Wide-ranging attacks on ‘enemies within’ are reminiscent of Thatcher’s assault on the miners, GLC, and black and Irish communities in the ’80s, writes KEN LIVINGSTONE
SINCE becoming politically active in the 1960s, I have seen 11 different leaders of the Conservative Party, representing various internal factions and interests.
But one thing that has been a consistent feature is a reluctance to engage in meaningful debate about the direction of the country on real issues of importance: anyone would think they’re aware that openly acknowledging their commitment to pursuing policies which leave the majority worse off to ensure the class who fund them continue getting richer is not exactly a vote-winner!
Part of dodging substantive debate has always involved the use of distractions and scapegoating tactics — as seen in the bizarre rants about “cultural Marxism” from figures such as Tory MP Miriam Yates at the recent National Conservatism conference — and it is no coincidence that reactionary rhetoric on immigration always gets ramped up in periods of economic crisis.
Whilst this can undoubtedly be an effective strategy (having countless media outlets happy to help never does any harm to its prospects), the contradictions of the system still inevitably produce challenges to it — which the Tories pride themselves on squashing. Of course, few in British politics can claim to have had as strong a record on this as Margaret Thatcher.
Her government’s approach to the 1984-85 miners’ strike was a particularly vicious example of class warfare in action. The union and its leadership were not only vilified on the front pages of right-wing newspapers and the front benches in the Houses of Parliament but subjected to a sustained campaign of surveillance and subversion from the intelligence service (as documented in Seumas Milne’s fascinating book The Enemy Within).
Some of the most aggressive policing tactics used for an industrial dispute in modern British history were also deployed, followed by a determined effort to cover up and distort the truth of these incidents — with organisations such as the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign still having to fight for the full extent of this to be revealed close to 40 years on.
As well as a confrontation with organised labour, the Thatcher government was also determined to cut down political representatives who stood up to their agenda — as I found in my time as leader of the Greater London Council.
The fact that we used the powers of our administration to show that progressive policies (such as the Fares Fair initiative to promote affordable public transport) were both popular and effective was simply unacceptable for those whose mantra was that there was “no alternative” to the model of rampant free markets they championed.
We were also demonised for using London’s voice to call for a better world — including championing serious action for peace and justice in Ireland (a place that had experienced particularly hard-line clampdowns on civil liberties and political freedoms).
Despite the portrayal of our leadership as representing a “loony left” which obsessed with fringe issues rather than the needs of ordinary Londoners, it is telling that the Tories opted to shut down the GLC altogether in 1986 (with Norman Tebbit it denouncing it as “Labour-dominated, high-spending and at odds with the government’s view of the world”) rather than make the case for their ideas at the ballot box — leaving the capital without any meaningful form of administration for well over a decade.
Today’s situation sees clear parallels to that period on numerous fronts. Even by the standards of a country which, in the words of a boastful Tony Blair, already has some of the most restrictive union laws in the Western world, the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels), Bill represents a huge attack on the trade union movement — labour law experts Professor Keith Ewing and Lord John Hendy KC warning that the proposals “give extraordinary power to the government to deny what is universally recognised as a fundamental human right.”
Other forms of protest are also facing increasingly repressive tactics and legislation being deployed against them.
The Public Order Act has explicitly been pushed by the government as a response to mobilisations such as those seen around climate change and the Black Lives Matter movement in recent years, with UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk describing it as “deeply troubling legislation that is incompatible with the UK’s international human rights obligations regarding people’s rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association… Neither necessary nor proportionate to achieve a legitimate purpose as defined under international law.”
As well as this, plans for an “anti-boycott Bill” (targeted at the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions initiative supported by Palestinian solidarity campaigners, but with implications for numerous other causes too) restricting the autonomy of public bodies have been met with opposition from a coalition of trade unions, social movements, campaigning organisations, faith groups and charities.
This is exactly the kind of alliance we should look to build to defend our democratic rights from an unpopular government desperately lashing out at those exposing their numerous failures.
Let us build on the legacy of those who have fought for progress – not least the miners in the great strike of 1984-85 — both by highlighting how important the action they took was and showing that we are willing to follow in their footsteps.
This article originally appeared in The Morning Star