Tony Blair was, electorally, the most successful Labour Prime Minister forming three Governments with comfortable majorities.
Wilson formed four but two had tiny majorities and one had no majority at all. Blair made changes to the Labour Party and recast it as ‘New Labour’ to give the impression of a break from the ‘Old Labour’ Party.
His period in office saw major constitutional changes and a successful peace process in Northern Ireland but in other areas his legacy is less certain.
In the 1960s, the Chinese Prime Minister, Zhou Enlai was asked by a journalist what the effect of the French Revolution had been and he replied, “It is far too early to tell”.
The Chinese have a longer view of history than we do but it is perhaps too early to say how successful the modernisation project that Blair promoted in the public services has been or whether social exclusion and employment programmes had a permanent impact.
Blair was certainly lucky to be the only Labour Prime Minister not to have to deal with an economic crisis and this allowed for an increase in public spending, especially on health and education.
The second half of Blair’s premiership was defined by the problem of terrorism and the hugely controversial invasion of Iraq and its aftermath.
The Parliamentary Labour Party split in half over the Iraq war so that this and the rivalry of Gordon Brown destabilised his premiership and eventually brought it to an end.
Find out more about Tony Blair in his auto-biography, through the eyes of spin doctor Alastair Campbell and in The Deal set around the relationship between Blair and Gordon Brown.
What Was New Labour?
The New Labour Governments carried out a range of policies, not necessarily based on any clear plan. The academic debate on Blairism has developed three different interpretations:-
1. That New Labour was a continuation of Thatcherism. Thatcher produced a new settlement which no Government has yet tried to change. Writers stress the continuity of economically liberal policies and the continuation of the private sector involvement in the provision of services and also in public capital projects, through the Private Finance Initiative.
2. That New Labour is a genuinely new Third Way which reconciled competitive capitalism with a social equality agenda and developed new ideas of the rights and responsibilities of individuals and a new pattern of what has been called governance, to replace traditional Labour State intervention.
3. That New Labour is Labour Party politics updated to the context of the 21st. century. Labour Governments have always accepted capitalism and had not carried out any significant programme of nationalisation since the 1940s. Traditional Labour concerns with poverty and equality (updated to take account of feminism, the existence of ethnic minorities and the recognition of gay people) were central to policy setting. The assumption that state intervention could improve society was still accepted.
The Creation of New Labour
Blair began to tackle the problems of party and philosophy in the following ways:-
1. The Labour Party was re-branded as New Labour and in 1995 a symbolic change was made to the Party Constitution by removing Clause IV which had a commitment to common ownership and replacing it with a statement about individual potential and community in a more equal society.
The leadership took more control of the party as the National Executive Committee and the Party Conference lost influence, with policy formation instead taking place in consultative policy forums. The loss of four general elections, reversed by Blair’s landslide victories in 1997 and 2001, meant that party members accepted the changes. Although the trade unions continued to fund the party, Blair kept them at arm’s length and, in government, they lost their position as a favoured interest group and failed to secure a reversal of the Conservative Government’s trade union reforms.
The improvement in Labour’s communications strategy, already underway for the 1992 election, was improved further. Peter Mandelson was already the key person in this area and he refined the principles that a few simple messages were put across, there was an instant rebuttal of any attacks and the Conservatives were not allowed to own issues such as law and order.
Philip Gould developed the use of focus groups to try out Mandelson’s messages on them and see what they were thinking, particularly the lower middle class swing voters. Blair’s moderate language and policies helped to put together a winning electoral coalition for Labour. Alistair Campbell, as the Press Officer at No 10 after 1997 was able to continue these strategies for the New Labour Government.
2. Tony Blair was never that interested in political theory but he picked up ideas that gave New Labour some sort of ideological basis. The political theorist, Anthony Giddens, was arguing that rapid social change, globalisation and a more individualistic society made top-down interventionist socialism outdated. Instead the State should support people to adjust to the difficult changes that were taking place and accept capitalism, but intervene to deal with its inevitable inefficiencies.
This involved a more decentralised pattern of intervention by developing networks of ‘stakeholders’ in the public, private and voluntary sectors who could work together. Blair presented this as a Third Way between capitalism and traditional socialism and promoted communitarian ideas, that people had rights but also responsibilities in society. The rhetoric of modernisation and national renewal was also important. Some of these ideas began to fade in power, as immediate problems piled up, and Blair often resorted to a view that what works is right.
(Anthony Giddens article in the New Statesman 17th May 2010 gives a summary of New Labour thinking and assesses its record)
What was Old Labour?
The Labour Party is unusual among European socialist parties in that it was formed partly by the trade unions, so that the Independent Labour Party, which contained a left wing membership, was only one element in the new party formed in 1900.
MacDonald as the leader and then Prime Minister in the 1920s sought to promote Labour as a moderate party appealing to the lower middle class as well as the working class. The 1945-51 Labour Government made significant changes but the new settlement that it created was one that the following Conservative Governments were able to fit in with and the Wilson Labour Governments of the 1960s and 1970s did not significantly depart from.
From the 1970s
By the mid-1970s the Labour Party was facing two major problems:-
1. The post-war policies of Keynesian economic management and the Welfare State that Labour had relied on no longer seemed to be working and the Labour Party leadership failed to develop a new alternative. It was the New Right that inspired Mrs Thatcher and the Left of the Labour Party with its Alternative Economic Strategy that were proposing solutions to the crisis.
