Labour warms to Margaret Thatcher in bid to widen UK electoral appeal

Labour is co-opting the memory of former UK Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher as an unlikely weapon to help Sir Keir Starmer broaden his electoral appeal and win seats across the Tory heartlands.

Shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves and David Lammy, shadow foreign secretary, have recently joined Starmer in endorsing the reforming vision and drive of the “Iron Lady”, even if they do not agree with all her policies.

Britain’s longest-serving premier of the 20th century, Thatcher curbed the power of trade unions, privatised utilities and closed coal pits in the north of England — moves strongly criticised by the left.

Allies of the Labour leader confirmed that speaking warmly about Thatcher — albeit with heavy caveats — was part of an attempt to widen the main opposition party’s appeal and reassure wavering former Tory voters ahead of the general election expected this autumn.

“We’ve always needed to push well beyond the red wall to win a general election,” said one Starmer ally, referring to the working-class former Labour seats won by Conservative leader Boris Johnson at the last election.

“We need to make double-digit gains in every region of England and pick up some seats that have never had a Labour MP. To do that we need a broad appeal,” the person added.

Rachel Reeves told City figures last month that Britain was at an ‘inflection point’, as it had been when Thatcher came to power
Shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves told City figures last month that Britain was at an ‘inflection point’, as it had been when Margaret Thatcher came to power © Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

In another manifestation of Starmer trying to appear less tribal and appeal to former Tory voters, the Labour leader and his deputy Angela Rayner last week wrote an article praising Johnson’s vision for “levelling up”, but claimed Prime Minister Rishi Sunak had failed to deliver on it.

The flirtation with former Tory leaders took a new turn when Reeves told City figures in her Mais economic lecture on March 19 that Britain was at an “inflection point” as it was in the late 1970s, when Thatcher came to power and replaced an exhausted Labour government.

The shadow chancellor went on to criticise Thatcher’s failure to develop a strong society and said that — unlike in the 1980s — a Starmer government would seek “broad-based, inclusive, and resilient” growth.

But her nod to Thatcherite economic reforms was widely picked up by papers that have traditionally backed the Conservatives, such as the Daily Telegraph.

One ally of Reeves said of Thatcher’s government, which ruled between 1979 and 1990: “It wasn’t the right sort of growth, but the economy grew, we became wealthier and she shook things up.”

Meanwhile, Lammy told Politico’s Power Play podcast in March that Thatcher had been a “visionary leader for the UK”, reflecting admiration in senior Labour circles for her single-minded approach to governing.

“You can take issue with Mrs Thatcher’s prescription, but she had a big manifesto for change and set about a course that lasted for over two decades,” the shadow foreign secretary said.

Margaret Thatcher on the steps of 10 Downing Street after visiting Gordon Brown and his wife Sarah in 2007
Margaret Thatcher on the steps of 10 Downing Street after visiting Gordon Brown, then Labour prime minister, and his wife Sarah in 2007 © Alessandro Abbonizio/AFP via Getty Images

Given that Thatcher remains a toxic politician for many Labour voters, particularly in towns that were deindustrialised in the 1980s, the strategy of saying positive things about her is a calculated risk.

But Starmer set the ball rolling in December when he wrote in the Sunday Telegraph that Thatcher had effected “meaningful change” for Britain. Previous Labour leaders have trodden the same path.

In 2007 Gordon Brown invited Thatcher into Number 10 for tea as he tried to create a “big tent” around his new administration, intended to reassure former Tory voters that he would not be a tribal Labour prime minister.

Sir Tony Blair, upon Thatcher’s death in 2013, said she had been a “towering political figure” and that he had seen his job as being “to build on some of the things she did rather than reverse them”.

Asked in 2002 about her greatest achievement, Thatcher answered: “Tony Blair and New Labour. We forced our opponents to change their minds.”

Where once Thatcher was reviled in Labour circles, today her association with radical reforms and standing up to Russia appears irresistible to some senior party figures.

Tony Blair with Margaret Thatcher in 1999
Tony Blair with Margaret Thatcher in 1999. After her death in 2013 he said he had seen his job as being ‘to build on some of the things she did rather than reverse them’ © John Stillwell/PA

She remains an icon for many politicians on the right in the UK and the US: Sunak has long been a fervent admirer, and Nikki Haley invoked Thatcher as she ended her campaign for president this month.

On the face of it, praising Thatcher seems an odd way for Labour to try to win back 50 red wall seats in the Midlands and north of England.

But Starmer expects to regain most of those constituencies in any event and is looking to widen Labour’s attack into Tory heartlands in the south of England. He has a roughly 20-point polling lead but needs to gain about 125 seats to achieve a House of Commons majority of one.

James Kanagasooriam, pollster at Focaldata, noted that about 55 per cent of the electorate were not voting-age adults when Thatcher was ousted in 1990.

But he said: “I think it’s to convey a detoxification message to older classic Conservative-Labour swing voters who are consistently sceptical towards Labour on whether it can manage the economy prudently and whether it can be trusted to provide defence to its citizens at home and abroad.”

Richard Leonard, former Labour leader in Scotland, expressed anger at Reeves’ comments. “In the 1980s manufacturing was butchered, factory after factory closed, privatisation was let rip, unemployment rocketed — the rich got richer and inequality soared,” he said.

Starmer hopes to win a swath of constituencies north of the border later this year. But praising Thatcher is also a risk in Scotland, where she was highly unpopular, in part because it allows the governing Scottish National party to claim Labour and Tories are essentially offering the same policies.

Stephen Flynn, SNP leader at Westminster, mocked both Sunak and Starmer in the Commons last week.

“With his backbenchers looking for a unity candidate to replace him, which of the now numerous born-again Thatcherites on the Labour front bench does the prime minister believe best fits the bill?”, he asked the prime minister.

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