Barry Sheerman: We will need somebody with her originality to wake us up

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I WAS elected to the House of Commons on the same day as Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister.

You can imagine my astonishment when I came No. 1 in the list for the first Prime Minister’s questions, which meant I was going to ask her first question.

Unfortunately, my predecessor, Curly Mallalieu, died that week, and I had to withdraw from that first Prime Minister’s questions. It took me a long time to get another question to the Prime Minister.

Indeed, the next time I got a highly placed question, Willie Whitelaw was standing in for her. Eventually, on April 15, 1980, I said: “Will the Prime Minister take time today to reflect on the mounting evidence emerging this week – not only from her Chancellor of the Exchequer – that her economic strategy is destroying Britain’s industrial base?

“Will she further consider a 
reversal of those policies which have led to a soaring inflation rate of 20 per cent, rising unemployment and crippling interest rates that will soon turn this country into a banana republic, both economically and diplomatically?”

I mention that only because for a number of years I was a backbencher, and for a long time a shadow Minister, drilled to hate everything Mrs Thatcher stood for.

Over those years, I came to respect Margaret Thatcher because she commanded the Dispatch Box and 
was a fantastic Parliamentarian. However, we cannot pretend that people did not love and loathe her. In fact, the election results show 
that more people loved her than loathed her.

When I was at the London School of Economics, I studied with Michael Oakeshott and read Hayek, and I was very much influenced by both those gentlemen.

Oakeshott took me through a wonderful study of Machiavelli’s The Prince and Discourses , which tell us that for a leader – a prince or Prime Minister – to survive, they have to be lucky.

Mrs Thatcher was not only talented as a leader, but lucky. I was on the Opposition Benches knowing what a shambles the Opposition were. We spent more time fighting each other within the Labour party than we had time to fight the Government. It is not good for democracy to have such a weak Opposition as we had post- 1979.

Sometimes we stand up and say that Mrs Thatcher rolled over the mining communities, and she did. She caused great hardship. Terrible things happened to people in the mining communities, and the miners’ dispute should have ended much sooner than it did.

My heart went out to the wives of miners selling things to raise money and trying to keep families together. I remember it very well. Although my constituency is not a mining constituency, it is very close to mining constituencies.

I understand the people who 
loathed Mrs Thatcher, but I also understand that at that time those people were let down by the Opposition because we could not get our act together to defeat her.

I have reflected on what Mrs Thatcher contributed, and I think it was this. What happened in 1979 was a colossal sea change in British politics, and we needed it.

We needed something radical to happen to the untidy post-war shambles of a consensus, and Mrs Thatcher was it.

It was not about Conservatism or Toryism. The people who said that it was Gladstonian, laissez-faire liberalism were absolutely right, as 
we know, because that blue 
liberalism was well known and understood in West Yorkshire. That is what she stood for, and it surprised everyone.

Labour MPs did not know how to handle it, and partly because of that she had three general election victories. We were trounced. We were a divided party and a divided Opposition, and we had a very long and tough time getting through it.

Mrs Thatcher transformed the Labour Party. We had to reform and change and get our act together, or we would have ceased to have the presence and power of a major party in our country. We must remember what Mrs Thatcher did for parliamentary democracy.

We are again overdue a radical change in how we regard our parliamentary democracy. We need a voice in the House of Commons – I do not know which party it will come from – that says that there are some deep inequities in our society.

There are serious problems, different from those that Mrs Thatcher faced in 1979 and in the years of her prime ministership, but very deep. There is the tragic decline of our great cities, many of them in the North and the Midlands. That has happened all over the developed world – in the United 
States, we should look at what is happening in Detroit and 
Pittsburgh.

There is something deeply wrong with how our societies are developing, and that is to do with a complex change in international capitalism, as Labour MPs would call it, and the international structure of economics.

Something fundamental is happening that we have become a 
bit complacent about in all parts of 
this House. We will need somebody with the originality of Thatcher 
to get us to wake up to what is going on.

If we are honest, most of us will admit that tiny numbers of people in our constituencies are actively involved in politics. We are in a democracy where only 65 per cent voted at the last election and six million people did not even register to vote.

The state of our parliamentary democracy is deplorable. We will 
need someone with a vision, 
perhaps based on a very different political view, who will say: “If we value this democracy we have got to shake it up.”

I have spoken because I got to 
admire and quite like Mrs Thatcher, who, as some of my colleagues have said, could be very pleasant indeed. She would give someone a real roasting from the Dispatch Box if they made a comment, but out there in the corridor she would be very kind. That is the truth of the woman. She was phenomenal. She did things that I deplored; she did things I thought were wonderful.

There is a balance, and over time we will judge how good it was. We 
are facing a challenge to our democracy, and we need a Thatcher-like – not the same as Thatcher – radical change that will again wake us up to the fact that our country faces challenges to which, at present, we have no answers.