2. The Labour Party had always had a federal structure with the Parliamentary Labour Party, the Trade Unions and the National Executive Committee representing party members all having influence. A rival power base to the Leader could be developed in any of these and the party Conference could vote for policies that the Leader did not want, as they did to Gaitskell over nuclear disarmament in 1960. When the left reacted against the failures of the 1974-9 Labour Government and called for a more socialist programme, it unleashed a battle between left and right in all three parts of the party. The left was temporarily in control with Michael Foot as leader and a left manifesto for the 1983 General Election.
After the disastrous defeat in the 1983 general election, the new leader, Neil Kinnock sought to modernise the party and blend left and right positions in its policies for the 1987 and 1992 general elections. The left-right battle ceased but Kinnock failed to win the elections.
When Blair won the leadership election in 1994, following John Smith’s sudden death, he still faced the two problems that had appeared in the 1970s – to develop a new governing philosophy for Labour and to remove the memories of divisions in the party in the mind of the electorate.
New Labour embarked on the most intensive programme of constitutional reform ever seen. Blair had no great interest in the reforms but the Party was already committed to some changes, as parties often do when they have been out of office for a long period. The main changes were:-
- Devolution of most domestic policy areas to a Scottish Parliament and a Welsh Assembly
- The achievement of a settlement in Northern Ireland was one of Blair’s major successes and a power sharing Northern Ireland Assembly was created
- The great majority of the hereditary peers were removed from the House of Lords but the Parliamentary Labour Party failed to agree on a second stage of reform leading to either an elected or appointed House
- A Freedom of Information Act required public bodies to provide information that they held
- The European Convention of Human Rights was incorporated into British law as the Human Rights Act
- London Government was restored and local authorities were able to change to having an elected mayor who would run the council
- A Commission on electoral reform was set up but no decision was taken on replacing first past the post for parliamentary elections
The biggest problem with the reforms was that there was no overall plan as to how they related and what the long term implications would be. The Human Rights Act changed the balance between Parliament and the Courts and devolution introduced a quasi-federal system.
Blair and Brown, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, were determined that New Labour should show that it had a responsible economic policy and not be blown off course by the financial markets, as previous Labour Government and the Major Government had. There was also the view that, in an increasingly globalised world, Government could not manage demand and ensure full employment but had to improve the ability of firms and the workforce to compete in world markets. The main policies were:-
- The Governor of the Bank of England was given the power, independent of Government, to set interest rates with the objective of keeping inflation below 2% and with a Monetary Policy Committee of experts to advise him.
- Public expenditure was held to the Conservative Government’s spending plans for two years. It was then increased in line with the extra income created by greater prosperity, especially on health and education. Brown promoted the ‘golden rule’ that over the economic cycle the Government would balance spending and borrowing so as not to increase the National Debt. This was fairly successful but then was blown apart by the financial crisis of 2008 after which the Brown Government borrowed heavily to buy out the banks and stimulate the economy.
- Education and training policy concentrated on improving skills in the population
- New Labour broadly followed the deregulation policies of the Conservative Government and encouraged foreign inward investment. Although New Labour signed up to the EU Social Chapter and introduced a Minimum Wage, policy was mostly directed towards the consumer rather than the worker
Rights and Responsibilities
Blair had tried to capture competence in law and order policy from the Conservatives and the ‘respect’ agenda looked to deal with anti-social activity. New Labour Governments constantly added new offences to the statute book with prison as the remedy. The principle was adopted that welfare was not available if people were able to work and the New Deal created a programme of job opportunities and training.
In aspects that had previously been entirely in the public sphere such as childcare, smoking, obesity and excessive drinking, New Labour intervened on the argument that society as a whole would benefit if women were able to work or the health effects of smoking were reduced. In most cases these policies involved persuasion but a ban on smoking in public places was instituted.
The Equality Agenda
New Labour promoted policies which improved equality for women, ethnic minority groups, people with disibilities and gay people. In opposition, the Labour Party had introduced all-women shortlists for the selection of parliamentary candidates in a number of seats and 1997 saw the large influx of women MPs. The repeal of Clause 28 which had made it difficult for teachers to discuss gay issues, reducing the age of consent to 16, civil partnerships and allowing people in the military to be openly gay were all carried out. Reforms were carried out in the police after the Macpherson Report on institutional racism.
Traditional Labour ideas of equality were in evidence, even though they were not generally promoted as such, and there was little attempt to increase tax on the highest earners. A programme of tax credits and pension benefits supported those on low incomes and the former was intended to reduce child poverty. New Labour developed the idea of social exclusion, that although the majority of the working class had moved out of poverty in the post-war period, there were pockets of unemployment, low educational achievement and poor aspirations and area programmes were instituted to deal with these.
Reform of Public Services
Blair’s modernisation rhetoric was used in relation to the public services, especially the NHS and schools, with the arguments that they needed to be more efficient and more responsive to users in order to justify extra spending. The first attempt to do this led to the adoption of targets with public services freer from Government intervention as long as they met these targets. After this, ideas of internal competition were introduced with Foundation Hospitals and Academy Schools. The private sector could be brought in to run failing public services.
British Foreign Policy has had two traditions – a realist tradition, more associated with the right, that sees Britain’s defence and economic interests as paramount and an ethical tradition, more associated with the left, that supports British intervention for the benefits of people in other countries.
Blair carried out intervention in Sierra Leone to support the democratic government and in Bosnia and Kosovo to prevent ethnic cleansing. The invasion of Afghanistan could be supported on realist grounds as a means of preventing further terrorist attacks but the problem with Iraq was that the danger to Britain’s interests was minimal (all the experienced Tory grandees – Heath, Clarke, Rifkind and Hurd were sceptical about the invasion).
Having abandoned the realist argument Blair moved to the ethical argument that Iraq would be given democracy, when this argument could be used against a range of dictatorships across the world.