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Why the Tories Say We Want to Go “Back to the 1970s”

In December’s election, Jeremy Corbyn was constantly accused of wanting to “turn Britain back to the 1970s.” For the Right, this decade before Thatcherism is the ultimate bogeyman — presenting an age of strong welfare and trade unions as if it were something we should fear.

UK prime minister Boris Johnson greets newly elected Conservative MPs at the Houses of Parliament on December 16, 2019 in London, England. (Leon Neal / Getty Images)

Of all the charges brought against the British left, one of the most powerful and insistent has been the claim that it wants to “take us back to the 1970s.” Indeed, in the campaign for December’s general election, stoked-up fears of a return to this past cohered the complex political imaginary being mobilized against Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party.

A veteran of five decades of activism in the labor and peace movements, Corbyn was constantly portrayed as the archetype “1970s-style leftist,” allegedly wishing to “turn the clock back to the 1970s,” and restore “1970s-style trade union powers.” When deployed by the Right against the Left “the 1970s” is a malleable field to which all the worst elements of the nation’s past are consigned. It appears as a Hobbesian world: a time of the war of all against all, rampant social disorder, economic catastrophe, and national decline. It is a warning to anyone seeking a modicum of change to the neoliberal consensus that followed in the 1980s.

This decade provided neoliberalism’s founding myth — and continues to place a fundamental obstacle in the way of socialist advance in Britain. For forty years of Thatcherism has reconstituted the British working class as a subject broken from its own past, riven by new generational and regional divides. Economics were the method, Margaret Thatcher argued in 1981, but the object was “to change the heart and soul” — to create neoliberal subjects, without class belonging. In its electoral catastrophe in December 2019, Labour reaped what the 1970s had sowed.

Unreal Discussion

There’s something odd, here. For the more the specter of “the 1970s” is raised in British political discourse, the less the reality of the past is actually discussed. With bitter irony, constituencies in northern England like Blyth Valley, which saw their industries and communities destroyed by Thatcher, are now sending Tory MPs to Westminster. Though one would have been unlikely to have heard it on the campaign, Corbyn was one of the handful of British MPs who took sides with the miners and attended their picket lines in their bitter strike of 1984–5.

The power of the Leave campaign’s slogan in the 2016 Brexit referendum, “Take Back Control,” was that it spoke not only of immigration but also to the loss experienced by many under neoliberal globalization. Yet this also obscured the actual (often social-democratic) mechanisms that the imagined past period of “control” was dependent upon. For modern British Conservatism, the 1970s can thus serve as an empty signifier, its power dependent on eternal repetition of a memory from which even those who lived it are excluded.

For contrary to the post-Thatcher consensus, this was not, in fact, a bleak decade of decline, crisis, and depression. In retrospect, it was the high point of working-class power, increasing productivity, wage growth, and social provision. It was the single decade, if there was ever one, where British workers and citizens had their greatest control over the economy. Indeed, the universal social rights taken for granted during the long 1970s — free education, generous and lax welfare, cheap and plentiful housing, and strong workplace rights — are today the dream of the young and those reliant on waged work in twenty-first-century Britain.

The one-sided right-wing narrative has relied on the Left’s political acquiescence to the Thatcherite settlement. The new post-Fordist middle class would come to see the 1970s as a foreign country from which they had been thankfully expatriated. A new class was born in the fire sale of the postwar welfare state, not only selling off its housing stock but also banishing its collectivist values. Seen through the prism of new dogmas of material acquisition, liberated lifestyles, covetous consumerism, and professional development, the 1970s were something to forget rather than commemorate.

In this perspective, the old culture of class struggle, with its hopes of socialist advance and collective liberation, now appeared embarrassing, dangerous, or utopian. In search of the votes of this new middle class, Tony Blair’s Labour instead promoted itself as a chance to leave the “wilderness years” behind. When he joked in 1996 to a journalist that “You really don’t have to worry about Jeremy Corbyn suddenly taking over [the party],” he was not talking just of Corbyn’s political isolation. He was implying that the future Labour leader was an unfortunate relic of the past — a freak museum piece. The same year, Eric Hobsbawm, too, could dismiss “a few Paleolithic sectarian survivals” loyal to the left-wing models of the “short twentieth century.” In an effort to be relevant to the world “as it is” many on the Left jettisoned everything that smacked of the commitments of the 1970s: its ideas and (in not a few cases) moral integrity.

Transformed by Thatcherism

As the 2019 election results indicate, Britain’s 1970s syndrome is still of crucial political importance. The absolute numbers of votes and seats hide one much-discussed, but less well-understood variable: the political chasm between generations. Though still only one factor among many, age was on average the most decisive in determining voting preference, indeed for the second general election in a row. The Tories led among those over sixty-five with over 60 percent of the vote while Labour garnered below 20 percent. Compare this to the period between 1987 and 2010 when they scored a maximum of 48 percent while Labour never achieved less than 31 percent.

