Tuesday, 8 July 2008

Britain 1979 – Parallels, Part Two

The similarities between the victory of Margret Thatcher in 1979 and the situation in New Zealand in 2008 don't end with the fact that both Thatcher and Key mouthed centrist platitudes in their pursuit of power – remember, "being in government is worth everything" (1).

John Campbell's description of the election campaign that saw Thatcher oust Jim Callaghan's Labour government is also instructive (2). Politicians, after all, have always been liars. They haven't all gone on to win, however. Thatcher did, Key probably will. If Labour are to stop him, someone should examine where Callaghan went wrong, to see if any useful lessons can be drawn from it.

This is not such an analysis. It is just a loose collection of thoughts based upon my reading of the closing chapter of Simpson's book.

First of all, the general position of the parties in 1979 is similar to the current situation in New Zealand in 2008. Labour are in power. While Labour in New Zealand have been in power for a lot longer than the Callaghan administration (or the lacklustre Wilson administration that immediately succeeded it), both Labour and the Conservatives of the 1970s had pursued broadly similar policies, particularly in the key area of industrial relations. Following the Winter of Discontent , it was easy for Thatcher to take advantage of the popular frustration with the 'old way' and suggest – without ever getting very specific – that she offered a new solution to the problem that had been left to fester. National have the opportunity to present themselves in a similar light, as an alternative to a longstanding, traditional way of doing things. Rather like Lange's Labour Party in the 1980s, in fact. And we all know how that ended up.

Further, the election is National's to lose, just as it was Thatcher's to lose in '79. The National Party, like the Labour Party, has enjoyed a big lead in the polls for a long time. Realistically, Labour will struggle to overturn this, even six months out from the election. It will require some sort of monumental cock-up on National's part, or Labour revealing something truly remarkable, to turn it around. So it is likely that National will imitate the Tory strategy in 1979, which was to fight as boring a campaign as possible. Campbell describes the Conservative strategy to "Keep the campaign as low key as possible, avoiding any risks that might jeopardise their commanding lead" (3):

The electoral strategy set by Reece and Thorneycroft had three strands – neutral, negative and positive. The first priority was to protect the Tory lead by keeping the campaign as dull as possible and allowing Mrs Thatcher to say nothing that might frighten the voters. The negative strand was to keep the heat on Labour, reminding the electors in simple language of the government's record ... inflation ('prices'), unemployment ('jobs), cuts in public services (schools, homes and hospitals) and above all the strikes and picket line violence of the winter ... From this the positive appeal followed naturally – the simple electoral cry of all, "Time for a change!" (4)

This reluctance to fight Labour on issues led them to refuse an offer for Thatcher to debate Callaghan on television. It was feared that even if she won, the sight of her "Laying into Uncle Jim" would alienate voters. Key, at least, will not have that option. He will have to debate Clark. While he will probably find it a rather trying experience, he can take comfort in the fact that Clark won't be able to overturn a twenty point deficit, no matter how thoroughly she mauls him. If Labour are relying on that, they are doomed, and deserve their fate.

The negative strand of the campaign was most famously demonstrated by the Saatchi & Saatchi 'Labour isn't working' posters, which summarised perfectly what the Tories were about – attack the other party, no matter how crudely or disingenuously. Buzz words. Slogans. Powerful images. Say nothing about your own policies, because that will only give the enemy something to use against you. There was no positive reason to vote Conservative in that poster. They didn't need to give one. It was enough to remind people that they felt Labour government had let them down.

This feeling of disillusion was far more important to the Tories in 1979 than any policy they could muster of their own, which is another similarity between Then/There and the Here/Now. Or, rather, the Here/Soon. Campbell's describes how Thatcher overturned traditional voting patterns in 1979:

Academic analysis of the 1979 result suggests that the Tories did do exceptionally well among their target groups, gaining an 11 per cent swing among the skilled working class (the C2s) and 9 per cent among the unskilled. Many of these converts continued to vote Conservative throughout the 1980s. But there is also plentiful anecdotal evidence of lifelong Labour voters who were persuaded to vote Conservative for the first time, and spent the next ten years bitterly regretting it.

