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What will a Miliband-Thatcher brand achieve?



Characterising the leadership of Margaret Thatcher is difficult. The problem is that, despite the perceived ‘successes’ of her tenure of government, her administration is generally accepted to have been very socially divisive. For many, she is the complete opposite of ‘inspirational’, and yet listening to current Conservative MPs talk there is a genuine nostalgia and affection for her period of government.


What can Ed Miliband possibly hope to emulate from the leadership style of Margaret Thatcher? Thatcher’s early leadership can definitely be characterised as a ‘crisis’ one, in that full bin liners were not being collected from the streets, there were power blackouts, Britain was going to the IMF to seek a loan, for example. However, the crisis now is one which does not have such visible effects. Miliband can hope to point to falling living standards, or increasing prices due to privatised industries making a profit through collusive pricing, but this is an altogether more subtle argument. A key difference is that people can only blame the business models of the privatised industries, not government directly. Whether this will also be the case as an increasing proportion of NHS gets done by private providers is yet to be seen.


It is perhaps more likely that Thatcher’s leadership, in the early stages at least, migth be described as “charismatic”, involving both charisma and vision. Conger and Karungo famously described five behavioural attributes of charismatic leadership. They are: vision and articulation, sensitivity to the environment, sensitivity to member needs, personal risk taking, and performing unconventional behaviour. In a weird way, Thatcher in her period of government can claim to have provided examples of many of these, but it is the period of social destruction at the time of closure of coal mines which will cause doubt on sensitivity to the environment. While ‘Basildon man’ and ‘Ford mondeo’ man might have been looked after, apparently, ‘Easington man’ was clearly not. A ‘One Nation’ philosophy promoting one economy and one society might not be a trite construct for this, after all. The problem is that ‘Basildon man’ has himself moved on; the ‘right to buy’ is the flagship Tory policy epitomising independence, aspiration and choice for the modern Tory, as resumed by Robert Halfon, but there is ultimately a problem if Basildon man is not able to maintain mortgage payments, or there is a general dearth of social housing.


In a way, looking at the failures of Thatcher’s leadership style is a bit academic now, but still highly relevant in reminding Miliband that his ‘political class’ cannot be aloof from the voters. It is a testament to the huge ‘brand loyalty’ of the Thatcher brand that there are so many eulogies, and one enduring hagimony from the BBC, to Thatcher. Jay Conger provides a way of understanding how charismatic leadership is to be maintained, and the “Poll Tax” is symptomatic of Thatcher’s failure of these aspects. Conger identifies continual assessment of the environment, and an ability to build trust and commitment not through coercion. Miliband likewise needs to be mindful of his immediate environment too: his stance on Workfare disappointed many members of Labour, causing even 41 of his own MPs to rebel against the recent vote, and upset many disabled citizens who are members of Labour. What happens when charismatic leadership goes wrong can be identified clearly in the latter years of the Thatcher administration. These include relatively unchallenged leadership, a tendency to gather “yes men”, and a tendency to narcissism and losing touch with reality. I still remember now (and I am nearly 39), the classic, “We have become a grandmother” and that awful Mansion House spectacle when Mrs Thatcher proclaimed that ‘the batting had been tough of late’ whilst maintaining a quasi-regal ambience.


I personally disagree with the notion that elections are won from the ‘centre ground’, particularly because I conceptually do not find the classification of ‘left’ and ‘right’ helpful (especially if you, like me, wish to embrace “One Nation Labour” with genuine goodwill). To use the market analogy, I think it’s like making an offering which looks and functions like an iPod, but which has some of the features missing; you might as well buy the real thing. A more sensible strategy for a competitor to the incumbent is to offer something really disruptive; in other words, something which offers some of the good qualities of the current market leaders, but which adds useful value. Ironically, enough time has passed since the airbrushing of socialism from the mainstream UK political system occurred with the advent of New Labour for Ed Miliband to give this another go. You can argue until the cows come home, and many mere mortals who are management theorists have given it a go, about whether charismatic leadership needs both charisma and vision. Despite Denis Healey’s famous doubts about whether Ed Miliband has charisma, it seems that Fraser Nelson has latterly judged Ed Miliband to be quite personable. Certainly, Ed Miliband to come close to becoming a charismatic leader himself needs to have an extremely clear vision. He may have to “think the unthinkable”, and make an unrealistic promises such as a NHS which is ‘comprehensive, and free-at-the-point-of-use’ (still miraculously, though, in the current NHS constitution). However, to borrow George Osborne’s phrase, “there is a debate to be had”, about whether the deregulation of markets under the Conservatives and New Labour did lead to a climate which encouraged the global financial crash to spread to the London markets. There is also a debate to be had about the ‘market failures’ of privatised industries. Sure, nobody is wishing ‘Thomas Cook’ to become a state-owned travel agent, or you to wait a month to have a phone line fitted by the State. But this is to present outdated, prejudiced, ‘Aunt Sally’ arguments. There is a debate to be had instead about whether we wish certain national services, like utilities or railways, to be fragmented, at relatively high prices, and where there is clearly a substantial benefit to shareholders and corporate directors but little benefit to consumers. Nobody wants to see the Unions ‘holding the country to ransom’, but it is a triumphant failure of Tony Blair and New Labour that this demonising malicious memes have been allowed to remain alive almost forty years on. Nearly all people, instead, firmly believe in the idea of democratic representation, and this has now become vital in abuse of the workforce by certain employers. We hear stories all-the-time of powerful corporates using ‘zero hour contracts’, and it is this Government which has seen the dilution of employment rights of workers and employees (reduced eligibility for unfair dismissal claims, and a lower quantum of award.) And, finally, there is a debate to be had about what exactly underlies the ‘maximum number of people in employment’ claim; is it for example an increased number of part-time, flexible workers who are under-employed, or is it an artefact of migrant workers from Eastern Europe who are doing temporary jobs in the UK?


Ed Miliband has often many times remarked about his thoughts have been ‘shaped’ by Margaret Thatcher, despite the fact he is very clear he disagreed with many of the views of Thatcher. We need, however, a frank discussion of where Britain goes from here. Frankly, a pig with a rosette could have won certain Labour seats in Scotland, but those days are over. Labour’s membership started to go into decline from around 2002/3, long predating the fall in membership after the Iraqi war. The ‘paying of respects’ to the late Baroness Thatcher has allowed some Tory ideology to go unchallenged, such as the importance of the Unions in society, or the failure of privatised industries. However, what Ed Miliband can hope to emulate is a precise articulation of a vision. Miliband has to prove that he is the right person for the right times (2014/5), like Blair, Thatcher and Cameron/Clegg might have been. If Labour is to be given the honour of a mandate in 2015, it needs to have an extremely clear idea of what it hopes to achieve, and for whom.

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