What is this affinity I feel with 70s/80s politics?


I miss Tony Benn! I miss Michael Foot! I miss idealism and reverent committal. Where have all the best characters gone in British politics? Dennis Skinner MP won’t be alive forever, and it seems there are few to take his place. Owen Jones is, after all, unlikely to join the House of Commons – and personally I’d rather he was separate from even that form of the establishment.

Politics back then seems to me more ‘real’. ‘Real’ in that people held immovable beliefs, whether it was Tony Benn for the importance of workers’ activism, or Michael Foot for the freedom to wear duffle coats to outdoor Armistice events – or indeed Thatcher for New Right ideologies. The Tories as a whole were still conformist, but their leaders were not; even Harold Macmillan felt incredibly strongly about the need for equality (having originally almost joined the Labour Party).

Future Labour leader Neil Kinnock ‘beat the shit out of’ a Benn-supporter who attacked him at the Labour Party Conference in 1981. I find it hard to imagine Cameron throwing a punch at someone due to a minor right-wing ideological difference. He’s too busy being smarmy and not wearing Donkey coats. But he’s just like us – he listens to The Smiths!

The Tory party always seemed to hold it together. Labour had already been through the Bevan-Gaitskell split of the 1950s – only resolved by the main two helpfully dying to allow Wilson to become PM, but the Conservatives have never suffered such bitter internal fighting. Maybe the answer lies in that they are largely careerists, who don’t have the same cemented and specific ideological drive for equality and justness that the left typically do. Or, it could be explained by their ability to work as a team (which Tony Benn certainly couldn’t), uniting for common purpose and practicality: beating Labour.

Even extremely aggressive tactics couldn’t cause much disruption. Thatcher herself nastily spat at the liberals (the sane) in her Party, condemning them to be ‘wets’ which caused much upset. Yet, the ‘wets’ never split away. They held on to what rather futile personal power they had – treatment I doubt Labour members would have continued their support under.

It worked in terms of Thatcher’s plans, and the party remained in tact – for 18 bloody years. To be fair, they dropped her quite outrageously after a decade or so from typical-wet quibbling fear and replaced her with the formidable John Major. Apparently, the cabinet were pissed off upon discovering Major’s propensity to ask everyone’s opinions, seriously increasing meeting lengths. Under Thatcher, she’d just had to tell them what to do and they’d accordingly adjusted their ‘life long held’ beliefs. Damn democracy.

Nowadays it rather seems ALL politicians are greasy, manipulative and grey – spending their days scuttling around the commons (or not, in many cases) and then dashing between their two expense-paid excessively furnished houses. Not just the Tories, but Labour too.

Greasiness is never more  nausea-invoking than in their campaigning. Thatcher introduced the use of heavy PR in British politics – her acclaimed advertising agency Saatchi and Saatchi famously ripped Labour to shreds by exploiting Thatcher’s very dubious ‘housewifeness’ and giving the leader extreme media training – literally lowering the level of her voice in order to project a sense of togetherness.

Likewise, Blair became known as a “presidential” PM, spending millions on a polished campaign and image. This was all part of New Labour, but has become central to the whole spectrum of modern British politics: spin over policy.

I think that New Labour killed everyday radicalism. Or rather, it killed the legitimacy of socialism. A party that had to reject its founding socialist principles in order to get elected pretty much shits all over the idea of being yourself or fighting for what you believe in. New Labour undermined the idea that society could ever be equal by sending a message to the population that Old Labour had it wrong. Old Labour stood for nationalisation, protection of workers rights through unions and unilateral disarmament – peace. New Labour told us these values were not correct. Or actually, who cares what’s ‘correct’ – let’s take the fast track route to glory! New Labour told us that you couldn’t be idealistic, that you couldn’t dream of a society of a high minimum wage, of a mansion tax and of the freedom for politicians to wear duffel coats on cold days. It told us that all parties must befriend Rupert Murdoch in order to gain power – but also the power of celebrity; Blair invited Oasis etc. to celebrate his victory at #10 in an especially smarmy move to exaggerate his interest in youth (YOUNG PEOPLE) and culture (BRITPOP) and in doing so reinforced links between all sorts of manifestations of the establishment. Ironically, Blair was further from “the people” than ever.

New Labour has left society more apathetic than before – “they’re all the same” etc.

Yes, Cameron wouldn’t punch someone who opposed him. But I don’t really think there are many people in Britain who would bother to beat Cameron up in a toilet, not to the point of ‘blood’ and ‘vomit’ anyway. Kinnock wasn’t even leader in ’81 – so the analogy should really be using Boris Johnson or Theresa May as an example, making the situation even less likely to arise.

And there are plenty of good arguments in favour of New Labour as a party – they saved the left, people say… Maybe, but the left has become unrecognisable thanks to it. And it’s harder and harder to find leaders who fully believe what they shout across the benches.


It’s important to realise that saying, “they’re all the same” is lazy. Yes, the leaders may all have similar backgrounds, yes there are policy cross-overs and establishment ties across the board – but our generation could be the change; we can develop personal ideals and project them; we can go on marches (and there is plenty of evidence that young people are the most politically active in this respect) – we can join political parties, we can VOTE, we can canvass, we can be unafraid in our political beliefs, we can wear badges, we can sign petitions on change.org, we can heckle – we can fight 2 r rite 2 party + SAB!

And just have a look at the back benches of the Commons… Angela Eagle, Gloria De Piero – there are still MPs in it for the fight, they just need more people behind them.

@lucykenningham – what is the affinity (me being pretentious?)


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