Plans to now privatize Britain’s Royal Mail draw parallels with Thatcher utility sell-offs, but while the 80s was a time of ferocious marketization, it was also a hugely vital time politically as new radical ideas were developed and practiced, often in highly fraught and contested contexts.
Of course the 80s and today, in Britain, aren’t identical; but what’s interesting is what we might learn about the present’s potential from this earlier era. In relation to the political vitality of Thatcher’s Britain two features proved particularly striking: 1. the place of public institutions, particularly local government, in advancing and forging a transformative politics as radical politics entered the state’s varied limbs and organs and sought to deploy them; 2. the relations of solidarity and alliance around equality and the politics of difference. Some of these exercises in solidarity were deeply symbolic – gay activists’ support for the miners’ strike; the presence of a reciprocating straight mining contingent at gay pride. But the 1980s was in large part about cultural politics, about the importance of shaping and re-presenting how people understand the world and their relationship to it; whether it was ideas of a ‘rainbow’ coalition or Gramscian notions of counter-hegemony intent on building linkages between different progressive movements to create a new common sense.
There is much that is politically deeply depressing today – collectively and for those whose lives have become very insecure. But while eras of Conservative rule are depressing, and while much energy goes into defending existing welfare policies and funding practices – which now appear progressive because they are under attack – these are also times of political inventiveness, experimentation and creativity, something that can get lost during Labour administrations, as attention focuses on steering and influencing new policy and legal developments at (and from) the centre.
What is not yet apparent is the character of the new political formations that will emerge today with the energy that equality’s fusion had – as of course, importantly, did its fission – in the 1980s. Undoubtedly, equality politics will remain important, but in a sense equality’s absorption by a liberal state seems to be approaching its limits, a limit that continues to bracket out, indeed relies upon bracketing out, class.
One possibility, in the UK, that may create the kinds of convergence or articulations, I’m thinking of, is a politics of spatial justice concerned with land’s access, control and belonging in the face of escalating neo-liberal tendencies, and the moral politics or ethics of our relationship to the earth. In recent years there have been progressive struggles over migration and refugee status, privatization of public lands, homelessness, environmental damage, stop and search, participative public space projects, and rights of way; all raise profound questions about our rights and freedom to travel, move, and dwell, and the controls put in place that structure how land is used and developed, and by whom (one high profile current example being the loss of state benefits for people on welfare deemed to have “extra” rooms. Of course, the extra rooms of rich people are outside the terms of debate, approached as a property right rather than a discretionary state benefit.)
Political power or irruption comes when movements that have identified their struggles as separate come together around new, differently framed political principles. But political ideas and causes aren’t enough. We need political spaces or networks which articulate constituencies and movements together, spaces where not only can new arguments be made, but where the practices they suggest can also materialize.
One challenge in Britain today is identifying what will take up this ‘gluing’ and innovating role. Public bodies, such as local government and broadcasting (the early years of Channel 4), were once well placed to do this, thanks not only to their reach and visibility, but also to their power to publicly actualize – and also to defend – the change they wished to see. In the 1980s, political bodies on the left, such as the CP, and trade unions also played a focal and gelling role, as in a very different way did Greenham Women’s Peace Camp. The strength of these bodies wasn’t just in generating agreement – far from it. They also hosted and incited energetic opposition from left-wing critics – witness the vociferous debates in the women’s movement about the intersecting politics of peace, class and racism, for example.
But which bodies are emerging to do this today? Are we currently confronting the ‘empty place’ of counter-hegemony? Can new social media and more anarchic forms of ordering fill it? Do we need to rethink what constitutes political embodiment as we try to imagine the kinds of bodies that can do the work of meshing, stitching or articulating? I’m not sure. A striking feature of 1980s urban politics was that so many of the measures that the right decried as loony, and which the left girded themselves to defend, such as lesbian and gay equality, became conventionalized and accepted subsequently. Of course, these processes of institutionalization come at a cost; more radical and challenging positions get organised out, as they fail to fit the paradigms governments can work with.
And, of course, politics is about far more than take-up at the centre. Still the processes by which this happens highlight the temporary and contingent character of terms such as “loony left”. The Labour Party nationally shies away from this label. But loony identifies the experimental and energetic cutting edge of politics – like the wild cry of its namesake. Where are the “loony” politics in Britain today?