Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Thatcher's Election Lesson

Much has been made this week of how Margaret Thatcher polarised opinion. There is no doubt about that.

Much has also been said about how she was only for the southern, middle and upper classes, and against everyone else. I believe that is wrong. And the reason it's wrong holds a valuable lesson for Ed Miliband and David Cameron as they try to plot a path to election victory in 2015.

For the last 15 years, I've lived and worked in Labour's union heartland, some of their safest seats in the country. But I was born and brought up for my first 18 years in one of the Tories' safest seats. I've experienced first-hand the way people viewed her from both ends of the telescope. But the electorate in these areas don't win or lose elections. Paradoxically, for someone seen to be so divisive, the reason Thatcher was so successful electorally was in the centre ground - the swing voters who hold the keys to 10 Downing Street voted for her in their millions.

To understand why, I'll give an example from my family - although I stress I am not passing my own judgements on the rights and wrongs of Thatcherism and I don't know how any of my family has ever voted. But this example is useful to understand the point I am making.

My parents were both NHS nurses throughout Thatcher's premiership, and for most of their working lives. In 1979 they were clearly working class. In 1991 they were landlords and shareholders, a status achieved only by their hard work as nurses and the opportunities they took advantage of in the 1980s. The concept of the Yuppie wasn't about rich people getting richer; it was about 'new money' earned by people from all sorts of backgrounds.

The lesson here is one that Cameron and Miliband would do well to remember. It is that Margaret Thatcher wasn't for any one class or region. Labour cannot win an election with only northern, working class votes, just as the Conservatives can't win one with only southern, middle class votes. She won three in a row, the latter two with large majorities - and, by the way, just like Tony Blair (and Cameron last time) people voted for the leader more than the party.

Far from being a leader for the few, Thatcher simply gave ordinary people of many backgrounds hope that they could make a better life for themselves and their families. That's what the current generation of political leaders need to do if they want to win in 2015.