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Back to the Future. How is life in austerity Britain?

21/10/11
I was born in 1983. This was the year that Michael Foot’s Labour Party published a manifesto that would come to be known as the ‘longest suicide note in history.’

Twenty-eight years later, Britain has changed socially, economically and culturally. In the 1980s, there were 3 million people unemployed, strikes, riots, and a general sense of unrest among the working classes. The Labour Party of the 1990s recognised that discontent, and campaigned around the language of aspiration, with a “Britain can be better than this” tagline.

Many media commentators have made reference to a Britain that is regressing to the conditions of the 1980s a view that is subscribed to in recent pieces by Amelia Gentleman and Caitlin Moran.

To make comparisons with the past may seem trite, but as Churchill said, “those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat its mistakes”. The Coalition must be careful not to let Britain fall into the social and economic trap of the 1980s. 

Take the cuts for example. The Fawcett Society argued that these were unfairly skewed against women, and others have argued that single parents and young people are also the victims. By cutting local authorities’ budgets it could be argued that the Government has devolved the consequences of the cuts. So, as is happening around the country, when a young mum’s Sure Start centre closes, an elderly persons’ lunch club shuts down, and public sector workers lose their jobs it’s as a direct result of decisions taken at local rather than national level. Does this represent a shirking of responsibility and getting away with it? Or is this what devolved power is all about? Local government working with national government, and not being afraid to take tough decisions, the ultimate all in this togetherness?

The demonstrations over the summer, where thousands of students protested over tuition fees and trade union members marched to save their jobs and pensions are reminiscent of the 1980s, a time of civil unrest and people confronting the government.

During the 1980s, political infighting, views that were out of touch with those of the British people and a generally terrible public relations job left the Labour Party unelectable for 18 years. During this period the Conservatives were helped by a strong leader, a message that resonated with electorate and no viable opposition.

Today the Coalition has a strong leader in David Cameron and a message that resonates with the British public. The Coalition is tough, no nonsense, and the Big Society gives it a caring conservative vibe that is lacked during the 1980s.

To a degree, the Labour Party have managed to solve the problem of infighting, although there are those who would classify the Miliband’s relationship as old fashioned sibling rivalry. However, this is nothing compared to the tempestuous party conferences of the 1980s. The PR job undertaken by New Labour is still in place and a lot of what they say chimes with the “squeezed middle”. But is the Labour Party a credible, effective opposition, that the electorate believe could be an effective government? Or are they forced to repeat history and spend the next four terms out of office?

Aside from the comparisons, what we have to be aware of is the zeitgeist - the feeling amongst some people that they have got a raw deal out of the Coalition’s polices. Politics can change people’s lives, and I believe all politicians are driven by a sense that it is a force for good that can change lives for the better. The Coalition must ensure they “learn from history” and learn from the challenges that Britain has previously overcome.

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