The emergence of a “counter-Thatcher” is a prevalent left-wing dream. Margaret Thatcher’s government heralded and implemented a radical change in the UK’s economic model and political culture. The post-war consensus of a mixed economy, strong trade unions, and high taxation was overturned as the Thatcher administrations pushed a radical ‘neo-liberal’ agenda of liberalisation, deregulation, privatisation, tax cuts, and curbs on union power.
Thatcherism succeeded not only in rejuvenating ideas that were previously seen as extreme and absurd, but also in defining the new political consensus for the next thirty years. A ‘left-wing Thatcher’ would essentially accomplish the opposite and introduce mass nationalisation, punitive tax rates, and a return to a dirigiste industrial strategy.
Following the collapse of the Labour Party’s right and centre, the chance for this radical new direction appeared to have come with the elevation of Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership. Corbyn, a left-wing Labour veteran, seemed to have all the right ideas and the necessary radicalism. He was unambiguously anti-austerity, unashamedly socialist, mistrustful of unregulated markets, and principled. And he galvanised mass support and passion, particularly among young people.
The timing and conditions also looked right. The global financial crisis and the ensuing recession seemed to discredit deregulated financial markets, in the same way that the stagflation of the 1970s undermined Keynesian thinking and vindicated monetarism. Austerity has provoked strong opposition across Europe. Inequality has gone mainstream. And there has been a Keynesian renaissance and significant research from left-wing ‘post-Keynesians’.
This analysis falls short because Corbyn is extremely unlikely to become Prime Minister and any purported leftward ‘paradigm shift’ among voters and academia has been vastly overstated and simplified. Corbyn is polling extremely poorly, despite polls tending to overstate opposition support and understate Conservative support. The government is currently presiding over a very difficult period, and must deal with its own divisions, following the Brexit referendum. Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats remain marginalised, and uninspiringly led, following the undignified end to their time in government. Failing to capitalise on this is unimpressive. Worse, almost a third of Labour voters prefer May to Corbyn.
Voters do not see, or want, Corbyn as Prime Minister. Whilst Thatcher was already a divisive figure as opposition leader, she polled considerably better than Corbyn has. In fact, Corbyn is the least popular opposition leader since polls began.
Corbyn has also faces extreme opposition from his own party. Almost all of his shadow cabinet have resigned and Corbyn faces a leadership challenge. It is true that Thatcher was unpopular with traditionalist and centrist Tory politicians, and her predecessor Edward Heath never forgave her ‘betrayal’. However, she maintained a successful working relationship with the ‘wets’ in her cabinet, at least until she was in power, and never faced the possibility of her party splitting barely a year after she became leader.
Whilst some of Labour’s current unpopularity can be blamed on Corbyn’s parliamentary enemies, it is worth remembering that he personally polls badly. It is also true that Corbyn’s core support has become increasingly intense. However, not only does this largely exist in an echo chamber, its coltishness is probably a turn-off for most voters.
Thatcher had ministerial experience and did not significantly depart from the party line before becoming leader. The only major baggage she had was being the ‘milk snatcher’ . In contrast, not only has Corbyn been a permanent backbencher (with little experience of anything outside of politics), he regularly rebelled against the party whip, giving him little parliamentary credibility and authority. Similarly, whilst Corbyn’s history of fighting against Apartheid is laudable, his closeness with the IRA is not easily dismissed.
However, this is not simply Corbyn’s personal failure. Corbyn’s ideas are, simply, not especially popular. Nationalising the railways and protecting the NHS from imagined privatisation are popular, but this is hardly indicative of a radical shift. Even Labour’s last manifesto was seen as too left wing, and it was more muddled soft-left than radical neo-socialism. Indeed, Corbyn’s polished challenger, Owen Smith, has adopted most of Corbyn’s policies and remains unelectable.
It is false that the financial crisis and austerity have convincingly discredited ‘neo-liberalism’. Stagflation shocked Keynesian economics to the core and forced it to go through a long and difficult process of adjusting assumptions and building new models, eventually leading to the development of New Keynesianism. In contrast, the financial crisis was predicted in advance by the Austrian School and can be explained by standard New Classical models. Likewise, even if austerity has failed (and this is not obvious), free market economists have already developed new approaches, such as Market Monetarism. And, even if ‘neo-liberalism’ has been discredited, that only makes the case for economic stimulus in recessions, financial regulation, and marginally more redistribution. It does not mean socialism should be resurrected.
Free markets are not facing an unambiguous crisis of confidence. Whilst many people are concerned about the possible dislocation caused by automation, disruptive technology, and the ‘gig economy’, they all remain popular. Importantly, young people are more sympathetic to economic liberalism than their counterparts in earlier generations. And the most promising ideas coming from the left, such as introducing a basic income and promoting employee share ownership, are compatible with, and can support, a ‘neo-liberal’ economy.
Corbyn-style unreconstructed leftism has also failed to adjust to the increasing political realignment away from the left-right spectrum and towards the ‘open-closed’ divide. As the results of Corbyn’s prevarication over the EU have shown, it will become increasingly difficult to maintain a coalition of metropolitan liberals and people who feel left behind by globalisation and threatened by migration. If an anti-Thatcherite political revolution happens any time soon, it is unlikely to be one the left wants.
Corbyn will not be, and never could have been, an inverted Thatcher.