University 18 Yrs + | Political Thinkers
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.
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.
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