Centrist and right wing commentators have feverishly debated the merits of erecting a statue of Margaret Thatcher at Westminster in the past few weeks. Writer and Greens activist Brian Finlay offers his emphatic repudiation: why would we erect a monument to Thatcher when we’re living through one?
The name Margaret Thatcher is one that resonates with more or less every single person the UK. It’s met with scoffing or near hatred by a huge proportion of working class people and a sense of pride and ‘Britishness’ with others. The connotations of the stern and confident female leader is enough to make any Conservative Party supporter think of the good old days and get weak at the knees and. The good old days when LGBTIQ+ rights in the classroom were silenced and we used excessive force against Argentinian navy ships to install British pride. They’re certainly not getting the Iron Lady 2 with Theresa May, who’s proven as strong and stable as mercury at room temperature but perceived as no more ‘likeable’ to the majority of the working class.
The debate around erecting a statue of Thatcher outside the parliament at Westminster has gone on for sometime now. It’s an argument that has surfaced again recently – and not just from Tories. For some, the fact she was the country’s first female Prime Minister is enough of an accolade to memorialise, but that doesn’t justify her being set in stone, or in iron with a large swinging handbag as some doting commentators have joked, when we’re all essentially living through a monument to Thatcherism. We live in country with a welfare state that’s being decimated, bureaucratically alienated from its users and stigmatised by the right wing press and the ‘just about managing’.
We live in a country with a shameful social housing sector, which was sold off for state profit with Maggie’s ‘vote winning’ right-to-buy policy. This scheme famously allowed many working class people to own a property, but it has residualised social housing and led to a serious decline in the desirability of housing estates once sought after under state ownership. Others have written extensively about the other ways in which her dangerous ideology inflicted harm on the working class people of the UK in the 1980’s – the Poll Tax alone demands an essay.
This article is, rather, a brief repudiation of Thatcher’s legacy, something that constantly needs to be shared and reinforced. Her record was toxic from the very start: when she came into power in 1979, she won on a vow to fight the unions. The ‘winter of discontent’ had triggered a knee jerk shift to Conservatism among the population – her ‘traditional school teacher’ attitude to politics seemed to appeal.
She was a strong woman ‘of the people’ capable of taking on the male domination of Trade Unions, who were scuppering the UK’s productivity and holding public services to ransom. So goes the narrative. Trade union rights were methodically butchered through a plethora of legislation, transforming employment relations in this country. Her government went on to sell off public utilities, including coal mining, gas providers and water.
The ideological assumption was that a competitive market would improve service delivery, keep costs down and improve productivity in these industries. We now know too well how that has worked out. This was a turbulent time for manufacturing workers and working class communities across the country. The miners strike of 1983/84 wasn’t just symbolic of her domineering personality; it remains an artifact in history that demonstrates how aggressively ideological Thatcher’s regime was in empowering employers.
This bit of context will be unnecessary for most readers, but it’s worth reinforcing just how deeply embedded her principles became in our wider society and political culture. Her neo-liberal agenda and quest for an unregulated free market wasn’t halted or even minimised by New Labour’s 13 year government.
Today, where huge industrial estates and other hard industry once stood, we see retail parks and leisure parks. Where small independent businesses used to occupy our high streets, we see national and multi-national chain corporations occupy the sites that still remain open. In Scotland, around 25% of the working population are in the service sector, which includes retail, sales or hospitality. Just under ten per cent of Scots work in hotels or restaurants.
Traditionally, the vast majority of the Scottish workforce was employed in manufacturing, production, energy extraction or manual labour. Some commentators say the reduction in this type of work is due to the number of women now in the workplace (40% of today’s workforce is female) but factor out the decimation of industry that remains clearly visible in Northern England and parts of Wales.
This was a deliberate and significant move because service sector workers tend not to have less collective representation or be represented by trade unions, hindering their bargaining power with employers. The story post-Thatcher has been a rapid decline in trade union membership decline, with the only ‘real’ authorities remaining within the public sector.
Even then, public sector trade unions are under continuous attack from Theresa May’s government, with the austerity-led public sector pay cap seeking to weaken what’s left of our trade union movement. The UK’s service sector is where we see some of the lowest wages, precarious working conditions and low-skilled repetitive work. Many of these jobs have face-to-face customer interaction 100% of the time, exposing the employee to high levels of exhausting emotional labour and leading to burnout.
These precarious types of employment manifest through zero hour contracts (see our activist guide) or as ‘self-employed’ style of working with a central employer, referred to as the ‘gig economy’. If an employee is on such contract, they have no guaranteed amount of working hours per week from their employer. This gives the employer the manpower they need when required without having to pay employees when they’re not needed.
This also makes it possible for employers to stop giving hours to employees that don’t ‘fit’ or don’t produce high levels of productivity. Cutting a worker’s hours or removing them completely is common if they’re ‘problematic’ or seen as a trouble maker, meaning the employer holds nearly all the power. These working conditions have been utterly normalised in retail and hospitality. Employees with limited influence or power can do very little – these jobs are relatively low skilled a disgruntled employee can be replaced relatively easily and quickly.
Gig economy working arrangements, where employees don’t receive the same benefits or rights as employees, is also increasingly common in growing courier companies like DHL and Hermes, where employees must rent their vehicle, uniforms or even buy the fuel for delivering the parcels. It’s also the mode of employment used by taxi firms like Uber.
We also see employees being monitored centrally by management to ensure their productivity, with targets around working hours and even levels of customer service set by management. What we now see in the new employment age is employees being controlled by an app on their phone, which they require to utilise to gain access to work.
The Conservative Government ‘investigated’ these types of employment practices and have provided concessions by imposing that these employees must receive the National ‘Living’ Wage and be entitled to annual leave, but this does not address the core issues of power, control and the precarious nature of the jobs. Companies that adopt the gig-economy model can revoke the offer of work for that day with no notice and choose not to meet the required standard of work or offer work going forward. This has cut out lengthy management procedures and prevented employers being taken to tribunal.
All this is significant because looking at it from the employers’ perspective can help us deduce how successful Thatcher was in her goal, and also what we’re up against. In Thatcher’s neo-liberal utopia, precarious work has installed uncertainty, in-work poverty and further job degradation and deskilling.
Jobs are designed to be as simplified and controlled as possible, often by technology as the first contact ‘line manager’, resulting in very little autonomy. It’s logical that job satisfaction and organisational commitment predominantly comes from autonomous flexible work, but it’s now seen as more profitable to ensure jobs are de-skilled, repetitive and highly controlled.
This is Thatcher’s monument: a nation of powerless workers where the employer holds most, if not all, of the power. A nation where much of the Scottish workforce is essentially trapped in in-work poverty and an uncertain financial position due to having no employment security. A nation where a tiny proportion of the hospitality workforce has trade union membership, these are the working practices offer. A nation where our contemporary labour market is of the most unequal in the ‘developed’ world and there are cases of CEO’s being paid 125 times more than junior member of staff. A nation where the necessity of foodbanks increases every month due to in-work poverty and the implementation of heartless Universal Credit welfare reforms.
We all live and work in the monument sculpted by Thatcher’s governments ideological ideals, and this monument has been embellished by New Labour and Coalition/Conservative governments that served after her. We don’t need reminded by a glorified statue outside the Palace of Westminster because we are reminded everyday. Her legacy is wealth inequality in the sixth largest economy in the world. Let’s be unequivocal in our opposition to those fawning after a Prime Minister that inflicted irreversible social harm on the people she was elected to represent.
This piece has been adapted with permission from a piece on the Lefty in a Business School Blog.