If the Labour party are to make a comeback in a 21st century Britain, they must put the issue of class and 20th century party politics behind them.
For many people in the UK, the political career of Margaret Thatcher is epitomised by a four word rhyme; “Thatcher, Thatcher, milk snatcher”. Over all her reforms, achievements and failures as an MP, a minister and as Prime Minister, the one policy decision that stuck was her decision to stop universal free milk for school children aged 7 to 11, a seemingly trivial decision in an era of economic turmoil, public discontent and sweeping social reform. So when, last month, as part of a spending review, it was announced that there was an idea to cut £50m by abolishing the provision free milk to under-5s, the uproar that ensued was hardly any surprise. Within minutes, BBC News had upgraded the story from a “free milk abolition proposal” to a “free milk row” and it had earnt itself headline status. Yet opposition to the plan appeared not to be based on any academic authority or scientific evidence; moreover opposition appeared to be based on the fact that it was a Conservative who proposed it.
For all Labour’s rhetoric about the Tories being a party of the rich for the rich, it appears to be Labour that consistently makes policy decisions on arguments which come down to class and party politics rather than fact. Labour could have used, for example, Sir Ian Gilmore, a former President of the Royal Society of Physicians, who told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that giving pre-school children the milk would help tackle health inequalities at an early age. There is also evidence that milk prevents children from developing osteoporosis at a later stage in life. None of these arguments were used, however, when Labour personalities alike took to the streets to voice their ‘concern’ about the plan.
And whilst many Labour activists and politicians alike bandy around accusations of milk snatching by the Tories, many seemed to have forgotten that it was indeed a Labour administration in 1968 who took milk away from the most number of children, the 11-18 year olds (and then again later from the 5-7 year olds). Not only that, but if free milk really had been that much of an important health issue for the Labour Party, they had four parliamentary mandates to reintroduce it from 1997 right up until earlier this year. This begs the question as to why they were so incredulously opposed to the abolition of universal milk provision by Thatcher and again more recently.
As it turned out, the Prime Minister stubbed out the plan before it could burn any longer, but the damage is already done; the ‘nasty party’ ‘milk snatching’ image is back and here to stay, and instead of being able to have a real honest debate about spending cuts and ‘securing the recovery’, Labour have used cheap political jibes to push the new coalition into a corner where spin and deceit are the only paths to safeguarding public opinion.
The Labour party leadership contest takes place in a few months but they will need to do more than change their leader if they are to be taken seriously as a viable option. If the Labour party are to make a comeback in a 21st century Britain, and if the country is to come out of this economic downturn with a strong, sustainable economic foundation, then Labour must put the issue of class and 20th century party politics behind them.