Indeed, despite the bad overall result, 2017’s “youthquake” was in large part repeated in 2019.  The party achieved a 43 point lead among eighteen to twenty-four year olds. Compare this to Thatcher’s 1983 election victory where she led Labour by eleven points over the same age group and one can understand the profound demographic shifts that have taken place since the birth of neoliberalism. The threshold age above which a voter was more likely to vote Labour than Conservative fell from forty-seven in 2017 to thirty-nine in 2019. Every ten years older a voter was, the chance of them voting Tory was around nine points higher while the chance of them voting Labour decreased by eight points.

In non-Anglophone countries, such a left-wing youth vote is much less apparent — indeed, generational voting is a symptom of a very British disease. To chart a path to power, the British left needs to comprehend both the material interests and political imaginary cohering the electoral bloc which has defeated them.

The increasing age disparity in British voting patterns reflects a class system transformed by Thatcherism — a forty-year period of change, as the new Labour MP Zarah Sultana argued in her maiden speech in Parliament. Like much of the developed world, Britain has an aging population. Yet more than others, it has seen the incomes of a large proportion of its retirees increase over the past thirty years; those entering the labor market from the 1990s, on the other hand, have seen theirs frozen or fall.

Locked out of inflating asset ownership and working in a deregulated labor market with weak trade unions and increasing debt, the children of Thatcherism also missed the privatization fire sale of the 1980s. Those over sixty-five hold just under half of all British housing wealth while those under thirty-five hold only 5.1 percent.

In an economy so dependent on a financialized growth model, the political implications of this figure for working-class composition are enormous. The average pensioner’s income increased from £161 in 1994/1995 to £304 in 2017/2018 while 49 percent of pensioners now find themselves in the top half income bracket (up from 38 percent in 1994/1995). In the same period, new generations entering full-time employment have seen the almost opposite trend toward more precarity, debt, and insecurity.

Regional disparities often follow these complex demographic changes. The tendency of young (Labour-voting) people to migrate toward economically dynamic major cities like London, Manchester, Sheffield, Liverpool, Leeds, and Bristol has seen the ex-industrial Labour “heartlands” in postindustrial towns experience a rapid aging of their voter base. In 2019, Labour won all the major cities in England and Wales but sustained heavy losses in towns and villages. Indeed, the crucial pillar of the Tory majority was the nonworking, retired population. Property, rent, and assets have fundamentally recomposed the working class in Britain — both socially and politically.

Back to the 1970s

Yet changing incomes, regional disparities, and generational divides only partly explain the Tories’ success in 2019. To cohere his electoral bloc both regionally, between traditional Tory south and ex-Labour northern England, and socially around a core of those nonworking and over sixty-five, Boris Johnson’s strategy depended on myth as just as powerful as his promise to “Get Brexit Done.”

Indeed, Boris Johnson has been an avid proponent of the myth of “the 1970s.” Just days after Corbyn was elected Labour leader in September 2015, Johnson made a joke at the Tory conference at the expense of shadow chancellor John McDonnell. McDonnell’s “Who’s Who” entry had listed one of his hobbies as “fermenting revolution.” “We tried fermenting that brew in Britain in the 1970s,” Johnson guffawed in front of a Tory faithful, “and the result has been the kind of toxic moonshine that makes you blind. Folks! Give. That. Hooch. A. Miss.”

Yet if he has suffered more than most, this jibe is not directed at Corbyn alone. While he cut a liberal face as mayor of London, Johnson also claimed former leader Ed Miliband’s Labour threatened to take Britain back to the “nasty 1970s . . . a nasty, grim, petty epoch of really foul racism, frankly, and a union-dominated economy.” Whether the “foul racism” of the 1970s owed at all to his hero Thatcher — who famously sought to outflank the fascist National Front by claiming Britain felt “swamped” by immigrants — Johnson didn’t say.

Neither did he mention that the 1970s saw the most innovative social movements of the twentieth century. Activists forcefully confronted women’s oppression, homophobia, and racism — all of which would take the Conservative Party (and indeed often Labour) as their enemies. In the myth of the British right, and against all evidence to the contrary (including the near-half of that decade under a Tory government), the 1970s is the territory reserved solely for the overreach of the left and the trade union movement.

Aspersions of Jeremy Corbyn’s links to Irish republicanism, economic incompetence, “union barons,” and his threat to national security all depended on a narrative forged by the victors over the post-1968 left and its real achievements. The Thatcherite rupture depended also on consigning the specters of the politicized working class, trade unionists, the “loony left” (often feminist, black, and LGBT activists), and democratic socialism to history. In the eyes of many of its critics, Corbyn’s Labour appeared as a ghost long since vanquished. The Conservative Party strategy cashed in on this powerful myth, overturned neither by Tony Blair nor by Corbyn himself.

