Shadowboxing with the past
Why New Labour is dressing Michael Howard up as Thatcher-in-drag.
The past looms large in New Labour’s campaign for the local and European elections in June 2004.
Labour’s TV advert opens with the words ‘Michael Howard’s CV’. To the tune of the Simply Red song ‘If you don’t know me by now’, it tells how the Tory leader helped to introduce the poll tax in Margaret Thatcher’s government of the late 1980s (1). Another Michael Howard CV forms a full-page advert in The Times, giving his referees as ‘Baroness Thatcher’ and ‘Rt Hon John Major’. Meanwhile, a poster campaign shows Howard at the centre of past Tory leaders including Thatcher and Major, with the slogan ‘Britain is working. Don’t let the Tories wreck it again’.
This isn’t New Labour’s first attempt to tar today’s Tories with the brush of the 1980s. Back in 2001, Labour showed then Tory leader William Hague with Thatcher’s haircut, and the slogan: ‘Get out and vote. Or they get in.’ At the Labour Party conference in October 2003, Blair said: ‘I know what’s there if we stumble… the old Tory days’. He went on to detail ‘the three million unemployed… the cuts in schools and hospitals, the privatising of the railways’ that would result if the Tories got in again.
The more Howard attempts to reinvent the Tory Party, organising gay seminars or talking about social justice in the third world, the more Labour tries to present him as a retrograde throwback. His CV in The Times dredges up the fact that in 1991 he described the minimum wage as ‘extreme, dangerous and absurd’, and in 2001 called the NHS ‘Stalinist’. Defending the adverts, UK trade and industry secretary Patricia Hewitt drew attention to ‘the policies he is putting forward now for public spending cuts and isolating Britain in Europe’, as if he was just a free-market Little Englander (2).
New Labour is dredging up the 1980s in an attempt to spark some life into today’s politics. Presenting Howard as a version of Thatcher helps to sustain the myth that the Tories are an opposing party with a distinct set of policies, threatening for government. ‘There is a new Tory opposition’, said health secretary John Reid in February 2004. On Newsnight on 10 May, Labour MP Phil Woolas said that the Howard advert was a ‘debate about the real alternatives’. New Labour is lost at sea, trying to find a landmark against which it can mark its position – if Blair doesn’t know what he stands for today, at least he can say that he’s not the ‘extreme right’ other man. The ads also look like an attempt to scare people, effectively saying ‘vote for us or she’s coming back’.
But in reality Howard isn’t the enemy Labour wants him to be. Day after day, we see him clumsily chasing after one issue or another, desperately searching for a line. He jumps on any bandwagon that seems to be going somewhere, then promptly falls off on the first bend. It is difficult to sustain the idea that he has a Thatcherite blueprint for Britain. In fact, the Tories are so clueless that they asked voters to contribute their own ideas for the party’s June election broadcast, saying that this would make for a more ‘authentic’ campaign (3).
These adverts say less about Howard than they do about the desperation of New Labour. It is a bad sign when, after seven years in power, Blair has to hark back to the Iron Lady of the 1980s in an attempt to say what he is about. Rather than set out his political stall in the here and now, promoting his own policies and ideas, he is shadowboxing with the past. The slogan on the bottom of Blair’s poster campaign, ‘Britain is working’, is a riposte to the 1979 slogan, ‘Labour isn’t working’, on which Thatcher came into power. ‘See – we can run Britain!’, Blair seems to be telling her.
But Thatcherism is recalled in terms of today’s personality politics. Howard’s CV looks like a vindictive personal attack, symbolising what is often referred to as an ‘Americanisation’ of politics. Just as the Democrats recently dredged up President George W Bush’s war record, arguing that he shirked battle in Vietnam, so Blair picks over Howard’s role in introducing the poll tax. This isn’t really about Howard’s past convictions or actions – instead, it is just accusing him of being a selfish and irresponsible person. The advert in The Times manages to link Howard to Black Wednesday, when the pound crashed out of the exchange rate mechanism, because he had predicted an ‘economic recovery’ beforehand. Thatcherism here doesn’t mean a set of political beliefs or policies, but merely a kind of nastiness.
Not that the Tories have any right to complain. After all they were the ones who, back in 1997, showed a grinning Blair complete with demon eyes, bearing the slogan ‘New Labour, New Danger’. The worn out Tory Party of 1997 resorted to the same scare tactics and personal abuse that a worn out New Labour is engaging in today.
It didn’t get the Tories anywhere then, and it is unlikely to help New Labour now. These ads come across as a bit desperate, and will win few supporters. Instead of sparking life into the European elections, Blair has made the whole affair look ridiculous.
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