UK: Labour fails to manage Major. (1 of 2)

UK: Labour fails to manage Major. (1 of 2) - The Labour Party must now display some political creativity if it is to offset the effects of John Major's plans for Toryism, writes Charles Leadbeater.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The Labour Party must now display some political creativity if it is to offset the effects of John Major's plans for Toryism, writes Charles Leadbeater.

Sequels are Hollywood money-spinners. A single film can spawn a dynasty which extends for years. At first sight it might be quite reasonable for the Labour Party to employ the same approach to its political strategy. Its version of the "Nightmare On Elm Street" series is to dub John Major "Son of Thatcher", the bearer of the Thatcherite torch into the 1990s. It will not work. The production will be a flop.

In the past couple of years the opposition parties have become skilled at being anti-Thatcherite, consuming rich pickings from the slow collapse of Thatcherism. But now they face a new situation. Thatcher's dominance of the Government means that her departure in itself amounts to a considerable change in the country's political agenda. The opposition can no longer live on a diet of anti-Thatcherism. They face a Prime Minister, surrounded by figures such as Chris Patten and Michael Heseltine, who shows an appetite for developing Toryism beyond the agenda that it had in the 1980s.

Labour has been feeling its way since Mr Major's election, as if the corridor which it was traversing was suddenly plunged into darkness. There are three arguments for this cautiousness.

The first and most compelling has been the war in the Gulf. The Labour leadership has taken a typically defensive position on the politics of the war. Its support for sanctions until war became inevitable limited the risks of internal disunity, without provoking accusations of disloyalty to British troops whose lives were at risk in the Gulf. Labour is unlikely to lose from the Gulf. Normal politics will only resume once the Gulf conflict is settled. But there are scant signs that Labour is ready to take the initiative once normality returns, because its response to Mr Major has been marked by cautiousness on two further counts.

The second main line has been to tar Mr Major as "Son of Thatcher". He cannot renounce policies which he supported at her Cabinet table. He is a prisoner of his immediate political past, so the argument goes.

"Son of Thatcher" may have provided a holding position in the first days after his election but it has no life left in it. Mr Major has already brought in change and more is in prospect. And this approach underestimates the scale of Thatcher's dominance of the Tory political agenda. Having spent years attacking her as the author of awful policies, it is not credible to claim now that her departure hardly matters.

More importantly, "Son of Thatcher" also underestimates Mr Major's determination to develop an alternative agenda to match his quieter, more reasonable style. His manner suggests that he will be open to ideas. His political astuteness means that he has no sentimentality about ditching unpopular and unworkable policies bequeathed to him. With the likes of Michael Heseltine, Douglas Hurd and Chris Patten around him, he will attempt to put Toryism onto a different path of development, combining a more measured approach to the European Communtiy with a prudent economic policy and a more liberal social policy.

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