If I had been old enough to vote in 1979, I would have voted Conservative. The country was on its knees economically, with the IMF loaning Britain tons of money, petrol rationing and power blackouts a recent memory, and strike after strike after strike. Maggie won after a period of industrial dispute called the Winter of Discontent.
By 1981 the mood had significantly changed. We had riots in the streets, unemployment was rising quickly, as was inflation. The country seemed to be thinking “what have we done”. 1981 was the year I went to university in Leeds. Then the city’s buildings were still swathed in a blanket of soot, although some cleaning up had started. As one of the educationally elite 10%, the idea that we could leave university and not get a job was unthinkable. If we incurred debt, and I did, it was through mismanagement of the student grant.
Thatcher was divisive. Her policies have also changed the way that people seem to look at tax and spending. This is ingrained so deeply that Tony Blair didn’t challenge the economic ethos when he was elected in 1997, so we’ve had 30 years of hard-nosed capitalism in this country.
Better brains than mine can argue about the pros and cons of the economic changes wrought. The changes seem to be in terms of management and ownership of public assets. And this is where a level of economic short-termism seems to have come increasingly into play. In 1980, the state owned and ran the telephones, the electricity, the water, the postal service, and many other standard utilities. Now most are in the hands of private companies, on the basis that competition keeps prices down. Except suspicion has grown about the existence of cartels, where competitors agree to keep prices artificially high.
We had a bonanza of North Sea oil and gas in the 80s and 90s. Now we need to import it. Despite Thatcher being visionary regarding climate change, the policies around provision of energy didn’t really seem to change – and even today we’re still discussing a dash for gas and hoping that fracking might make our energy supply secure. Investment has been piecemeal.
One of Thatcher’s first policies, the “right to buy” your council house, played straight into the aspirational nature. If you’re going to get an asset cheaply, why wouldn’t you? But new house builds have failed to keep up with social demand. Sure, some council housing estates were dumps and needed investment, but the councils held them as assets until they were forced to sell below market value. And now Tory outrage is expressed at the benefits culture, of which 14% is Housing Benefit, lots of it being paid straight into the hands of private landlords.
The whole issue of housing is fraught with short-term economic gain. Because demand has exceeded supply for so long, the prices are sky high. When I left university, I could expect to get a decent house with a graduate salary. Now, 30 years later, I couldn’t afford to buy my current semi if I had to. This bubble of house prices is what makes it so expensive to build new infrastructure. Want to build a road? Well, you’ll probably have to purchase some houses – at hugely inflated prices. So the infrastructure that is built is mortgaged to PFI companies, and for £34 billion of development, the state has mortgaged itself to the tune of over £120 billion. This way is madness, unless you intend to inflate the economy out of this particular problem – causing other problems along the way.
Thatcher started the trend for political divisiveness too. I’ve done some crude analysis of Conservative vote share in each of the constituencies allocated to major cities: Birmingham, Glasgow, Leeds, Liverpool and Manchester. The results are startling. In 1970, the Tories won 14 out of the 52 seats available, and were in shouting distance of another dozen or so. By 1992, they held only 4 out of the 37 seats available. In 2010, not one of the 28 seats was won by a Conservative., and they had a possibility, nothing more, of winning only 1. Indeed, in three cities (Manchester, Glasgow and Liverpool) not one Tory candidate polled more than 12% in 2010. In 1979 every Tory standing in these cities polled 12% or over – only 6 polled less than 20%.
This is the measure of the Conservative alienation in the big cities. And it’s reflected in urban centres across the land.
When I started this blog, I didn’t mean it to be dominated by trans issues and press reporting. That’s only one part of my life. The real reason for starting it was to try to explore in a reasoned way the principles behind what engagement I would like with politics – hence the strapline of the blog.
I was so alienated by what I saw around me in Yorkshire, the destruction of jobs and communities, the grasping greed, that I have never voted Conservative. I don’t see the Conservative party as allying at all with my core values – the need for social cohesion rather than competitiveness that breeds contempt for others, the need to secure our core requirements (water, power, food) rather than handing them to the control of whichever foreign company can bid highest, the need to protect the vulnerable rather than tell them it’s their fault that they couldn’t afford to protect themselves.
For me, Thatcher demonstrated all three of those viewpoints that I’m so removed from. Her successors have not sought to correct the ship in any meaningful way. I fully believe that many others can see this, but are given minimal choice in our defective electoral system, meaning that other viable, radical choices are simply not given airtime in our right-wing dominated media landscape – and our electoral system demands that kind of exposure.
Many Victorian novelists wrote stories which decried greed and made a virtue out of social responsibility. Dickens parodied miserliness. Kingsley extolled a golden principle of do as you would be done by. Yet our commercial and media landscape is harsh and brutal. Companies (and political parties) think nothing of massaging the truth out of shape because there’s no penalty for doing so, only gain. Those Victorian values are ignored, scoffed at, demeaned.
But somewhere in the British psyche is a yearning for social justice, a compassionate politics rather than simply a passionate one. It seems to have no real outlet. Our combative media doesn’t let politicians ever make mistakes. Our politicians sell themselves on being good managers rather than visionaries. And the compassionate, just “socialism” has no voice.
I wish it could change. I just don’t know how to help it do so.
Percentages of vote cast for Conservative candidates in each seat named Birmingham ___, Glasgow ___, Leeds ___, Liverpool ___ and Manchester ___:
Conservative wins with 63, 61, 60, 57, 57, 54, 53, 53, 52, 52, 52, 50, 49, 47
Conservative losses with 49, 47, 46, 46, 45, 45, 44, 44, 44, 43, 42, 42, 42, 42, 41, 40, 40, 39, 36, 36, 35, 35, 31, 31, 30, 29, 28, 28, 28, 27, 25, 25, 23, 22, 21, 21, 20, 20
Conservative wins with 55, 54, 50, 49, 49, 48, 48, 47, 47, 45, 41
Conservative losses with 46, 45, 45, 44, 42, 39, 38, 36, 35, 35, 35, 33, 32, 31, 30, 29, 28, 27, 27, 24, 23, 23, 22, 22, 22, 21, 21, 19, 16, 15, 15, 13, 12
Conservative wins with 49, 46, 45, 43
Conservative losses with 44, 42, 38, 37, 36, 36, 34, 31, 29, 28, 28, 27, 26, 26, 25, 25, 25, 23, 20, 17, 17, 17, 17, 16, 15, 14, 13, 12, 12, 12, 10, 10, 10, 9, 8
No Conservative wins
Conservative losses with 38, 34, 33, 33, 31, 27, 23, 21, 20, 19, 19, 15, 12, 12, 12, 11, 11, 11, 11, 10, 9, 7, 7, 7, 7, 7, 5, 5