Asses the Reasons for Thatcher's dominance in the 1980s

The precise reasons for the dominance that Thatcher brought to British politics after years of turmoil are still disputed.  For some it is her revolutionary social policies, for others it is her disposition of Keynesian economics or her personal brand of leadership.  However, the reason for debate is the gross disparity between the weak Labour Party and the innovative Tory party.  While the importance of this changed over time; the initial Tory landslide victory in 1979 was due to the uproar against the ‘Winter of Discontent’, the Conservatives were winning elections based on their own merits by 1987, so this is of paramount importance during the 1980s. 
The Conservatives were ushered into Downing Street on a wave of anti-Labour sentiment in 1979.  Labour were punished for their failure to tame inflation, unemployment and powerful trade unions. Their collective failures were epitomised by the ‘Winter of Discontent’.  Labour failed to recover from this defeat, as subsequent image problems plagued them throughout their years in opposition.  They were able to seriously contest seats only in 1987 under Kinnock.  They were still grounded in outdated planned economies, which were subject to much criticism by economic libertarians.  The people were slow to forget the piles of undisposed waste and the three day week, and as a result, the Tories were elected by default until 1987.  Their first term in power introduced many unpopular policies, such as Howe’s deflationary measures of cutting expenditure and raising taxes.  Mass unemployment resulted due to Thatcher’s new business-like philosophy, but the dire, divided state of Labour under the uninspiring Michael Foot gave the Conservatives a safety net for their initial economic woes, and were gifted time for Thatcher’s brilliant economic policies to stimulate the economy, which was buoyed by the discovery of North Sea oil, and their appeal enhanced by the ‘Falklands Factor’ of patriotism that swept the nation.  Therefore, the initial Tory ascension to power was due to Labour weaknesses and it was allowed to remain in power due to the lingering spectre of the Winter of Discontent.  This is the most important factor, as Labour were not truly electable until 1987, which made Conservative domination the natural state of affairs for the vast majority of the 1980s.


After the Stagflation that plagued Labour, Thatcher abandoned the Post War consensus that Keynesian economics were imperative to maintain full employment at any economic cost.  Inflation was extremely effectively dealt with by Howe’s 1980 and 81 budgets with deflationary measures to cut government expenditure, borrowing and increase taxes.  While this caused an initial economic downturn, the economy recovered by 1982.  Britain was competitive on the world stage once again, with wage demands, inflation and striking falling.  After the initial economic woes, an inevitable consequence of neo-liberal economics, as the components of the economy take time to adjust to the market forces they were previously sheltered from by government spending.  From 1983-89, taxes were slashed and Britain became the most lightly taxed nation in Europe, although the cost of living rose due to the new emphasis on indirect taxation.   Thus, people felt they were more prosperous as they took home far more money from their salaries.  This won huge support from the upper and middle classes, who could afford the more expensive goods, but this affluence was merely a fa├žade for the working classes whose purchasing power was lowered by pricier goods.  The privatisation also benefitted this portion of the population, who could afford to acquire a stake in the economy due to Thatcher’s privatisation.   While a degree of the economic success was due to the North Sea oil that Britain was exporting, Thatcher recognised the beneficial shift in Britain’s economic fortunes, and adopted deregulatory policies that complemented this situation.  As a result , she was rightly credited by many of her contemporaries for the economic success that characterised the 1980s for the majority of Britons.  While important, this factor is subordinate to the weakness of Labour.  If the electorate of 1979 and 1983 voted with hindsight, they undoubtedly would’ve ushered in Thatcher’s party, but in reality they were presented with a squabbling Labour advocating Keynesian economics which were largely discredited by the devastation of the Winter of Discontent and a Tory party trying something new.  Neo-liberal economics have a certain lag time, during which a painful transition to market forces is made (unemployment, falling manufacturing output and rising prices), but the un-electability of Labour meant that this was of little consequence to the electorate, who had no choice but to trust Tory promises of an upturn, lest they be plunged into certain economic disaster by Labour’s overly interventionist economic views.

John Maynard Keynes, mastermind and namesake of Keynesian economics

Thatcher’s social policies contributed to her stranglehold on British politics, but is of less relative importance to Labour weaknesses.  While her business-minded reforms to key services were necessary and beneficial, they would have been met with uproar had a genuine alternative been offered by a strong Labour party.  The business principles applied to the NHS; hospitals became self governing NHS trusts, NHS services competed with each other and GPs became fund-holders, injected some much needed financial discipline into the swollen, bureaucratic NHS administration, it represented the first stage in the privatisation of the NHS for many people.  While Labour argued that business principles geared towards profit rather than patient care were unsuitable for a public service, it was unable to damage the Tories as their inefficient, over-manned organisation was discredited as a functional alternative.  This was because of chronic overspending and disasters such as the Birmingham children hospital conundrum.   Her changes to universities were similarly controversial.  She cut university budgets, forcing them to find alternate sources of revenue, thereby increasing tuition fees, stripped some academics of their security of tenure and abolished polytechnic centres.  These two changes marked a major shift, and ran contrary to the Socialist principles contained within Labour’s Clause IV.  However, their view was so entirely disbelieved that Thatcher’s policy was regarded as the only logical option, despite the protest by many elements of the political left.   While the opponents to some of her social policies were unable to voice their disdain through an effective Labour Party, they had no answer to her brilliant education and housing policies.  Her reformation of secondary schools made them more equal; hitherto, CSE students were disregarded by employers, there was no control over the content taught in school and schools often ran grossly over-budget.  This was mitigated by Thatcher’s GCSE, National Curriculum and self-budgeting schools.  This benefitted much of the working class and middle classes in equal measure, thus reinforcing her existing support base and making inroads into traditional Labour strongholds.  This was enhanced by her option of council house purchase.  This would reward hard working and self-reliant members of the working class. This gave the impression that the Tories were the party for wealth creators and Labour was merely the backward-thinking redistributive party of the stagnant 1970s.  While this is important as Thatcher acquired many new bases of support, it was not as significant as Labour unelectability.  Had Labour been a functioning political entity with viable alternatives, it would have punished the Tories for some of their seemingly dubious policies, however, these were glossed over as the electorate had no real choice and Thatcher was able to implement the entirety of her fantastic social polices rather than being ground down in ideological debate.

Thatcher's education reforms were met with resistance by some 

To conclude, the weakness of Labour was a factor that underlay all of the Tory electoral and policy victories throughout the 1980s.   It allowed for the implementation of Thatcher’s ground-breaking neo-liberal economic and social policies despite their initial hardships.  These policies include a painful transition to tandem with market forces. Had Labour not been in disarray, their deflationary measures, would have resulted in ousting.  Until these policies had taken full effect by the mid-80s, Thatcher was unable to win elections based on her own proven merit, but this was not a problem due to Labour’s inability to realistically compete until 1987.  Without the crucial Labour weaknesses, the Tories would not have implemented their fantastic social and economic policies to their full extent without the safety net provided by a backward-looking Labour. 


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