To say that the ongoing Tory leadership race is lacking would be a chronic understatement. The paucity of new ideas and reliance on reactionary talking points is staggering. Whether it manifests in the demonisation of trade unions, minority communities and people on benefits, both Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak polarise communities which could otherwise unite. 

Crucially, neither speak to contemporary issues. Despite facing a cost of living crisis possibly resulting in a General Strike, neither leadership race candidate has addressed this disaffection. The earliest leadership debates featured Kemi Badenoch discrediting “magic money trees”. A pejorative ridiculing investment in public service and underfunded communities. It is ironic that those who created this pejorative have knowledge of, or benefit from, a different magic money tree in the Cayman Islands. One which cultivates exploitative tax loopholes via offshore accounts. 

Equally, for Keir Starmer’s Labour Party to emulate these talking points before scrapping a core NHS pledge has cultivated wider disaffection in Parliamentary politics. This disaffection heightened after Starmer sacked Labour MP Sam Tarry after attending a picket line. Starmer sacked him seemingly because he “made up policy on the hoof”: An unconvincing narrative. Starmer had never clarified this “policy”, and had not disciplined Rachel Reeves for pitching rightward on railway ownership without approval. Whilst the leadership race continues, the opposition sneers at alternative ideas, leaving Truss and Sunak’s narratives unchallenged.

However, another core quality of the leadership race is the idolisation of Margaret Thatcher. 

Far from forging their own political identities, both Sunak and Truss have relentlessly attempted to emulate Thatcher. Truss’ appearance during a crucial Leadership Debate copied her “down to the last detail”, with other makeovers performed in advance. Outspoken Thatcherite figures remain unimpressed, with Matthew Paris describing Truss’ emulation as a front for “photo opportunities”.

Likewise, Rishi Sunak cited Thatcher as his favourite Conservative leader at the Hustings. He justified his answer with “She won three general election victories and changed the country for the better”. Not only is his latter statement bereft of elaboration, but it also fails to consider Thatcher’s broader legacy. A legacy which I not only consider deeply damaging to the less fortunate in British society, but also unsustainable.

We should remind ourselves of what characterised Thatcher’s tenure as Prime Minister, having become so endemic to our political mainstream.

Thatcher was intrinsic in eroding the Keynesian Post-War Consensus initiated in 1945, replaced by a Hayek-inspired Neoliberal orthodoxy committed to a laissez-faire free-market system. A system which emerged globally amidst the defeat of alternatives exemplified by Michael Manley. Thatcher declared in 1988 that “Society is not anyone. You are personally responsible”, ushering a cold individualism. The less fortunate were deemed mere inconveniences, responsible for their struggles and therefore unworthy of support. Her victory against the Miners’ Strike solidified the public perception of strikes as inconvenient, performed by envious unpatriotic layabouts rather than communities deprived of financial support. As summarised by Ian Gilmour, “The sacrifice imposed on the poor produced nothing except for the rich”.

The wide-reaching consequences of this ethos are typified by her starch slogan, “There is no alternative”. Each successive government has capitulated to her orthodoxy, leaving those craving an alternative trapped. David Cameron resurrected this slogan in 2013 as a justification for Austerity cuts, whilst Peter Mandelson, the architect of New Labour, confidently declared that “We are all Thatcherites now”. 

Mandelson’s sentiments that a “preoccupation with the working class vote is wrong” because they had “nowhere else to go” encapsulates this Thatcherite embrace. One which contributed to a greatly reduced electoral turnout during New Labour’s tenure, later exploited by the racist rhetoric of Farage and UKIP. Labour lost 5 million votes between 1997 and 2010, yet only one million went to the Tories. The remainder of Labour’s lost vote either turned to alternative parties or abandoned electoral politics.

Although Tony Blair’s first term saw some pivotal achievements, New Labour’s long-term legacy extended Thatcherism’s lifespan. In turn, it cultivated a new right-wing populism. Blair declared that his purpose was to “build on some of the things (Thatcher) had done rather than reverse them”. A process exemplified by New Labour’s embrace of Private Finance Initiatives, merging the NHS with the private sector. Hostility towards benefits escalated during this era, as did ATOS testing (seeing many disabled people unjustly found fit for work). Single mothers were also portrayed as “piling up problems”. This attitude extended beyond Blair: Rachel Reeves promised in 2013 that Labour would be “tougher than Tories on benefits”.

