New Labour, historical danger?

December 18, 2012 11:36 am

There is an ongoing debate about the place of New Labour within the Labour Party tradition. Some, generally on the left of the party, argue that New Labour was a sharp departure from the principles on which the party was founded. Some, generally on the right of the party, argue that it is part of a tradition in the party going back decades of revising Labour’s approach to suit changing times and to appeal to a changing electorate. It is a debate that has been mirrored at different times over the last century with different terminology and individuals involved. Most, very sensibly, ignore it. However, it is an important argument to examine given that the party has a habit of lapsing into destructive factionalism. There is not a clear “either/or” answer. New Labour was rooted in Labour traditions and it did appropriate new ideological strands.

New Labour hasn’t exactly helped itself in this debate. Tony Blair was quite happy to develop the narrative that New Labour was a departure from what had gone before. Of course, in many ways it was and to a large extent New Labour bought the Tory argument that the Labour Party in the 1970s and 1980s was a divided left wing rabble unfit to govern. It was a convenient argument for a leadership wishing to differentiate itself from its past and looking for an additional weapon against certain sections of the party. It was an attempt to tar the whole party of the 1970s with the winter of discontent in order to say it wouldn’t happen under Blair’s watch. In doing this Blair helped set New Labour up as an historical discontinuity. This also ignored the reality that Labour in the 1970s contained a number of distinct ideological strands: old left, new left, old right, new right.

There have of course been efforts to latch New Labour to the ‘revisionist’ right-wing of the party. The most notable being Patrick Diamond’s collection of revisionist writings. Earlier this year a series of blog posts by self-styled Neo-Gaitskellites was published on the Progress website and Giles Radice has also written about it. Nonetheless, many of these defences argue in favour of the revisionist method rather than in favour of the bits borrowed from Thatcher that provoke the ire of critics. This gets to the root of the problem. There is a distinct difficulty defending elements of the post-1979 neo-liberal consensus used by New Labour in a party that holds so dear the postwar consensus ushered in by Attlee.

It should be remembered though that central tenets of the postwar consensus had been questioned within Labour before Thatcher even became leader of the Conservatives. As Professor Tim Bale has pointed out there are deeper strands at work here, ‘that barring perhaps the period 1945-48, Labour leaderships, especially in government, were highly ambivalent about more public ownership, generally hostile to higher direct taxation being imposed on average earners, clearly flaky on universal welfare and, by the late 1960s, less sanguine about the possibility, and even the desirability, of continued full employment.’ The seeds for Blair’s approach had been inherent in the party for some time before New Labour.

While Blair and Brown did accept much of the Thatcherite consensus, the issue is more complex than the description ‘Blatcherism’ might suggest. This is particularly the case when it comes to spending. Research by Raymond Swaray and Maurice Mullard has found that under Blair spending on law and order, health, education and social security rose faster than under the Attlee, Wilson or Callaghan governments. Andy Newman, who incidentally proposed the GMB motion earlier this year opposing Progress, argues that Blair and Brown did ‘have a distinct social agenda, which was both ideologically and practically progressive, compared to the Thatcherite governments which preceded it.’ Saying New Labour was Thatcherism shackled to the Labour Party is simplistic and ignores the whole picture of what the last Labour government actually did.

The Labour Party will always change its approach as the world changes. New ideas are brought in and old ones are revived, revised and restated. Admitting that elements of what New Labour did were undoubtedly a departure from Labour governments of the past does not mean that New Labour itself was simply an alien force. History is useful but dwelling on it and using it as a weapon can be dangerous. For example, simply claiming that the election defeats of 1951, 1979 and 2010 happened because the party was too right wing ignores the larger contexts of those elections. It’s similar to how some in the party seem to think that what Blair did needs to be repeated. New Labour is dead. The world has changed. The past is sometimes a guide, not a rigid predictor of the future. Using history to claim that the party always needs to tack to the right or left isn’t going to work in every situation. It’s not 1945, 1983 or even 1997.

John Clarke blogs at johnmichaelclarke.wordpress.com

  • robertcp

    A good article. An important point to remember about New Labour is that it was opposed by many revisionists, for example, Roy Hattersley. In my case, I joined Labour despite reservations about its semi-pacifism in the 1980s but twenty years later I was horrified by the invasion of Iraq.

