Did New Labour mean political consensus?
Blair did present New Labour as a Third Way between Thatcherism and Social Democracy. In a number of areas there were differences with the Conservatives:-
- Labour saw a much more active role for the State. People had both rights and responsibilities and Government would try to ensure that both were kept to. In areas such as personal health and education the State would intervene to help people to improve themselves. Government would promote excellence in areas such as sport and the arts. The Conservatives portrayed this as the ‘Nanny State’ The Cameron Governments ,though, have been interested in a weaker version of getting people to change their behaviour with the idea that public information and programmes can ‘nudge’ people in the direction that is best for society.
- Gordon Brown, as Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer sought to relieve poverty with the introduction of Tax Credits to increase the incomes of people at work but on low income and Pension Credits did the same for older people.
- The Labour Government after 1997 began a programme of constitutional reform that was opposed by the Conservatives, in particular, devolution to Scotland and Wales, House of Lords reform and the incorporation of the European Convention of Human Rights into British law as the Human Rights Act. Although the Conservatives came to accept devolution by 2010, most are opposed to an elected House of Lords and unhappy about the Human Rights Act.
- The Labour Government’s social liberalism was opposed by most Conservatives, for example, adoption by gay couples and the acceptance of significant numbers of asylum seekers. Cameron sought to change the Conservative Party stance over equality issues but a large number of Conservative MPs were unhappy about the gay marriage legislation.
- Blair began a foreign policy that has been called Liberal Interventionism. This involves promoting human rights, supporting and promoting democratic regimes and intervening to prevent genocide, if necessary, by military action as in Sierra Leone and Bosnia. Blair then joined the US in the War on Terror which involved removing regimes that might be supporting terrorists as in Afghanistan and Iraq. Many senior Conservatives were sceptical about these policies and held to the traditional party view that sanctions and intervention should only be used where Britain’s interests were directly threatened. Cameron as Prime Minister, however, has also developed his own policy of Liberal Intervention in Libya and Syria.
- By 1997 the Conservatives had become the Eurosceptic party and Labour the pro-European party although Blair, prompted by Brown and aware of public opinion, decided not to bring Britain into the Eurozone.
Between 2010 and 2015, Ed Miliband sought to position Labour away from Blairism while the financial crisis changed what was possible in terms of public spending. Labour broadly signed up to the idea of reducing the deficit and the differences were over how quickly this should be done but, in other areas, Labour moved away from previous areas of agreement:-
- Labour argued that the market did not work well in all instances, as the banking crisis had illustrated, and proposed intervention to change the energy market, at present controlled by six large firms, and to impose restrictions on the private rented sector.
- Labour began to criticise the role of the private sector in providing public services. Andy Burnham, as Shadow Health Secretary, committed Labour to no more privatisation in the NHS and the Labour manifesto opposed additional free schools where there was a surplus of school places and proposed that rail franchises could be taken over by social enterprises rather that the private train companies.
- Labour was ready to propose new taxes on the rich, such as the Mansion Tax on expensive properties and a reduction in pension tax breaks for higher earners. This was accompanied by attacks on the Coalition Governments welfare policies such as the Bedroom Tax and a readiness to use Government action to increase the wages of those on low incomes.
- Ed Miliband had a closer relationship with the trade unions and involved them in the party’s policy-making. Although he changed the rules on the affiliation of trade union members to the Labour Party.
- The gap between the two parties widened on the EU as Cameron became more Eurosceptic and Miliband refused to agree with an in-out referendum. Labour opposed Cameron’s attempt to intervene in Syria.
- The differences between the two parties on environmental policy increased as Labour opposed the watering down of the Coalition’s policies in this area under pressure from Conservative backbenchers.ten years in power, Mrs Thatcher changed the political landscape and, whatever his original intentions, John Major largely continued the same policies. When Tony Blair became Leader of the Labour Party in 1994, he sought to rebrand it as New Labour, move the party to the centre and accept the changes that had taken place. This meant that a consensus developed between the Labour and Conservative leaderships in the following areas:-
- Britain was now in a globalised market and needed to improve the education and skills of the workforce and remove many labour regulations to help firms compete against those in other countries.
- Wealth creation by business and particularly entrepreneurs was to be encouraged and would provide the resources to pay for public services. This would also raise incomes overall so that there was no need to redistribute wealth by taxation of the rich.
- The trade union reforms of the 1980s would remain in place. Blair distanced himself from the trade unions that were affiliated to the Labour Party and did not involve them in developing policy.
- There would be no reversal of the privatisations carried out by the Conservative Government. The provision of public services could be contracted out to the private sector if they were cheaper and more efficient. Private finance could be used to build major public projects such as hospitals by means of the Private Finance Initiative.
- Consumer choice was important in all areas. People should be able to choose between schools and where to have a hospital operation. Public service reform would be carried out through league tables and performance measures so that local authorities and hospital trusts worked efficiently.
- People should be encouraged into work and off benefits by programmes to help them do this but with sanctions if they did not participate.