'Back to the 1970s' - Theresa May's life on Mars

Written by Tom Freeman on 22 May 2017 in Inside Politics

Planet politics is dedicated to the decade of disco these days

'Jeremy Corbyn will take Britain back to the 1970s,’ was the opinion of many newspapers, as they leapt on the Labour Party’s leaked manifesto with warnings of a “socialist agenda”, which one Labour source described to The Telegraph as “Ed Miliband’s manifesto with hard-left hundreds and thousands sprinkled on top”.

This was not meant as misty-eyed nostalgia for tartan flares and brown walls, but rather the grimaced recollection of the Winter of Discontent – a reference to the clangers of successive governments rather than to the popular children’s television show. 

Miliband, like most Labour leaders before him on a manifesto launch, had had similar accusations made against him. Marks and Spencer’s chief Stuart Rose branded Miliband a “1970s throwback” in 2015, for example.


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But for those hopefully digging out their disco boots to dance to Corbyn’s tune, his ‘ultra-left’ manifesto proved to be rather more Britpop than Brezhnev.

Renationalisation of the Royal Mail would repeal a decision made in 2013. The re-establishment of a 50p tax band only looks back to 2012. The top rate was 75p in the '70s.

Scrapping of tuition fees and the NHS internal market, policies already functioning in Scotland, rolls back schemes introduced by Tony Blair’s government from 1998. Even rail and energy privatisation were products of the 1990s.

But Corbyn’s friends in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, who would have been at the peak of their influence in the late 70s, will have been dismayed that the replacement of the Trident nuclear weapons system apparently remains Labour policy. 

At the manifesto launch, responding to the allegations of regressing 40 years, Corbyn said: “The Tories want to bring back fox hunting and grammar schools. That sounds really 21st century, doesn’t it?”

In fact, his opponents need make no apology for embracing the 1970s. After all, returning to a time when the United Kingdom was outside the European project is a sentiment backed by a referendum result.

Although European negotiators have said May is on a “different galaxy” with her expectations for Brexit, her vision for post-EU Britain looks to be from a different decade.

May’s Brexit is to be built on an industrial strategy, something sneered at by Margaret Thatcher’s government in the 1980s and barely explored since. Indeed, state-directed industry was proposed by Tony Benn in 1975.

May has not steered away from talking about workers’ rights either. 

“At this great moment of national change, when the country is choosing which leader will take us through the Brexit negotiations and beyond, it is the Conservative Party that is the unashamed voice of ordinary working people once again,” she said, promising “the greatest extension of rights and protections for employees by any Conservative government in history”. 

And UK unemployment is at its lowest level in an election year since 1975. It’s currently at 4.7 per cent, although the method of calculating it has changed several times.

Nostalgia has found a happier home among the Conservatives. A quick change to our currency has seen the pound coin replaced by one resembling the old threepenny bit – which went out of circulation in 1971. The Government was also quick to pledge a return to the blue passport.

“There’s girl jobs and boy jobs, you see,” Theresa May said on The One Show, describing her family home and conjuring an image of the 1975 TV series The Good Life, only with Penelope Keith also running the country.

“Obviously, if you’re the kind of man who expects his tea to be on the table at six o’clock every evening, you could be a little bit disappointed,” Philip May quipped.

He wouldn’t be the only person pining for the past to be disappointed with the modern twist. After all, income inequality, which had narrowed from the 1940s to the 1970s, rose sharply since, with top earners seeing huge gains, even under the last Labour government.

The Resolution Foundation has pointed out that if May wins the election, it will be the first time an incumbent has won a general election while wages are falling.

But while focus groups indicate Corbyn’s ‘1970s’ agenda is popular, they remain unlikely to vote for it. 

Perhaps the most surprising poll was a Survation one for Good Morning Britain which showed the Conservatives are now more trusted on the NHS, a topic where Labour traditionally banks votes.