With any positive alternative dissuaded, anger towards the status-quo became weaponised by the right, with the ultimate media scapegoat emerging in the “migrant crisis”. A tactic which completely encapsulates the current Conservative leadership race. 

Yet alternatives to this vacuum were briefly glimpsed. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, in no way Thatcherite, achieved 12,877,919 votes in the 2017 General Election. Little over 100,000 votes away from Thatcher’s 1983 Landslide, despite turnout having been greatly reduced post-1997, and remaining the only election to see net Labour gains since 1997. The Northern Heartland Labour Vote was sustained after years of decline, and, in constituencies such as Hartlepool, increased dramatically from 14,000 to almost 22,000, since shrinking to 8,000 under Starmer in 2021. Labour also won Canterbury and Kensington, Conservative since 1868 and 1918 respectively.

If we are “all Thatcherites”, why did Labour’s vote share increase by 9.6% under an alternative platform? 

As Tory turnout also increased following the Brexit vote, we can infer that Labour’s surge did not come specifically from Thatcherites. Instead, it came from the disaffected and voiceless, previously alienated by electoral politics. An alternative briefly presided, and 3.5 million new voices expressed their approval.

While right-wing talking points declare that Labour lost the 2019 election because of its policies of investment, reinforcing the Thatcherite narrative that alternatives remain unworkable, a more pivotal factor needs acknowledging. Labour’s electoral coalition shattered, mainly in the Northern Heartland seats (two-thirds of Labour’s marginals, and all Tory gains in 2019 bar three, consisted of leave-voting seats), primarily on account of the party accommodating a Second Referendum policy on Brexit. Labour’s 2017 Soft-Brexit policy, responsible for retaining these marginals, was altered. An alteration which Keir Starmer, as Shadow Brexit Secretary, championed and instigated.

Boris Johnson borrowed into the disaffected vote in pledging to “Get Brexit Done”. When accompanied by economically progressive lip-service to “levelling up”, it is clear that the party adopted politically alternative language. To achieve an 80 seat majority, the Conservative Party adapted, dressing themselves as the insurgents. Thatcherite economics played a lesser role in Johnson’s electoral fortunes. Instead, he posed as the alternative in what Sky News labelled the “Brexit Election”.

A closer consideration of Thatcher’s relationship with Europe reveals her orthodoxy to be even more unsustainable. The dismantling and privatisation of industry, callously glorified by Thatcher in her Bruges speech as “throwing back the frontiers of state”, was partly designed to accommodate the UK’s financial position in the European Economic Community (later the European Union). After leaving the EU, there isn’t even a competitive reason to practise Thatcherism.

Likewise, in a blog post published in September 2021, Dominic Cummings rejected pro-austerity talking points, making the following declaration

“Why should young people on average and below average incomes lose disposable income to pay for another subsidy for the older and middle classes?…’ Don’t raise taxes at all… stop subsidising your rich mates, but, if you have to, impose them on the wealthiest one per cent, not those on average and below average incomes’, is what Labour should say. Many Tory voters will agree”.

Cummings’ argument holds weight in the current climate. Mick Lynch’s recent popularity, and 400,000 people signing up to Union funded campaign “Enough is Enough”, suggests an appetite for grassroots action. Crucially, two-thirds of Tory voters support temporary renationalisation of energy firms, derived from a sample of over 4000. Whilst an alternative is absent in Parliament, it exists on the ground, seeping into public opinion. Yet neither main political party, in their ideological purity, attempts to understand why.

When Sunak and Truss champion or cosplay Thatcher in the leadership race, they reveal both their inability to posit new solutions and their desire to reduce political engagement. This strategy is moribund. It only resurrects a contentious figure, ousted after the staggeringly unpopular Poll Tax policy. One which John Major scrapped amidst becoming Prime Minister. In today’s climate, her ideology only thrives thanks to media and party hegemony. A hegemony enabled by Rupert Murdoch and associated billionaire tax-evading oligarchs.

Thatcher’s shadow tragically ensures that working-class communities remain stratified, limiting wider democratic participation and conversation. Keir Starmer’s reneged pledges and blithe adoption of Conservative ideas, framing nationalisation and investment as “ideological” (itself an ideological statement) and assuming that flag-waving alone will undo disaffection, also widens the political vacuum. One which has festered apathy, anger and neglect in working-class communities for over 40 years.