How better to follow Jeremy Corbyn’s speech yesterday than by turning to the great Conservative leader who embodied everything he hates? But who nonetheless did more than he has ever done to bring about – in the words of Labour’s most left-wing manifesto in modern times – “a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of working people and their families”.
We refer to the sale of council houses to their tenants which, over time, gave millions of people a stake in the system that they didn’t have before. Thatcher’s radical move bust one of the barriers between labour and capital.
Not that all Tories always supported the policy. Some believed that those who had worked hard to buy their own homes would jib at others being able to do so with a discount. (The same objection is raised today whenever it is proposed to give social housing free to tenants.) According to Andrew Gimson, Thatcher herself was originally one of them, and was first commandeered into proposing the policy by her then boss, Edward Heath.
So all credit to Horace Cutler, a Tory leader of the then Greater London Council, who sold some council homes early; to Peter Walker, and Michael Heseltine, who insisted on the discounts.
Heath was duly replaced by Thatcher – who swung behind the policy and made it happen, thus helping to fulfill Antony Eden’s original vision of a property-owning democracy. The flaw in the plan’s execution was the non-replacement over time of the stock of council housing. But that does not in itself detract from the success of the signature policy of the Thatcher years.