From the archive: Why is politics going back to the 1980s?
One of Labour’s posters in the 2010 general election campaign was this David Cameron/Gene Hunt mash-up (for readers who don’t remember it, the poster was a play on the then-popular BBC TV series Ashes to Ashes, which featured a rude and obnoxious police detective from the 1980s).
It was a poorly-conceived message. As Matthew d’Ancona wrote in the Telegraph at the time:
“There is so much wrong with this that one scarcely knows where to start. The principal point is that Gene Hunt, the politically incorrect, no-nonsense, get-the-job-done copper played by Philip Glenister, has become an unexpected national hero and sex symbol… Plenty of disagreeable things happened in the Eighties: the miners’ strike wasn’t much fun, nor the dole queues, nor the sporadic riots. …Instead, New Labour has decided to associate Cameron explicitly with a fictional character who personifies all that was best, most gleeful and is most fondly remembered about the Thatcher decade – when the nation began to feel proud of itself once more, when it sensed the possibility of greatness afresh, when it started to pump testosterone again.”
I didn’t personally find myself ‘fondly remembering’ the 1980s, and the use of ‘disagreeable’ to describe the damage wrought by Thatcherism is profoundly euphemistic. But d’Ancona was right about the weakness of the message.
Labour explained its purpose thus: “The poster warns that David Cameron would take Britain on a time-travel journey back to the socially divisive early-80s when the nation was scarred by youth unemployment and social unrest. The Tories… would take Britain back to the dark ages of the 1980s by failing to support economic recovery and put at risk Labour’s policies to give young people the training, jobs and start in adult life that they need.”
But the problem with Labour’s poster was that the public’s view of the 1980s wasn’t so settled. Perhaps the party had over-confidently assumed that it had managed to turn the decade into a shorthand that the electorate would instinctively reject, the equivalent of how the Tories under Margaret Thatcher had cemented ‘the 1970s’ in the public imagination as an era of decline and disorder. A previous Labour poster from the 2001 election had much more successfully skewered the then Tory leader William Hague as an ‘80s’ throwback’ by merging his face with Thatcher’s (as well as playing on his strange ‘Toryboy’ public persona), and the party’s slogan for the 2005 campaign was ‘Forward not back’.
But the Tories hijacked the poster the same day, to reversion the message into Cameron as radical reformer. Cameron, who said he was “flattered” by the comparison (I’d agree with him on that), used the opportunity to refer back to the Tories’ record in the 1980s, renewing a pledge to emulate the Thatcher governments in taking on “vested interests, including union barons that threaten another spring of discontent, teachers and big business” (whatever happened to the last one?)
Having assumed we’d moved on in the 1990s and 2000s, it seems like we’ve gone back to fighting over the 1970s and 1980s. Where once Blair and Brown thought they had created a new Labour ‘settlement’ to last, and Cameron and Osborne in their ‘modernising’ phase consciously tried to turn the page on Thatcher and the ‘nasty party’ image, now the 80s flashback is in full effect.
Never mind the Big Society, the Tories have reverted to acting as if there is no society. A hard right economic experiment is foisted on the country, its proponents blind to its impact. Support for young people is slashed, while money is thrown at older Tory voters. Social housing is sold off, and public assets flogged on the cheap to ‘investors’ (another euphemism, since that’s the last thing they actually do). The benefit bill soars, and the unemployed and disabled are blamed. Cities and town witness protests and disturbances, while corporate and financial interests run riot. Immigrants are said to be ‘swarming’ the country, and relationships with European neighbours are severely damaged. Britain’s imperial pretensions persist, despite its armed forces being cut back to virtually inoperable. Identity politics becomes the central test applied to any progressive politics, while ordinary people suffer. And a new ‘movement’ led by a long-time Labour rebel promises a return to ‘genuine socialism’, causing ‘centrists’ to threaten to break away and doom the party to permanent opposition, while the Tory media led by Rupert Murdoch warns that the ‘loony left’ would take Britain ‘back to the 1970s’.
Andy Beckett’s new book on the early 1980s, Promised You A Miracle: UK 80-82, is a timely reminder of that era (I’m a similar age to the author), and its waste, ugliness, fear and division.
My question is, haven’t we been down this road before?
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