The retrospectives on Thatcher's political life pose a question that's central to left politics today: to what extent can individual politicians transform the economy through their own will and ideology, and to what extent must they operate within the parameters set by capitalist economics? Peter Oborne asserts the "great woman" theory, but I suspect instead that she succeeded because she had the strong tailwinds of ideology and capitalism on her side.
This question matters because it determines our attitude to the Labour leadership today. If you think a "left Thatcher" is possible, then you'll deprecate Labour's general pusillanimity and failure to oppose workfare, and invoke the "spirit of 45" to call for a more radical push.
Personally, this attitude reminds me of those halfwits who ring 6-0-6 to demand that their team show more "passion" - as if "wanting it more" is sufficient to overcome strategic and technical deficiencies.
Instead, let's just remind ourselves of the constraints Labour politicians face:
- A large section of the public are hostile to socialist policies. They are ill-informed and prejudiced about welfare and immigration, and show no appetite for workers' democracy. This is partly because capitalism generates ideologies which help entrench itself, and partly for more atavistic reasons. Granted, the recent argument about welfare seems to have increased Labour's support - but this might be because of the party's ambivalence on the matter.
- The desire to get a good job in their long post-ministerial lives encourages politicians to appear attractive to prospective capitalist employers, to seem no more than half-competent managers who won't threaten them.
- Capital has immense political power. This isn't just because it has the money to lobby for its particular interests, but also because it has a (semi?) credible threat to leave the country if it see policies it doesn't like, and because employment and activity depends upon its state of confidence.
The question is: how much room is there for the Labour leadership to display radical intentions within these constraints? My fear is: not much. There cannot be a successful left Thatcher. Labour's acceptance of so much of the status quo is not therefore due (merely) to supine personalities, but to a recognition of necessity.
What can we do about this? One possibility is to play a longer game, to try and shift the Overton window; this is what free market think tanks did in the 60s. If the new leftist movement proposed by Owen is anything more than an emoting circle-jerk, it's what it will do. The other possibility, suggested by Max, is to recognize that politics is not a place for grown ups.
Personally, I vacillate between these two positions.