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