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By Lord Watson of Wyre Forest
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Keir Starmer Is Facing His Margaret Thatcher Moment

Labour leader Keir Starmer (Alamy)

5 min read

The most useful template for how Labour leader Keir Starmer can become Prime Minister at the next General Election may come from someone with whom he has little in common politically, but once found themselves in strikingly similar circumstances: Margaret Thatcher.

At the end of the seventies, Thatcher – who had become leader of the opposition despite an initially lukewarm reception from her party – was facing off against a government that had run out of steam and been thoroughly defeated by events. The economy was ailing and the Winter of Discontent had intensified the crisis. Pumps ran out of fuel and rubbish piled high in the streets. 

A little over fifty years later, the bleak political atmosphere that has engulfed Westminster is reminiscent of the dying days of Jim Callaghan’s Labour government that Thatcher’s Conservatives would come to defeat in 1979. But now it is the Tories who are out of steam with public services collapsing around them, and Labour which polls universally predict is on course for its first election victory in nearly two decades. Starmer could be facing his Thatcher moment.

Much has been mythologised about Thatcher, but in the run-up to the 1979 election she was subtler, shrewder and less combative than she is often cast in hindsight. In trying to win a big election, the best lesson today’s Labour already seems to have learned is to seize on the breadth of malaise among voters. The best way to do that is to make unexpected friends, not unnecessary enemies. Thatcher harnessed this by putting herself on the side of the people versus the problem. It helped carry her to an important victory that brought together a large coalition. Starmer could well do the same.

Her ‘Winter of Discontent’ party-political broadcast earlier that year spoke of unity, “the sense of common nationhood” and sought to appeal to moderate union workers who would never normally vote Tory.

Starmer’s ongoing efforts to build links with businesses to win their confidence appears to be a mirror of this tactic, and he could further mimic Thatcher’s courting of “decent” union members by pushing against businesses that refuse to play fair without needing to pick a fight with all of capitalism. 

Her plea to those beyond her natural voters can also be seen in Starmer’s mission to hive off disaffected habitual Tories. Thatcher tried to form a narrative that permitted people to switch allegiances, and in an election campaign, Labour should be reaching out to those they might consider opponents.

For Thatcher, that was making overtures to working class voters who also felt the unions were captured by extremists. For the current Labour Party, it’s winning over middle-class voters who were true blue but feel the Tories have been captured by insanity. This can already be seen with  Starmer’s “no longer the Tories your parents voted for” line.

If Labour is elected to government, Starmer is unlikely to pay homage to Thatcher with photo-ops and rapid tax cuts like his fleeting predecessor Liz Truss did, but he could still find the way she negotiated the last months of opposition and the first term of government instructive. 

Margaret Thatcher

Thatcher was able to win over public confidence and deliver a big election victory, but also successfully navigated crises when she took power, and sufficiently shifted the dial from the misery of the late seventies to secure two further victories in the eighties.

The Labour leader also needs to understand how to make a success of government in a tough economic climate that has more in common with 1979 when few of the choices were good and governing would be hard, than 1997 when Labour last won a landslide and the economy was growing enough to plough money into the public realm.

Thatcher inherited a legacy of double-digit inflation, soaring public sector borrowing, and rising unemployment. She had to pick which to fight, and in which order. She was famously convinced by the monetarists and targeted inflation. That and borrowing were first to be brought under control, while unemployment was allowed to rise. It was only by the mid-eighties that it started to trend downwards. Politically and economically, she had calculated that it was worth it for other gains.

Starmer will face a similar predicament. Years of low growth, combined with the cost of Covid and the consequences of the invasion of Ukraine leave him in a real fiscal quagmire. Taxes are already high and public services are desperate for more investment. Inflation is stubborn, but millions remain exposed to further misery if interest rates go up to negate it. He might be thankful, at least, that unemployment is historically low, even if stagnant wages have taken the shine off this.

Like Thatcher, Starmer will have to think long term to solve these problems. There is no big bang, no immediate lever to pull that can make them all go away. Some issues will have to be shunted aside while cooking up enough quick wins to keep the eager electorate on side. He will also have to be honest about the scale of the challenges and the benefits of seeing them through. The merit of blaming previous governments will wear out quickly given the range of the pressures Labour will be under. Starmer will have to show some promise that sticking with him is worth it.

Labour will never learn to love Thatcher, but they should be keen to learn from her. Starmer has already expressed his respect for her ability to enact “a mission and a plan”. His would-be government will have very different responses to national malaise, but its overall strategy could be similar.

Once into power, Labour may need some of Thatcher’s radicalism. They will need her pragmatism. The party will have to understand what hard calls to make, what pain to embrace and what measures to put off. Getting that mix right is crucial to improving the country and to long-term success and stability for Labour. They could do worse than studying the moves of the Iron Lady.

 

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