Lessons of the Tory Triumph

Report Political Process

Lessons of the Tory Triumph

June 13, 1983 3 min read Download Report
Stuart M.

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6/13/83 26


M argaret Thatcher's crushing win in Britain's general election no doubt produced smiles all round at the White House, and even broader grins among GOP strategists planning a Reagan re-election bid. After all, Prime Minister Thatcher was swept back in'to.p ower while presiding over an unemployment rate of nearly 13 percent aftd a recovery still more \u239\'95 promise than a fact. Most economic forecasters expect Reagan to be in \u239\'95 much better position in the run-up to the 1984!election. Yet the lessons from Britain ar e a little more mixed for the Presi- dent than the landslide result suggests. The ca*paign was the culmina- tion of shrewd political groundwork laid carefully by the Conservatives during the last four years, aimed both at building support for the governme n t and at defusing damaging issues. Mani, of the actions of the Reagan Administration, on the other hand, seem to have had exactly the opposite effect. Only time will tell if the difkerence is fatal. The Tory campaign displayed remarkable effectiveness in d ealing with sensitive issues. The Campaign for Nuclear Disakmament, Britain's freeze movement, was attacked vigorously and methodicaliy for the almost pro- Soviet stance of its leadership. The Conservativ'es did not allow the radical unilateralists to hid e behind a wall of honest, genuinely con- cerned men and women. The nuclear disarmament issue seemed to help Mrs. Thatcher, by enabling her to denounce Labor's-anti-nuclear policy as both naive and suspect. The Conservative campaign also 'built upon earlie r legislation designed in part to draw urban and black voters from the Labor column: Measures have been taken to improve police relations with minorities (mostly immigrants from the Commonwealth), and a,new law has clarified the immigration status of depen d ents and eased racial tension. So the Conservatives managed to portray themselves as the party of integration, based on equality of opportunity rather than spebial treatment. "Labor says he's black," asserted one campaign poster featuring a black youth, " T ories say he's British." In the cities, the Conservatives combined electoral damage control with an-effective counterattack. Within a year hnd a half of taking office, the government showed its commitment to urban job creation by designating 11 enterprise zones in key cities (tiie number was increased to 24 last year). Far more important, however, the Conservatives gave public housing tenants the right to buy their units at substantial


d iscounts. Over half a million have been sold in this way, turning many traditional Labor voters into homeowners sympathetic to Tory overtures. Most critical of all to the election success, Thatcher was able to defuse the issue of unemployment--now running at neatly 13 percent. Pre-election polls showed that about 50 per c ent of the population rated unemployment as the election's most serious issue. Yet the Conservatives picked up well over a quarter of the votes of the unemployed--almost half the number going to Labor. The Thatcher government did this by convincing the el e ctorate that real, lasting job@ could only come with a healthy and growing economy. The government stood steadfast against "jobs" bills, and refused even to predict the unemployment rate would fall. By maintaining this firm stand, Conservati,Ives could-ar g ue that they stood for policies aimed at permanent job ckeation, and denounce the other parties as favoring vote-buying short-term relief while endan- gering long-term growth. These features of the Conservative win shouid indicate to the White House that m uch work needs to be done if Ronald keagan is going to emu- late Mrs. Thatcher in 1984. Unlike his ally, Reagan has almost gone out of his way to alienate the black and urban vote. Administration bungling over civil rights will probably ensure a Democrati c shut-out among black voters. And the President's one votel-winning urban initia- tive, the enterprise zone proposal, has still to-pass the Republican- controlled Senate in this third year of his Presidency. The economy still looks good for Reagan in 1984 , but the federal deficit may yet be his downfall. The total 4ovetnment deficit in the United States (including state and local deficit@, and "o 'ff-budget" items) is more than 10 percent of the nation's GkP. Mrs. Thatcher, on the other hand, fought the el e ction with a total deficit of under 3 percent, projected to fall to 2 percent by 1986, and a zero "structural deficit." This was achieved not by massive tax increases, but by tight control over public spending, together with the r@estructuring and "priva- tization" (that is, the sale) of government-owned industries. The Conservative strategy, then, was based on a mixture of offense and defense. Potentially damaging issues and voier blocs were defused and courted, while other normally hostile voters.were wo n over by innova- tive policies. The strategy was so successful that bookmakers in London refused to take bets in the campaign's final dayt, because the odds on a Conservative win were too great. Unless Ronald Reagan-learns the real lessons of the British election, that is unlikely to happen here. Stuart M. Butler, Ph.D. I Director of Domestic Policy Studies

For further information:

"The Thatcher Style," The Economist, May 21, 1983. "Britain Has Bad News for Our Democrats," Washington Post,; June 5, 1983. "What Rath Thatcher Wrought," Business Week, June 6, 1983.': "Blueprint for a Second Thatcher Term?" Wall Street Journal, June 9, 1983.



Stuart M.