Exploring political change : Thatcherism and the remaking of the Labour Party 1979-1997
The politics of Thatcherism reflects a political and economic project rooted in the ideology of the New Right. While subject to the interplay of opportunity and circumstance, chance and fortune, the Thatcher and Major governments of 1979-1997 did pursue and largely enact a coherent political agenda. Thatcherism is best understood as a process enacted over time. At its very heart was an anti-statist commitment to roll back the frontiers not of the state per se but of the pre-existing 'social democratic' state. As a project simultaneously informed by an ideological doctrine and constrained by the dictates of statecraft, Thatcherism was an agent of political change, one which reconfigurated state and society at the same time it was responsive to political realities and electoral pressures. Rather than spring from nothing, Thatcherism was constructed over time and through experience. As a result, modem politics has seen a dramatic shift in favour of right-reformist neo-liberal politics at the expense of left-reformist social democratic politics. Through developing a theory of party competition driven party change this thesis explores the much remarked transformation of the Labour Party since 1983. It offers a theory of consensus politics that suggests consensus does not simply reflect a policy coincidence but implies a broad association on general principles which inform the policy decisions parties make. Policy is enacted within a consensual settlement reflecting implicit and unstated 'guiding assumptions' shared across parties, an 'agreement' existing in the form of a 'framework' and part of a prevailing political orthodoxy. Contemporary UK party politics are now enacted within a set of parameters enclosing a space on the centre right of politics; The political consequence of Thatcherism lie in a new political middle ground, a changed ideological space between Labour and the Conservatives, a process engendered by party competition driven party change. In programmatic terms, Labour has followed where Thatcherism has led. 'Modernisation' is a metaphor for the politics of Catch-Up, the process underpinning Labour's accommodation to (and adaption of) Thatcherism's neo-liberal political agenda. As an agency of change Thatcherism has helped recast mainstream ideological politics so influencing the prevailing political agenda to which Labour as an office seeking (and policy seeking) political agent has had to comply.