In 1983, a Spectator piece argued that ‘the most faithful followers of the Thatcher cult are to be found within the Labour Party’. Baroness Thatcher’s passing was always going to be as much of a test for the Left as it would be a sad day for the Right. The Labour leadership knew this, and took care to craft statements and tweets which, while acknowledging the glaringly obvious political differences, praised Thatcher the woman. The party has suspended its political campaigning ahead of the local elections as a mark of respect. Ed Miliband’s tribute in particular made clear that he had no sympathy with those in his party tempted to celebrate the death of the Iron Lady. The Labour leader said:
‘The Labour Party disagreed with much of what she did and she will always remain a controversial figure. But we can disagree and also greatly respect her political achievements and her personal strength. She also defined the politics of the 1980s. David Cameron, Nick Clegg and I all grew up in a politics shaped by Lady Thatcher. We took different paths but with her as the crucial figure of that era.’
Similarly, those at the top of Miliband’s party took painstaking efforts not just to pay tribute to Thatcher, but also to urge others on the Left to be respectful. Tom Watson tweeted ‘I hope that people on the left of politics respect a family in grief today’, while Harriet Harman praised ‘a towering figure in British politics’. Further left, Owen Jones, fond as he is of calling Tories all sorts of names, reminded his followers of a piece he’d written last September in which he argued that celebrating Thatcher’s death was ‘futile’ and ‘an admittedly macabre substitute for the failure to defeat Thatcherism’. Those who have taken a different line – the handful of NUS delegates who were heard cheering the news (later scolded by their president), and Labour MP Ian Lavery, who said ‘no tears from me nor the mining communities destroyed by MT’ – have been small voices in the outpouring of condolences and praise from the Left. The focus of the majority of left wing responses was on keeping a lid on unpleasant comments to stop any outrage stories.
But as James noted earlier, Thatcher did have an immense impact on the way the Labour party managed its politics. Miliband gave a nod to this, saying:
‘She reshaped the politics of a whole generation… She moved the centre ground of British politics and was a huge figure on the world stage.’
Many in Labour wish that centre ground shift had never happened: it led to the rise of Tony Blair, who also said today that she was one of the few leaders who was able to ‘change not only the political landscape of their country but of the world’, adding that ‘some of the changes she made in Britain were, in certain respects at least, retained by the 1997 Labour government, and came to be implemented by governments around the world’. Blair is happy to be seen as one of those ‘faithful followers of the Thatcher cult’, while many others in his party show themselves to be avid devotees through their fixation with the former Prime Minister, expressing as much hatred as her most ardent supporters express admiration. But the party has largely had the dignity to realise that today is a day to keep as quiet as possible.
P.S. While Labour has strived to maintain a respectful front today, it’s a shame the same can’t be said of others, especially those who seem rather too young to really remember the Iron Lady in power. A journey through social media this afternoon does not encourage a great deal of faith in human nature.