The guest speaker at the Margaret Thatcher Annual Lecture back in 2013, Johnson again developed the foundational myth of the neoliberal settlement. Young people these days were being willfully misinformed, he lamented: “They weren’t around in the 1970s. I was, and I remember what it was like and how this country was seen.”

Our food was boiled and our teeth were awful and our cars wouldn’t work and our politicians were so hopeless that they couldn’t even keep the lights on because the coal miners were constantly out on strike, as were the train drivers and the gravediggers, and the man who was really in charge seemed to be called Jack Jones [a leading trade union leader and Spanish Civil War veteran]. I remember how deserted London seemed, as people fled to Essex or elsewhere, and the stringy grass and the spangles wrappers and the bleached white dog turds in the park, and the gust of Watneys pale ale from the scuzzy pubs . . . Red Robbo [Derek Robinson, an influential Communist auto worker and trade unionist] paralyzed what was left of our car industry and the country went into an ecstasy of uselessness called the winter of discontent: women were forced to give birth by candlelight, Prime Minister’s Questions was lit by paraffin lamp and Blue Peter was all about how to put newspaper in blankets for extra insulation . . .

In 2019 Johnson again mobilized this myth, this time against Corbyn. According to Johnson’s public letter to the nation, Thatcher had ended the “nightmare of the 1970s” — and Labour would bring it back again. This attack line appealed directly to older voters. The left of the “Corbyn project” is much more easily portrayed within this well-worn ideological prism.

Indeed, the leading figures at the heart of the Labour leadership since 2015 were survivors of the bitter struggles of the 1970s and 1980s, often ex-members of either the British Communist Party, the “Bennite” Labour left, or Trotskyist groupuscules. These three forces were what Hobsbawm called the “Paleolithic sectarian survivals” which refused to accommodate with the political trajectory set by Neil Kinnock and Tony Blair. In the antiwar movement of 2003 they found themselves at a propitious moment, forging political relationships, friendships, and trust between those very different traditions.

Unlike Ed Miliband — who was only a small child in the 1970s, even if the son of one of Britain’s leading Marxists — Corbyn’s generation were much easier targets for the 1970s jibe. They had been active in many of its trade union, antiwar, feminist, antiracist, antinuclear, and democratic struggles. If anything holds Boris Johnson’s politics together — from his time as mayor of London to prime minister — it is his championing of the post-Thatcher political settlement, against the ghosts of the 1970s.

Counter-History

While Labour can feasibly be said to have won the argument about the future, it didn’t provide a convincing narrative to redeem the past. To explain what had happened to the communities Labour lost in 2019 required an understanding of what they once could have been, as much as what they should become.

Labour didn’t provide a convincing explanation of what had occurred to ex-industrial constituencies for over forty years. It was, of course, working against objective constraints — not least the radical recomposition of class since the 1970s. Many former areas of heavy industry across Western Europe and North America have switched from left to (often far) right in recent decades; for Labour to reverse such a process was always going to be difficult.

Labour had an ambitious program that enthused the younger and waged sectors of the working class. But it had less concrete means to include those approaching — or already in — retirement as active subjects rather than passive beneficiaries of socialist transformation. The promise of a second Brexit referendum encapsulated this dilemma: Leave-voting Labour seats in Northern England were promised the material benefits of a more generous social-democratic patronage in the hope that their sense of class interest would trump their concern over Brexit.

Labour’s promised democratization of the world of work (most notably the plans for an employee ownership scheme) was one of the few spaces where this democratic subject was to emerge. The extra layer of democratic accountability through employee ownership boards was, however, unlikely to match the direct and clear expression of popular will expressed through the referendum. Indeed, the retired working and middle class in England and Wales are often long abstracted from the world of work, its values, and identity. If Labour’s Green Industrial Revolution was to create millions of climate jobs, those positions would have likely been going to their children and grandchildren — not them.

The reticence of “Corbynism” to contest Britain’s 1970s myth was one of its major failures. Having been on the right side of history from anti-Apartheid to fighting the effects of Britain’s brutal deindustrialization, post-2015 Labour continued to leave the terrain of memory to the Right. Not being bold enough to declare that Britain had undergone forty years of Thatcherism was linked to its timidity in making Labour’s offer into a radical symbolic break from the past. The defeats of the 1970s have been internalized — even by those that had once been the most powerful counterforces to neoliberalism.

Eradicating a distinct working-class memory from the public sphere, the continuing defeat of the 1970s working class appears as the prerequisite for the Tories’ victorious electoral coalition in 2019. Labour’s failure was not its inability to bridge the divide between liberal cities and conservative ex-industrial towns. Instead, it was a political project caught in between the fading memories of the vanquished, and the hope of a socialist world to come. To unite both, the British left needs to recover the past, as well as the future.