Learning the right lessons from the Thatcher era – my Tribune column

The death of Baroness Thatcher last week has sparked a renewed national debate about her policies, ideology and legacy. Over three decades since she came to power the memories and scars of her time in office remain raw in many communities, including in my constituency which has a proud mining heritage.

Of course in the days following her death it’s important that this debate is conducted in a measured way. We should recognise her achievement in becoming Britain’s first woman prime minister. And, as Ed Miliband said in Parliament last week, she got some things right.

She was right to understand people’s sense of aspiration, defend the Falklands, reach out to new leadership in the Soviet Union and be the first leader of any major country to warn of the dangers of climate change.

But there were many things she got wrong and we should debate those mistakes and learn from them.

Communities were abandoned when traditional industries were destroyed by her failed monetarist experiment – and not replaced by new sources of jobs. Our transport and wider infrastructure decayed. Joining the ERM proved to be disastrous, though Labour wrongly went along with it at the time.

The NHS was allowed to lurch from crisis to crisis, section 28 sitgmatised gay and lesbian people and the poll tax was an injustice the Conservatives eventually had to recognise and put right. And of course she was badly wrong about Nelson Mandela and sanctions in South Africa too.

Many of my generation of Labour members joined the party in response to what Margaret Thatcher’s government did. For me it was the tragic waste of mass youth unemployment in the early 1980s – ‘a price worth paying’ they called it – that inspired me to study economics and get active in politics.

Times have moved on, but there are still lessons to be learned from that era. Once again a Conservative government insists there is no alternative to its economic policy, even as the evidence mounts that it is catastrophically failing and doing long-term damage. And once again Ministers are responding to economic failure not by changing policies, but attacking those who are paying the price.

In the 1980s, Labour too often simply opposed. But the lesson we learned from that period is this: Labour in opposition can only succeed if we both expose Tory incompetence and unfairness and offer a credible, fair and radical alternative.

So we will continue to detail an economic plan that puts jobs and growth first so we can have a recovery that is made by the many, not just a few at the top. Alongside sensible and balanced spending cuts and tax rises, reforming the banks and getting our economy moving again so that more people are in work paying taxes is the best way to get the deficit down.

And we will also set out how a One Nation Labour approach to welfare reform would be fairer and more successful than the divisive and unfair policies and rhetoric of this government.

First, it must pay more to be in work than live on benefits. Labour introduced a minimum wage alongside tax credits to help ensure work pays and we are now promoting the living wage too. But this government’s cuts to tax credits mean thousands of working parents are now better off if they quit their jobs.

Meanwhile the government’s benefits cap could perversely end up costing more than it saves. Labour supports the principle of a benefits cap but this government’s crude ‘one size fits all’ cap – with the same level in London as the rest of the country – will simply lead to taxpayers funding the cost of rising homelessness as families living in high cost areas are turfed out of their homes.

Second, we must tackle long-term unemployment by matching rights with responsibilities. Government has a responsibility to help people into work and support those who cannot, but those who can work must be required to take up jobs. That’s why Labour is proposing a compulsory jobs guarantee: a paid job for the long-term unemployed, which they will have to take up or face losing benefits.

The best way to get the benefits bill down is not to attack the striving mum working part-time or the redundant nurse trying to find a new job, but to get people into work.

Britain needs reforms to our welfare state that are tough, fair and that work. Labour reforms that will unite the country and take our economy forward, not more of the same Tory policies that divided Britain and our communities in the 1980s and threaten the same again today.

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Posted April 19th, 2013 by Ed