When Ed Miliband announced a two-year energy price freeze at last year’s Labour conference, the Daily Mail accused him of putting forward ‘a 1970s-style plan’ that would see the lights go out across Britain. David Cameron regularly speaks of Labour as ‘in the pocket’ of union barons, and depicts Unite general secretary Len McCluskey as a latter-day Jack Jones or Hugh Scanlon, the powerful 1970s union leaders. Ed Balls has insisted that when it comes to the railways, ‘I don’t want to go back to the nationalisation of the 70s.’
Why does the spectre of the 1970s continue to haunt the imagination of the political classes today? Looking back, the world we live in was shaped decisively by the outcome of struggles four decades ago. A huge job of ideological work was invested in demonstrating that the previous social settlement was irredeemably broken, and to discredit in advance the viability of alternative political projects.
It’s true that the broad Keynesian consensus had come adrift by the middle of the decade. But the idea that it was necessary to attack organised working people as part of a huge transfer of wealth from public to private hands – a foundational Thatcherite myth, widely accepted across the political ‘mainstream’ – is utterly false, as John Medhurst points out in our Mythbuster.
Fortunately, recent years have also seen the emergence of revisionist accounts of the 1970s, which focus on the roads not taken and the suppressed alternatives grounded in the vitality of social movements, shopfloor union activism and democratic challenges to the power of the corporate state.
No one is suggesting simply lifting policy prescriptions from the manifestos of the past. But the ambition and imagination that fuelled 1970s radicalism needs to be reclaimed and renewed. Taking back rail into public ownership, for example, would be hugely popular. A publicly-owned rail network could avoid the inefficiencies of the franchising model, while involving workers and passengers in new democratic planning structures to run the service in the public interest. Similarly, a programme to create climate jobs could learn from the Lucas Aerospace example of workers developing ways to transition from production for profit to production for social need.
Ed Miliband’s Labour ‘opposition’ is busy trying to ‘shrink the offer’, lower public expectations and commit to a programme of further austerity. Is it any wonder the polls suggest Labour is well behind where it ought to be if it is to defeat the Tories in 2015? By contrast, in 1974 the programme that brought Labour back to power offered ‘a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of working people’. A party with the vision to make such a promise, and the capacity to deliver on it, would not be a vestige of a world gone by. It would be the harbinger of a better future.
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