A View from the Left: An Election Campaign from the 80s

1980s Nostalgia is big business. Bands from the era go on huge arena tours; their albums (often reissues of classics from the decade) sell well; 80s theme nights are a staple of provincial nightclubs up and down the country. So it’s no surprise that the Conservatives are joining in.

In fact, Conservative messaging has had a distinctly 80s tinge for a few years now. They have been hammering the Red Ed message, linking Mr Miliband to his supposed paymasters in the trade unions and issuing dire warnings about what will happen should the Labour leader become Prime Minister. For anybody under the age of 40, this is all probably a bit baffling.

The Red Ed tag will mean almost nothing to people who can barely remember the Soviet Union’s collapse, let alone a more ideological world before the rise of Gorbachev. That’s not to say most under-40s won’t get it: Red Ed stands for socialism, we understand that. But what does socialism even mean to people born after 1975? Not only is the Communism of hard-faced Eastern Europeans that presented such a challenge to post-war Western European governments ancient history, but few people even remember a Britain pre-Thatcher. The idea of only having one telephone provider, a single gas company, even a nationalised British Railway: these are distant things that were scrapped long-ago, which may help explain why proposals to nationalise utilities (particularly the railways) often poll quite well.

Similarly, the trade union thing means little to those of us whose experiences of unions is the occasional annoying London transport strike. The big union events that shook people into voting for Thatcher – the Winter of Discontent and the Miner’s Strike – took place 36 and 30 years ago respectively. In political terms, that’s pretty ancient history. Trade unions simply do not play a big role in most people’s lives anymore: for those of us who are under 40, they never really have. It’s not really a surprise that attacks on union paymasters merely register bemusement rather than anything stronger.

This week will also see the Conservatives unveil their new billboard advert designed by, who else, but the Saatchi ad agency, the group credited with the iconic “Labour Isn’t Working” billboard in 1979 and associated with the Conservatives throughout the 80s. How much impact a billboard advertisements have is one debate, but the use of an agency linked to the glory days tells its own story.

It’s pretty clear what the Tories are trying to do with the Red Ed being controlled by the trade unions mantra. They don’t care if people under the age of 40 don’t really get it, because it’s the people who do – who are older, who do remember the 70s and 80s – that they want to understand it. It fits in the pattern of Conservative ‘support’ (some may call it outright bribery) of pensioners, who of course tend to vote in the greater numbers.

That has its own problems: it’s pretty dispiriting that a national party has so little to offer the young (if you can even call people between 30 and 40 young), that is plunging ahead with messages that exclude them. It’s also indicative of another Conservative problem, which is their obsession with Margaret Thatcher and the 80s. This is understandable enough – we all like to reflect on good times – but it’s 2015 and not 1985 anymore. It’s about time the Conservatives moved on and stopped basing their campaigns on events, people and themes from 30 years ago. Like most 80s music, it’s never quite as good second time round.