Forty years ago, Margaret Thatcher was elected on a manifesto to transform Britain. After a decade of industrial action, rising unemployment and economic stagnation, there was widespread consensus that such a transformation was overdue. Spurred on by a group of right-wing economists, themselves sponsored by some of the biggest names in international finance, Thatcher campaigned to subject a profligate country to the disciplining logic of the market.
Her central policies — privatizing state assets, attacking the country’s unions, and cutting taxes on the rich — were as unpopular in the year she was elected as they were before, and remain today. But her appeals to self-interest — creating a nation of homeowners, cutting income tax and restoring order — won out. Thatcher’s victory came on the back of the switched allegiances of working-class voters in the South and the Midlands.
The aim of Thatcherism was to “modernize” the British economy by reviving the City’s role as the financial center of the world and cultivating ancillary industries in professional services. Doing so required transforming the productive base of the British economy, shrinking the state, and going to war with the country’s unions.
Thatcher removed restrictions on capital mobility, deregulated the finance sector, and privatized state assets, creating a boom in the City. At the same time, she decimated the industries concentrated in the regions, particularly mining, despite heroic opposition from the National Union of Mineworkers.
The impact was swift and brutal. The UK faced the steepest decline in manufacturing output of any advanced economy during the 1970s. Between 1960 and 1979, manufacturing accounted for 28 percent of total employment. This fell to 17 percent between 1980 and 1999. In the North East and Cumbria, unemployment reached 18 percent in 1984 — double the rate of the South East.
What followed were three decades of deindustrialization, political disempowerment, and economic decline for the North and the Midlands. Blair did not attempt to upend the economic model bequeathed to him by Major, but simply sought to replace blue-collar jobs in the regions with white-collar ones in the public sector. Austerity put an end to even this attempt at equalization.
The impact of the last several decades of decline has not simply been economic, but social. Up and down the country, tight-knit communities have been torn apart by a free-market individualism that has deprived them of a sense of common identity or purpose. As Cameron Mitchell recently wrote of Bolsover, “[i]t feels that the very heart of our community was ripped out the day that the mining headstocks were torn down.”
The North in particular has experienced little by way of migration over the last several decades, yet it has been very easy for right-wing politicians to convince voters that their communities have been destroyed by “outsiders” coming in. With the Labour party championing the benefits of economic disruption and “modernization,” there was no countervailing political narrative that could place the blame where it belonged: with Thatcher and her friends in the City.
Xenophobia and nationalism that had remained unchallenged for decades were channeled into support for UKIP. The threat from the Right eventually encouraged David Cameron to announce a referendum on EU membership. The combination of scaremongering about migration and a generalized contempt toward the political class, which largely advocated Remain, won the referendum for Leave.
Today, politicians’ failure to deliver the apparently simple task handed to them has embedded this contempt even more deeply. It is all but impossible to canvass in regional towns without encountering at least one person who responds by saying “they’re all the same.” The dramatic change in the politics of the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn over the last three years is almost insignificant when surveyed over a lifetime of political dislocation.
In fact, the betrayals of Blairism — which promised the world and failed to deliver — are etched deeply into the minds of voters in the regions. The experience of being promised something, believing in it, and being let down is in many ways more brutal than never believing in anything in the first place. In many parts of this country, a deep-seated cynicism hangs in the air. This cynicism — more than the politics of Brexit — is the real threat Labour faces in the regions.
The narrative that prevailed before the election — that Labour faced a greater threat from the Lib Dems in the South than they did from the Brexit Party in the North — has not helped matters. The result has been a widespread perception that Labour has, once again, become complacent about retaining the support of voters in the North and the Midlands. But this election might just be the first one that these voters react by switching to support the Conservatives.
All, however, is not lost. If Labour manages to retain its leave-voting seats, and expand in some areas, we could still deprive Johnson of a majority. But we cannot rely on the media to communicate our message to voters — we must do it ourselves.
The resounding feedback from activists and candidates in these places is that huge numbers of voters remain undecided. Most do not like Boris Johnson or the Conservative Party. They are deeply concerned about the state of public services, about employment, and about regional inequality. When activists are able to talk to voters about Labour’s policies on the NHS, our strategy to create 1 million jobs through a Green Industrial Revolution, and our plans for a massive increase in regional investment, it is still possible to convince them.
Over the next week, I will be traveling to around twenty marginal seats in the North and the Midlands with Ian Lavery, chair of the Labour Party, Lara McNeill, the NEC’s youth rep, and Dave Ward, general secretary of the CWU. We hope to visit most of the seats that Labour needs to win if it is to form a government, and we’re encouraging activists to come out to these seats and get involved in the campaign.
Boris Johnson wants to revive the Thatcherite ideology that gave us deindustrialization, the financial crisis, and austerity. He offers nothing to the regions of this country. It is up to us to prove that there is an alternative.