What is ‘new’ about Blair’s party

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Generally historians of British politics distrust the cult of new and continuity appears to be the norm. ‘New’ is a world that is more commonly associated with American politics, however there are two schools of thought on the issue of the Labour party and the term ‘new’. There is the commonly held view that labour represents something that is wholly different form anything the Labour party has ever represented before, for the first time ever “it is difficult to apply a traditional left or right label of the Labour party”1.

The other view is that “Labour has been in a state of change since it was formed”2 and there is actually nothing ‘new’ about labour at all, and instead it the term new labour is just a product of rhetoric designed to alter the perception of the party. I am going to argue that while labour does represent something different from its past in terms of the internal structure of the party, its policies it now adheres to are largely based on the legacy of Thatcherism and ‘New Labour’ has not created a set of policies that could be called their own.

Instead many analysists including Dennis Kavanagh have claimed that there has been a new consensus or as Steve Fielding has argued Tony Blair has created Thatcherism mark 2. “Across the spectrum of political debate, except from constitutional reform it is hard to find one area where Labour is setting the agenda”3. Much of this could be due to Blairs will to accept Thatcher’s policy, especially the economic policy or it could be he and the party had little choice in accepting it due to the influence of the financial markets and the lessening role of the nation state in Europe.

The most evident inheritance of Thatcher and Majors legacy is free market economics and the non-interventionist policy of the government. “New Labour was merely the climax of a ‘gradual and incremental ‘accommodation’ with the conservatives neo-liberal agena”4. However while Tony Blair and Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown have embraced much of the existing economic policy, “any government has little choice but to accept the institutional framework that exists when it gains office”5. Another factor is the role of business and ‘the city’ over governments and their direct influence they have over government.

Gordon Brown has learned that reassurance of the financial markets plays a detrimental role in keeping the government in office. It would also be unpractical for Labour to return to the sorts of industrial and economic policies it pursued in the 1970’s and 1980’s. So perhaps there has been a consensus but it may has been forced upon Labour due to “the narrowing choice of governments, even out of the ERM, economic policies have to take in to account the likely reactions of the financial markets”6. This idea supports Dennis Kavanagh’s view of the dwindling role of the nation state.

Labour has had to stop its old policy theme of ‘tax and spend’, as this was one of the very reasons why it spent so long out of office, because this policy was seen to penalise the middle classes the most. While in the 1940’s and 1950’s Labour may have had support for such a policy from a strong working class base it was simply not feasible to adopt the policy today when the vast majority of the electorate is middle class. New Labour has instead chosen to adopt a fiscally Conservative policy that is designed to stop any future income tax rises.

However while such a policy does please the middle classes in principle it creates the problem of how Labour a traditionally Socialist party is to ensure greater social justice. There is a simple clash between the revenue of the government and the ever-increasing burden of the enlarged welfare state. The reasoning behind the acceptance of thatcherist policies goes far beyond the simplified view of it being purely an economic matter. The overriding fact is that the Conservatives had been the party of government for the vast majority of time after the 1945 – 51 Atlee government.

There was almost a realisation that Labours Socialist policies simply were not working and people actually related to much of the Conservative policy, while being disillusioned with the far-left programme that Labour pursued for large periods of the 20th century. “Research suggested that the Conservatives had captured the key themes that influenced voter behaviour, which was low taxes and law and order”7 However by the 1994 election, there was generally little to choose between the two parties programmes. Much of this was due to the reforms of Kinnock and Smith who did much to begin what Blair calls the modernisation of the party.

The demographic structure of Britain is such that the vast majority of the electorate is ‘middle-class’ meaning it is now unfeasible for both the Conservatives and Labour to be too radical in their policies. Instead both tend to adopt policies that can be attributed to ‘the middle ground’ which lies somewhere between the traditional ‘left’ and ‘right’ groupings of British politics. Blair himself often refers to this form of policy as the ‘third way’. Such a convergence in the structure of programmes means that both Labour and the Conservatives have to find alternative ways of attracting voters that stand in the ‘middle-ground’ in politics’.

These alternative ways are generally associated with the growth of the “Americanisation of British politics”8. This involves the greater explotation of new technologies such as computers, the Internet and e-mail. It is also now generally accepted that “Labour is now ahead of the Tories in its use of information technology”9. There is also far more emphasis placed on PR, the manipulation of the popular press and other new technologies. “The 1997 general election was the most sophisticated ever, with such novelties as the Rapid Rebuttal Unit copied from the Clinton campaigns in the United States and its pervasive spin-doctoring”9.

All these advances inevitably means there is less emphasis placed on the importance of policy and now much policy originates from focus groups, the private polling of opinion and the response of the media instead of the policy making committees of the 1950’s. This could be seen as a symptom of the ever-increasing influence of American culture in Britain. While Labours effective use of the new political techniques played an instrumental role in securing them two back to back election wins it would be a fallacy to believe these techniques to be a product of ‘New Labour’.

While ‘New Labour’ has indeed adopted them they are an inevitable progression of British politics and it is Labour that has simply used them in a more effective manner than the Conservatives, a party that seems reluctant to break from its past. Many have seen this to contradict the traditional notion that the Conservatives are the pragmatic party of British politics. These new technologies and alternative ‘American’ approaches to politics have allowed the party and Blair in particular to alter the perception and image of the party, which is so vital in influencing the electorate.

This has been done with the creation of an image as Labour as a united party. Dissidence and infighting has been a constant theme throughout the party’s time out of office and as a result has haunted much of Labours history. “Blair wanted to highlight his parties departure from the 70’s and 80’s, which was in-fighting was at its height. An attribute which he described as ‘old labour”10. There was a definite sense that Blair and other modernisers were keen to stress the ‘newness’ of the party.