On who recorded his reasons at the time was the Director of the strike-ravaged National Theatre, Peter Hall. 'We had a society of greed and anarchy,' he wrote in his diary at the height of the winter chaos in terms which Mrs Thatcher herself could not have bettered. 'No honour, no responsibility, no pride. I sound like an old reactionary, which I'm not, but what we have now isn't socialism, it's fascism with those who have the power injuring those who do not.' Three months later, he shocked himself by deciding to vote Tory, having come to the conclusion that Labour was no longer the party of social justice. 'It's now the party of sectional interest; the party that protects pressure groups and bully boys.' 'It wasn't all that difficult this morning to vote Tory,' he wrote on 3 May. 'In fact it positively felt good .. we have to have change.' Hall wanted Mrs Thatcher to 'sort out' the unions. Fourteen years later he could not deny her credit for having done so, though he loathed practically everything else she did, particularly the commercialisation of the arts. 'I can understand now why I voted Tory,' he reflected in 1993. 'I very much wish I hadn't had to.' (5)

The final swig to the Tories was 5.1 per cent, lower than the swing in the traditional Labour vote – so the above average defections in the targeted working class vote were crucial to the Tory victory (6). Labour needs to watch out for its core vote – assuming it has any left come polling day – and defend it against the sick feeling of disillusion and disappointment that the Tories exploited so well in 1979.

Ultimately, it may be impossible. The British Labour party is credited with having fought a good campaign in 1979, generally out-performing the Tories. They reduced a Tory lead of between 9 and 13 per cent st the start of the campaign to between 3 and 5 percent (7). Further, they Britain's Labour party enjoyed one asset that New Zealand's does not - a popular leader who was seen as a symbol of unity, rather than division. Callaghan always beat Thatcher in the Preferred Prime Minister stakes (8), but still they lost the election.

Here in New Zealand in 2008, things are different and yet eerily the same. The government has been in power a long time, long enough to make the "Time for a change" slogans have a superficial validity regardless of any other considerations. The impetus is for change. Campbell describes Callaghan in fatalistic mood, and the wily old fixer's thoughts make grim reading for any Labour strategists:

Jim Callaghan told his senior policy adviser, Bernie Donaghue, that every thirty years or so there occurred 'a sea change in politics'.

It then does not matter what you say or do. There is a shift in what the public wants and what it approves. I suspect there is now such a sea change – and it s for Mrs Thatcher. (9)

Turning the clock back thirty years in New Zealand takes us back – more or less – to the fall of Muldoon. There was a sea change then, alright. Since the mid-nineties, however, the tide has been running the other way, and New Zealand has been better for it. It would be strange indeed if the New Zealand electorate rejected Clarkite social democracy (you can't call it socialism with a straight face, unless you are Lindsay Perigo) in favour of the same medicine that made so many gag (with no noticeable benefits) in the 80s.

1 – Attributed to Ruth Richardson, quoted by Nicky Hager in The Hollow Men, Craig Potton Publishing, 2006. The comment occurs in an email to Brian Sincliar, and is quoted on page 68 of my edition of The Hollow Men.
2 – Margret Thatcher: The Grocer's Daughter, by John Campbell, published by Jonathan Cape in 2000.
3 – ibid, page 427.
4 – ibid,
page 429.
5 – ibid, pages 433-4.
6 – I am not suggesting that directors of theatre companies are blue collar heroes. It is a shame that Campbell didn't back up his 'anecdotal evidence' by talking to someone a bit more proletarian than Peter Hall.
7- Campbell, op. cit. Pages 427 and 444 respectively.
8 - ibid, page 427.
9 – ibid, page 443.

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