    My main reasons for opposing New Labour were that it was very authoritarian, seemed to lack compassion and followed a neo-liberal economic policy. Of course, there were also many achievements such as higher public spending but the massive deficit suggests that New Labour was spending money that the country did not have.

    Ed Miliband seems to have learnt the correct lessons of New Labour and returned Labour to a more social democratic and liberal approach. He usually makes the correct decision even if it is preceded by excessive dithering, for example, voting against the 1% rise in benefits.

  • robertcp

    A good article. An important point to remember about New Labour is that it was opposed by many revisionists, for example, Roy Hattersley. In my case, I joined Labour despite reservations about its semi-pacifism in the 1980s but twenty years later I was horrified by the invasion of Iraq.

    My main reasons for opposing New Labour were that it was very authoritarian, seemed to lack compassion and followed a neo-liberal economic policy. Of course, there were also many achievements such as higher public spending but the massive deficit suggests that New Labour was spending money that the country did not have.

    Ed Miliband seems to have learnt the correct lessons of New Labour and returned Labour to a more social democratic and liberal approach. He usually makes the correct decision even if it is preceded by excessive dithering, for example, voting against the 1% rise in benefits.

    • Amber_Star

      I agree with much of what you say, robertcp, except Ed Miliband being characterized as ‘dithering’. I think his consensus building approach should be considered a welcome contrast to years of knee-jerk sound-bites being served up to the media by Labour spinners within minutes of an issue coming to their attention.

      • robertcp

        I agree. Maybe I was a bit harsh on Ed M.

      • robertcp

        I agree. Maybe I was a bit harsh on Ed M.

      • robertcp

        I agree. Maybe I was a bit harsh on Ed M.

  • Pingback: New Labour, historical danger? « John Clarke()

Latest

  • Comment Labour can change the false narrative with a reality check

    Labour can change the false narrative with a reality check

    A false narrative has developed about Labour that must be rejected comprehensively by a party aiming to govern in six months. It claims that Labour has become alienated from virtually the entire electorate. Our response to date has been ineffective. Here are some suggestions for how we may succeed in future. Franklin D. Roosevelt said: “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”. We should take heed and refuse to be cowed by something as illusory as a […]

    Read more →
  • News Labour consider selling off central London buildings to help pay off debts

    Labour consider selling off central London buildings to help pay off debts

    The Labour leadership say they would consider selling off QEII Conference Centre and the Civil Service Club – alongside two other buildings in London – to help pay off the country’s debt. They say they selling off these government-owned buildings could raise up to £100m, and would be part of a “fairer way” of reducing the deficit. Alongside selling off the QEII conference centre and the Civil Service Club, Labour are also thinking about selling Marlborough House, which is near Buckingham […]

    Read more →
  • Featured Gordon Brown to announce departure as an MP “within days”

    Gordon Brown to announce departure as an MP “within days”

    Former Labour leader and Prime Minister Gordon Brown is set to resign as MP for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath “within days” according to a report from the Sunday Mirror. Brown, who played a key role in the Scottish referendum campaign this year – giving a barnstorming speech on the eve of the vote that defined the case for the union. Brown’s rumoured departure follows his long-time ally Alistair Darling’s decision to quit Parliament in 2015. The Sunday Mirror reports: “Gordon Brown will […]

    Read more →
  • News Scotland Findlay says information going to party members for leadership vote is “insulting”

    Findlay says information going to party members for leadership vote is “insulting”

    Neil Findlay MSP, who is running to be leader of the Scottish Labour Party, is calling on the Labour Party to clarify what information will be given to members with Leadership ballot papers. At the moment it looks as though the booklet with candidate statements in it only lists the nominations each candidate received from Parliamentarians and not from Constituency Labour Parties, trade Unions or socialist societies. In response to this, Findlay has released the following statement: “Over the last […]

    Read more →
  • Comment It’s Ukip that offends working class sentiment

    It’s Ukip that offends working class sentiment

    After this week’s Twitter row at the Rochester by-election, I am using my keynote speech to the Labour East Regional Conference today to say that it is UKIP who truly offends working class sentiment and represents a party which is fundamentally un-British. Today I am lucky to serve as a Euro MP but, like many in our movement, I grew up on a council estate living in poverty, so don’t need any lectures from UKIP about snobbery. First, we can’t counter UKIP […]

    Read more →