Ever since I was old enough to understand adult discussions, I would always hear the opinion voiced, that there was no difference between the political parties in the U.K., and it didn’t matter who you voted for, as they were all the same. There was a time when this was inaccurate, to say the least. Following the Second World War, the Labour Party swept to power, unexpectedly defeating the Conservatives, who were led by Winston Churchill, a man many believed had been responsible for ultimate victory. This was a Labour Party with a radical new agenda. They would create the National Health Service, nationalise large industries, and provide better housing and living conditions for the majority of the population. Trades Unions would be represented, and have some input into policy-making. For the first time, ordinary people felt engaged in the political process, and believed that they could create change, making a better life for them, and for their children. This period was to last for six years, until the return of the Conservatives in 1951, in the shadow of the Cold war, and the conflict in Korea.
During this time, there were other political parties active in the UK. The Liberals of course, very different from the party of the similar name we know today, and there was also the British Communist Party. They had once sent volunteers to fight in the Spanish Civil War, and had attracted members from every walk of life, from aristocrats to miners. They were now suffering from the bad reputation of the Stalinist purges, and unable to change direction, instead broke into many factions. Within a short space of time, they had ceased to exist as a viable option in the UK. The parties of the extreme Right had suffered a similar fate, with the war fresh in the mind of the people, there was little chance of any electoral success for a party based on the political ideas of the Nazis. They existed in small groups, in areas where immigration could be used as an issue, and called themselves things like The White Defence League.
The Conservatives enjoyed eight more years of power. Trade was good, employment was more or less guaranteed, and as Harold Macmillan famously declared, they had never ‘had it so good’. The electorate felt that there was no need for more nationalisation, and that the then government had got it just about right. At the same time, the opposition parties were beginning to water down their radicalism. Labour had a new leader, Harold Wilson, the pipe-smoking, raincoat wearing, commonsense man. He gave no fiery rhetoric, preferring to portray the Labour Party as quite similar to the Conservatives, despite the funding from the Unions, and the fact that the majority of his support came from the working classes, outside the better-off south east of the country. This caused the activists within his party to start to form splinter groups.The largest, and arguably most successful of these, was Militant, striving to take the party back to its origins, and then even further to the Left. The extreme Right was enjoying a comeback, with the news of greatly increased immigration, and race riots in West London, membership of the main racist parties was on the increase. The Liberals still looked on; with no real policies, and no hope of ever forming a government, they could afford to support the ideas of anti-nuclear protestors, and generally denounce increasing Union power, and the news that both of the main parties were beginning to accept huge donations from businessmen and industrialists. This was not news of course, as it had always happened. It was just that it was beginning to be reported for the first time. So, they drifted through the seventies, Labour unsure how to play it, elections swinging either way between Heath, or Wilson/Callaghan. Then something unexpected happened. The Conservatives elected a woman as their leader, Margaret Thatcher. This daughter of a shopkeeper from rural Lincolnshire, promised a back-to-basics rule that would put the Unions back in their place, and elevate the workers to become home-owning middle classes. This spiteful, self-styled personification of Britannia, would put Britain back on the map, give new powers to the Police, bolster the Armed Forces, and put an end to the strikes and industrial disputes that had become part of life during the previous nine years. This not only captivated the old-school Tories, it also encouraged many women to vote in the election, many for the first time ever. They believed that she would understand. After all, she was a woman like them, a mother, a housewife. Of course, they couldn’t have been more wrong. The electorate handed power back to the Conservatives, perhaps not realising that whilst Thatcher may have been the figurehead, it was still the bankers, and the famous ‘grey men’ who actually wielded the real power. Labour had no real alternative to offer. They went from Wilson, to Callaghan, then Michael Foot, and later Neil Kinnock, unable to decide whether to remain true to their policies, or to provide an ‘acceptable face’ to remain in power. However, there was still a massive difference between the policies on offer from the two main parties. You could choose the politics of John Bull, jingoism, and Union Jack, or stick with the ideas of Socialism, Union representation, and continued nationalisation, with the basic ideal of fairness for the majority.
For eight long years, the UK decided to cling on to these old style Tory policies. Thatcher was re-elected, even though the cracks were beginning to show. With no viable opposition, they even tolerated John Major, arguably the most insignificant leader in British history. They did not want Union power to return, after it had been all but dismantled by the Thatcher administration They wanted to hang on to their cheaply-bought Council houses, watching the property value rise, so they could sell up, and move to a ‘nicer’ area. They saw Labour riven by internal strife, and extreme Left-wing controlled Borough Councils accused of being ‘Loonies’ by the media. But Labour needed a victory. They had to get back in, to make good their promises to the rich backers, and industrialists, who were now making up the financial shortfall lost from the Unions. There was only one way to achieve this, they had to become Conservatives, in all but name. They expelled all the militants, and disassociated themselves from any common policies. They changed their attitude towards the Unions, and began to use terms like ‘The Social Contract’. Gone was the image of the cloth-capped, predominantly Northern, industrially employed, Labour supporter. They were now University educated, aspiring upper class, tempering their regional accents, to sound better on the news. Twenty years earlier, you would have been able to tell the difference between a Labour politician, and a Tory, just by looking at a photograph. Not any more. These ‘New labour’ people were smarter, slicker, computer-literate yuppies, for whom power was the only goal.
It had taken 67 years, but there was finally no difference.