After Thatcherism; the politics of public relations

Wednesday, August 14, 1991

By Sally Low

LONDON — Standing on a creaking escalator descending into King's Cross Tube Station, next to the one that had stopped working altogether, I fought back a feeling of panic. It wasn't just the thought of the terrible fire some years ago but more the impression of overall decay. The previous day at another station, I'd wandered with friends down long corridors past passages closed off because, they casually said, "it must have flooded down there again".

This, it seems, is one of the legacies of fallen prime minister Thatcher's campaign against what she called the "nanny state". Even in wealthy London, I had the feeling that, not far below the surface, society is beginning to crumble.

According to left-wing Labour politician Tony Benn, Thatcherism as a political phenomenon started under the Labour government in the '60s "just like Bob Hawke is doing in Australia now". By the time Thatcher was dumped, her government had aroused such "general resistance" that the Tories knew they had no chance at the next election without a "new leader and a new image", Benn told Green Left Weekly.

So the caring '90s have replaced the selfish '80s, and on July 22 Tory leader John Major, the man who likes to cultivate a mild, "classless" image, launched his party's Citizen's Charter.

Charter and citizenship are the latest buzz words among all those — from the editorial board of Marxism Today to the Labour right and the Liberal Democrats — who proclaim the final triumph of the market over the plan and the victory of liberal democracy over socialism. Neil Kinnock's Labour Party is also chasing the political centre and promotes its own Social Charter as a substitute for the now discarded old-style welfarism.

Much of this, says Benn, is just the politics of "public relations". Major's vision of the caring '90s includes citizens who will sue unions and further attacks on remaining state-run services such as National Health and British Rail under the rhetoric of consumers' rights. For those without the means to consume, there will be no redress.

The Tories should have no chance at the next election. They were humiliated over the poll tax, the economy is in recession, and unemployment in the formerly prosperous south-east, the heartland of their support, has more than doubled in the last 14 months. The party is openly divided over European economic unity, and it is possible that some ministers, including former chancellor Major, will be implicated in the unfolding scandal over the Bank of

Commerce and Credit International.

"There is now very strong support for a new direction, but Labour", in Benn's view, "has moved so far to the centre" that it presents no real alternative. Having spent the '80s trying to purge any vestiges of radicalism from the party, Kinnock and his "management team with a management perspective" could well be "hoist on their own petard". For many previously staunch Labour supporters, the party's enthusiastic endorsement of Britain's role in the Gulf War was the last straw. In July shadow foreign secretary Gerald Kaufman pledged Labour to maintain the Trident nuclear force until there is total worldwide nuclear disarmament. Angry leaders of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament called on Kinnock to resign from that organisation — too late, because Labour's managers announced that both he and his wife had already let their memberships lapse.

Kinnock and his team have run a witch-hunt against members and supporters of the far left Militant tendency within the Labour Party. This crusade has been stepped up since a Militant-dominated Broad Left group decided to run a candidate against Labour in the July 4 by-election for a seat in Liverpool.

Lesley Mahmood, the Broad Left candidate, received only 6.6% of the vote, and Labour Party officers are happily proclaiming the demise of the Militant tendency. They have seized the chance for another display of their determination to purge the party of its "hard" left. Dozens of Labour Party members, including two MPs, have been suspended or charged with Militant affiliations.

In Benn's opinion, the party leadership's drive to crush resistance to social decay in the "graveyards of capitalism" that cities like Liverpool have become led many members, both in and out of Militant, to support the Broad Left campaign.

Opinion polls last month showed Labour ahead of the Tories by only one or two percentage points. If the economy picks up by the time of the next general election, probably in mid-1992, and Major builds himself a sufficiently caring image, the Tories could win. Whatever the outcome, it will probably be a victory by default.

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