; and there was a national press advertising campaign. Five television party political broadcasts were also prepared, the first of which (repeated on the 5th of June) was widely regarded as being state of the art. Party headquarters succeeded almost beyond hope in managing the agenda so that, as far as possible, pre-selected issues were discussed. To this end individuals such as Scargill and Benn were carefully hidden, and national figures were sent to specific places to support the day’s theme. It is hard to imagine how Labour could have conducted a more professional campaign. This strongly suggests that the problem had more to do with the message than the medium and that any future advance of the Labour movement will depend on developing a new programme together with the organizational, institutional and strategic changes needed to support it. This impression is reinforced by looking behind the campaign to the sociology and political economy of electoral support.