Blair himself being a young man has created an image of a party that was there to represent ‘everyone’ in the electorate. “Central to Blarism is populism. Labour is not presented as a class party but a party that is attempting to attract votes across the spectrum”11. It is the presentation of the party that is perhaps central to its recent electoral success. I would argue that while Labour may represent the wide variety of political views that Blair would like us to believe “we should also doubt that labour has transformed at the pace and scale it’s leader would want us to suggest”12

While the claims of ‘new’ and ‘modernised’ may be somewhat false they have been vital in riding the party of the unwanted assumption that the trade unions dominated the party, another aspect of the party’s history that could be categorised as ‘Old labour’. Such an image was entrenched in the minds of voters and many analysts, and a variety of modernisers including Blair and Brown realised this. While the party may have resembled a similar or exact copy of the party under Neil kinnock, voters did not think this. Blair and other ‘modernisers’ (such as Brown and Peter Mandelson) acknowledged kinncock’s modernising of the party but believed his failure to persuade voters that he had transformed the party was the main reason Labour lost the 1992 election, it’s fourth defeat in a row”13. This brings us back to the central and overriding importance of perception and attitudes to ‘New Labour’. This is why the terms ‘new’, ‘modern’ and ‘young’ were littered in Blair’s speeches (the word new appeared 107 times in the draft election manifesto) as voters saw these terms in a favourable manner and related to much of what Blair was saying.

The one attribute of ‘New Labour’ that is undoubtedly a break form it’s past is the style of leadership and the internal structure of the party. Perceptions of the internal workings of the party have also improved due to a variety of reforms taking place. There is now more power than ever for Blair as the party has underdone the process of centralisation with much of the party democracy of the past removed which Labour once saw as central to it’s ideology.

There has also been a changing of the core institutions of the party, where inevitably much of the party policy stems from. Authority of the leader inevitably prevails over inner party democracy as the 1970’s and 80’s saw inner party democracy hinder the party’s ability to make effective and decisive policy, and was the ultimate reason why the party spent four terms out of office. No previous leader has come close to the power that Tony Blair exercises today, and this is a key break from the party’s history of a democratic ‘grassroots’ politics. Blair and his entourage were impatient at the inadequacies of the party’s policy making machinery”14. In this sense Blair’s style of leadership can even be called presidential in nature, as a sense of ‘personal politics’ now prevails in the party. Such a style can also be called a “populist style of leadership”15 as all communication is carried out through the leader himself and inevitably he is the one held accountable. The centralisation of power in the party has been one of the fundamental reasons why the party has been so successful under Tony Blair.

The ‘one vote one member’ has essentially mobilised the voice of the whole party and silenced the strong left wing of the party which in the past has damaged the party’s external image and internally it’s ability to unite and tackle Tory dominance. This weakening of the left in-turn did much to undermine the role of the conference in policy making. Much of Labours history of dissidence and internal squabbling mirrors the Conservative party at present and this may be due to the Conservatives widening of its party democracy, a complete contrast to Labour’s approach which is to dilute it. A Central and defining component of Blairs modernising project was the reform of clause IV of the Labour party constitution”16. The intended purpose of this was to send a clear message to voters about how Labour had changed, but it “also indicated in an unambiguous way that the key elements of the party ideology would change”17. However I would instead argue that while the abolishment of clause IV may have been symbolic it nature it did not goes as far as to alter the party’s ideology which tens to be of a flexible nature.

Labour members in particular have long “disputed their parties ultimate purpose as some thought it was to reform capitalism while others imagined it was to transcend it”18, indicating that the purpose of clause IV was of a symbolic nature. Another aspect of the complex structural changes that have taken place is the party’s longstanding ties with the trade union movement being completely cut, paradoxically a change to the party that was once invited trade unions to be a part of the inner circles of its party democracy.

However while it may be a break from the past it has been vital in ensuring the party appeals to the mass electorate rather than purely the working classes, this cannot be stressed enough. It must also be remembered that Labour inherited much of the trade union legislation that hindered their involvement in politics from Thatcher and therefore for Labour to reverse this may well be what’s often referred to as political suicide, but in truth Tony Blair has no desire to weaken this legislation in the future or now. The example of the trade unions shows another aspect of what Fielding has described as Thatcherism mark 2.

In Conclusion “New Labour seriously distorts our proper understanding of the party’s development, indeed given it’s pragmatic and rhetorical genesis, the term ‘New Labour’ has probably been taken too seriously by those analysing the contemporary party”19. The party was ultimately created on the basis of a flexible ideology and as Kenneth O Morgan has argued there have been three previous shifts in Labour’s history that has portrayed the party as ‘new’. Firstly there was the economic programme of the 30’s, where Socialism was defined to mean ‘planning’.

Secondly there was the revisionism of the 50’s, which saw a move away from the agenda of the Atlee years and legacy from the wartime period. Finally Harold Wilson appealed to the idea of modernisation, of the ‘white heat’ of a new industrial revolution created by the white coat worker. All three previous shifts in policy could be called ‘New Labour’ in their day, so this would strongly indicate that while Labour under Tony Blair may represent something different, there is not the great break with party tradition that many have claimed.

In fact the Labour party itself sees itself as “a democratic socialist party”21 rather than the party of the middle-right that many political commentators have claimed. Instead in may be argued that “New Labour is simply a continuation with the party’s tradition”20. “Too much novelty can be claimed for New labours policies. Political parties have histories and living roots; they cannot disavow their past”21 so essentially there isn’t a lot new about “New Labour” other than the rhetoric that stresses it.

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