This article is part of The Nation’s 150th Anniversary Special Issue. Download a free PDF of the issue, with articles by James Baldwin, Barbara Ehrenreich, Toni Morrison, Howard Zinn and many more, here.
Excerpted from the April 16, 1990 Issue
Middle England is stirring. On March 22 the constituency of Mid-Staffordshire, a Conservative bastion, fell to the opposition Labor Party—its greatest by-election triumph since 1935. While this result may not be an accurate guide to the outcome of the next general election, by-elections do reflect the political mood of the country. Today, with opinion polls showing a Labor lead of as much as 28 percent, the weather vane is set hard against Margaret Thatcher.
The public perception is that Thatcher has gone too far. In the past, people ignored the Conservatives’ obvious contempt for the principles of the welfare state because of the short-term economic gains that Thatcher brought to many of those who had work. Now, concurrent with economic decline, they begin to look at what she has done to Britain’s social fabric. That is why Labor’s bland slogan in Mid-Staffordshire, “Vote for what you value,” was successful—there is a growing sense among Britons that what they value is under attack from the Conservative Party.
Beneath the discontent with Thatcher is a growing rejection of the “enterprise culture” she has promoted. The popular verdict now is that this has not only failed to address Britain’s long-term economic decline but has also brought an era of social decay and disintegration. Consequently, the traditional postwar enthusiasm for the welfare state is fast re-emerging as a central factor in British politics.
The prime beneficiary of this mood is the Labor Party, the only alternative to Thatcherism after the collapse of the small center parties. But just how much of an alternative is Labor? Its leaders do continue to speak the language of social concern, yet their strategy is marked by extreme caution, an avoidance of any appearance of radicalism and a reluctance to argue for anything that might not command majority opinion-poll support. Of course, because of the government’s combination of dogmatism and ineptitude, this may not matter in opposition. But in power?
Edward Miliband, a Nation intern in 1989, is leader of the Labour Party in Britain.