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New Labour

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The New Adventures of Old Labour.
Ravishing guide to
U.K. Politics
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God Save the King?
I am convinced the Labour Party succeeds best when it is in the centre ground.
—Tony Blair[1]
T Benn is in one sense quite right in saying that the right wing of the Party is politically bankrupt. Socialism ultimately must appeal to the better minds of the people. You cannot do that if you are tainted overmuch with a pragmatic period in power. The phrases that rouse us or should rouse us, are bound to seem stale in the mouth of anyone who has been too closely intertwined with the establishment. It may not be fair but it is true.
—Tony Blair, 1982 letter to Michael Foot

"New Labour" (incidentally, never a formal title) was a re-brand of the UK Labour Party orchestrated by Peter Mandelson and presided over by Tony Blair.

With a media establishment bought and paid for by Rupert Murdoch, "Old" Labour were deemed unelectable during the Thatcher years. Thus, many within Labour felt the only way to regain ground was to lurch to the right. The re-brand meant abandoning much of the party's core principles, such as nationalisation of industry and trade union influence in decision-making.

It was essentially a professional party for professional people whose main purpose was to attract people who want social democratic policies, then divert them into what is actually a never-ending roundalay. Temper the slogans to get elected, get voted out, then play it safe to get elected again. 'Twas ever thus, to an extent, but it's especially true since the Blair revolution, when the Labour Party was remodeled into a slicker, higher-profile version of the SDP.

A brief history[edit]

John Smith led the party between '92-'94 but he did not live to fight the '97 election. However, he did make steps towards fixing the Party's "unelectability": he removed the block vote by which the unions had maintained a disproportionate influence on the leadership and policies of the Party. Blair was seen as a likable guy but an unknown quantity considering he was on the reformist side of the party. Labor was already on the up with Smith (Tories were a spent force), but Blair took that popularity and went further.

The Tories self-destructed between '92 and '97. The Sun backs winners and Blair made it doubly easy by bending over for them on almost every issue.[2] The left celebrated at the demise of Thatcherism, but they soon realised Labour was little better: From the start, Blair's henchmen enforced a strict party discipline and a very careful, skillful manipulation of the media. Out went the unpopular policies which had previously been the cornerstones of the Party, in particular Clause 4 of the constitution which more or less advocated a Marxist approach to the economy. Instead, make way for rampant deregulation, privatization, open borders to further weaken workers' rights, and silly edicts like banning T-bone steak on the off-chance someone might catch Mad Cow from it. But there was one point of connection: Let's stop bombing people for five years and see if they stop trying to bomb us, too. Radical but proven effective. Now Labour doesn't even have that to fall back on.[3]

This party hasn't held a majority in 50 years without Blair as leader, and that's because he found that magic mix of economic growth, social mobility and public spending. UK had twice as many years in surplus under Labour than under the Conservatives, and the deficit between 2002 and 2007 was comparable with the deficit under the Tories in the early 90's. Of course it all went wrong in 2008.

There's still a lot of high-quality talent in Labour. What there isn't is a post-Blair identity, nor any mutual respect. The members don't like the MPs, the MPs don't like the unions, and the unions don't like the members.

The problem of Scotland[edit]

It's starting to look like that Labour could be out of power for a generation, given the growing strength of the SNP in Scotland. Before the crash, the SNP were viewed as shrill nationalists, Labour were dull but inoffensive, Tories were still the "Nasty Party", and the ironically-named[4] UKIP was barely a blip on the radar. With hindsight, Labour should have formed a coalition with Scottish Labour immediately before the referendum. But Milliband was gun-shy,[5][6] allowing SNP to climb into the driver's seat. You need to appreciate how toxic the SNP brand is to undecideds in England. Sturgeon's offer of coalition provided an opening for Cameron to paint Labour and SNP as one and the same, and that's what got the Tories over the line.

England historically trends conservative, and without those Scottish seats, Labour will be forever doomed to stay in opposition. This means that the party will have to rely on the support of the SNP if they want to stay in government; Tories will use this against them via targeted fear campaigns on swing voters in every future election.

The Tories might have won, but it was the SNP which really killed New Labour. Not even a Blairite can save them now.[7]

Iceberg dead ahead[edit]

For a year, the issues we have articulated most clearly have been the subjects that worry the suburbs [...] Heaven knows, we need him. But he needs us as well.
—Roy Hattersley, former deputy leader of "Old" Labour, on Tony Blair[8]

Labour kept the poor "working class" towns struggling during an economic boom (albeit one built on debt) for similar reasons as the Conservative Party. Labour strongholds in the north didn't really benefit from a Labour government too much, because they knew that they could bank on their votes.[9][10] Also, Labour is more interested in subsidising dead industries than actually trying to revive those communities with new ideas.[11] This keeps the trade unions happy, obviously, but is damaging to everyone in the long-term, as it continues to dig coal towns into an unsustainable hole.