All the main polling companies have been putting the Conservatives at 48 or 49 per cent of the vote, although the Labour share has been creeping up to about 32 per cent, around what Ed Miliband won two years ago. 

Whether talk of tactical voting in England could make an impact remains to be seen, but on paper, May’s gamble to win a bigger majority appears to be paying off.

In Scotland, tactical voting would be far more favourable to the Conservatives, who appear to have succeeded in making the election a dress rehearsal for a second independence referendum. 

It is the third election in a row which has seen leader Ruth Davidson use such a tactic, after rallying the unionist vote behind her party in both the Holyrood and local elections.

Giving a speech to the George Orwell Foundation in London, Davidson said unionist Scots had been silenced by the SNP.

“In Scotland, political nationalism has introduced the idea that only one side of the constitutional divide can be the authentic voice of ‘the people of Scotland’. That only it has the right to be heard. That other voices are, by their nature, illegitimate and phoney,” she said.

Scottish Labour’s general election campaign manager James Kelly described the speech as “an embarrassment”.

“This is the leader who turned our political debate into a shouting match about flags rather than the issues people care about,” he said.

“At every turn, Ruth Davidson has put the narrow British nationalism of the Tories ahead of what’s best for the people of this country.”

Yet Conservative gains in Scotland has shown the approach has unquestioningly worked, and since the local elections, Labour has sought to consolidate its unionist rather than its devolutionary credentials.  

Detail on a new constitutional convention for federalism was thin in the party’s manifesto.

At its launch, Corbyn said holding another independence referendum would be “the wrong thing to do” for Scotland. 

Hearing a Labour leader make decisions for Scotland may have conjured for Scottish nationalists the 1979 Callaghan government repealing its own Scotland Act which had been endorsed by a narrow majority in a referendum.

“Labour will campaign tirelessly to ensure Scotland remains part of the UK. Independence would lead to turbo-charged austerity for Scottish families,” Corbyn said.

But the SNP were dismissive. “On Scotland, Labour can only mimic the Tories’ anti-independence obsession,” SNP deputy leader Angus Robertson said.

But in June if, unlike 2015, unionists vote tactically in Scotland against the SNP, the party could lose a number of seats, including Robertson’s, Moray, which came closest to voting for Brexit in the EU referendum.

Nicola Sturgeon has dismissed claims of a “backlash” over independence as “ludicrous”, but there are signs she has softened her party’s position on Europe.

In an interview with Andrew Marr, she said: “My position is I want Scotland to be in the EU. Now we have to set out if we’re in an independence referendum, and we’re not in that right now, the process for regaining or retaining, depending where we are in the Brexit process, EU membership.

“Now it may be that we have a phased approach to that by necessity.”

One of the factors behind this more cautious approach may be the wooing by the Conservatives of Scottish fishermen, a group perhaps most enthusiastic about a return to the 1970s, a time before the Common Fisheries Policy.

Bertie Armstrong, chief executive of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation, said: “The whole industry, from those who go to sea through the processors to the hauliers, is united behind one simple aim – our coming out of the EU and the CFP.

“Brexit offers us a huge opportunity to reassert control of our waters and to establish once and for all a sensible, practicable new fisheries management regime.”

Meanwhile on the other side of the Atlantic, 1970s comparisons are far less comfortable for another leader who campaigned on a nostalgic platform.

Donald Trump, who asked voters to “take back America”, is now answering to reflexive comparisons with Richard Nixon, who resigned in 1974 in the face of almost certain impeachment.

Senators lined up to label Trump “Nixonian” after the president dramatically fired FBI director James Comey, a man charged with heading the investigation into his own campaign’s ties to Russia.

Explaining the decision to NBC News, Trump said: “When I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story.”

Trump then tweeted hints he was recording his White House conversations, something Nixon was famous for doing.

Unlike Nixon, Trump himself is not under investigation, but he might want to avoid the comparisons with the 1970s.

As he has shown, nostalgic nationalism can be a vote winner, as long as you don’t look too hard at the historical footnotes. 

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