On the other hand, Tories don't give a damn about these places and will let them fall apart; after all, that's the will of the market. Nobody seems to want to challenge this absurd dichotomy. Now the bill has come due.[12]

It gets worse[edit]

With no trade union albatross around his neck, Blair felt beholden to nobody apart from a clique of wonks practicing the art of triangulation. That's why New Labour had a tendency to indulge in groupthink, reacting to any criticism not with counter-arguments but ad hominem attacks ("Little Englanders").

Gradually the goodwill in the party and country bled away, and the cabinet came to be filled with Blair loyalists of debatable ability. There were accusations of corruption relating to party donations in return for appointments to the House of Lords - it seemed that New Labour was indulging in the same sleaze that had got John Major thrown out.

They also left us with the ticking time bomb that is PFI, introduced tuition fees, did nothing to combat inequality (it rose under the Blair government),[13] and lead us into an illegal war for an immoral cause that has directly contributed to the rise of Islamic extremism.

They were the future, once[edit]

Apart from getting mired in a long-running debate on fox-hunting,Don't ask. New Labour was given a huge mandate for social democracy. Their government did much that is laudable, like introducing a minimum wage, establishing devolution, granting independence to the Bank of England, increasing literacy and numeracy levels, an elected Mayor for London, and signing up for the social chapter of the Maastricht Treaty.

They green-lit civil partnerships, lowered the age of consent for homosexual sex in line with heterosexual sex, gave anti-discrimination protections to the LGBT community, legalized the right to adoption for gay couples, and removed all bars on gay people serving openly in the military. They also finalized the Good Friday Agreement, thereby ending the Irish Troubles, and tried to bandage the wounds left by Thatcherism by spending heavily on education and the NHS. They kept much of Thatcherism intact, but tried to veer away from the excesses, much like Clinton after Reagan, Obama after Bush, and Biden after Trump.

The Blair government also achieved what no previous Labour leadership had done: reforming the House of Lords so that the (non-inheritable) Life Peers outnumbered the inherited Lords. There was also the Human Rights Act 1998, which brought the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law. There was also a decade of prosperity in which everyone bought shiny new iPods and stuff, then realized they actually had to pay for them sometime.

After the fall of Blair, "Old" Labour came back into power with Brown and Ed Miliband (who took it away from his Blairite brother). Look at their 2010 manifesto: A National Care Service, National Therapy Service, fibre optic internet across the country, no cuts, a living wage, Green New Deal, people's bank at the post office, Alternative Voting referendum. These could be the promises of Jeremy Corbyn. If Labour had been in power, you'd have a much more socialist country. But economic anxiety and his general malaise as a public official spoiled Labour's chances at winning.

Local government[edit]

While nationally Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson transformed the parliamentary Labour Party into New Labour, this transformation did not extend to the level of local government, where Labour still operates in the old-fashioned political-machine style. Indeed, in some cities, Labour would have to modernise to become Old Labour, let alone New Labour.

See also[edit]


  1. "Blair and Miliband: Don't Go That Way", Economist 1.3.15.
  2. Fran Adams and Anthony Bevins, "Murdoch's courtship of Blair finally pays off", Independent 2.10.98.
  3. Summers, Deborah, "Blair: I would have fought Falklands war", Guardian (23 March 2007, 7:12am EDT).
  4. "Eight times Brexiteers said leaving the EU wouldn’t mean a Scottish referendum", New Statesman 12 March 2017.
  5. Dominiczak, Peter, "David Cameron: SNP will be 'chain to Labour’s wrecking ball' if Ed Miliband wins", Telegraph (4/16/15 at 12:01AM BST).
  6. Dominiczak, Peter, "Ed Miliband: No deal of 'any kind' with SNP", Telegraph (4/26/15 at 10:27AM BST).
  7. Carrell, Severin, "Scottish voting trends show how Tories benefit while Labour flounders", Guardian (Last modified 7/11/16 at 7:29 EDT).
  8. Colin Brown and John Rentoul, "Hattersley joins critics of Blair style", Independent 8.11.95.
  9. "Green and unrepresented", The Economist 6.5.08.
  10. Chakalian, Anoosh, "“The party’s been hijacked by a metropolitan elite”: Labour MP Simon Danczuk", New Statesman 6.13.14.
  11. Wright, Oliver, "Consumers to pay ‘dirty’ coal power subsidies for years", Independent 7.21.13.
  12. Grice, Andrew, "Exclusive: Ukip surge is costing Labour as many votes as Tories, research suggests", Independent 6.10.14.
  13. Giles, Chris, ""Inequality rose under Labour, says IFS", FT 7 April 2010.