What Set of Political Ideas Did New Labour Present?

What Set of Political Ideas Did New Labour Present?




What Set of Political Ideas Did New Labour Present?


            New Labour was a period in British politics when the British Labour Party climbed to the summit of politics in the nation and managed to hold on to power for over a decade. Led by future prime ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, the era of New Labour saw the revival of the labour party as it remodelled itself into an organization that endeared to Brits across all social classes and ages. During this period, the political ideals of the party were changed to suit the times and the ambitions of the party. Despite bearing socialist undertones, the labour party modelled its ideals progressively, in a way that benefited the party and the British country as a whole.

The Beginning of New Labour

New Labour refers to a period in British history between the mid-1990s and the early 21st century when the British Labour Party held the seat of power in the country (Parkinson, 2010). New Labour started when the British Labour Party, under the stewardship of a young Tony Blair, emerged victorious in the 1997 elections. Within the Labour Party, the concept of new labour had started a few years earlier (History of the Labour party, n.d.). After suffering a big loss to the conservatives in the 1987 elections, the Labour Party started to reassess their ideals and views. Tony Blair and Gordon brown had come into prominence within the party in the mid 1980s and they were at the forefront of this renewed drive for the labour Party. They were seen as modernizers and their prestige within the party had risen under Neil Kinnock (Parkinson, 2010). Another big loss in 1992 forced the party to reconsider its leadership and Kinnock resigned with John Smith replacing him. Smith’s stay at the helm was short-lived as he died of a heart attack in 1994 and this opened the door for Blair and Brown to take control of the Labour Party (History of the Labour party, n.d.).

Under Tony Blair’s leadership, the Labour Party presented itself as an organization that had changed. In the party’s autumn conference of 1994, Blair finished his speech by proclaiming, “Our Party – New Labour. Our mission – New Britain. New Labour – New Britain” (Parkinson, 2010). This proclamation would give birth to a powerful mantra that went on to drive the party to the summit of British politics (Coates, 2000). Before conquering British politics, the modernizers needed to be triumphant in the party’s internal politics. Blair and his allies were still facing a lot of opposition from the Labour Party’s traditionalists (Hindmoor, 2004). Part of this struggle was encompassed in Blair’s fight to remove the fourth clause from the Labour Party’s constitution (Rentoul, 1995). The clause, which called for collective ownership of Britain’s means of production, was an indicator of the past ideals of the party and Blair’s success at removing it from the party constitution was a strong meter of the plans that he had for the British Labour Party (New Labour because Britain deserves better, n.d.; Rubinstein, 2001).

The political ideals of New Labour

The political ideals of New Labour can be analyzed in two ways. Analysis can be carried out by looking at the courses of action that new labour pledged to take as it ran for elections. By looking at the party’s promises and pledges, it is possible to understand the dream that the party had for Britain. Additionally, this will make it possible to see what New Labour was about on paper. New Labour’s political ideals can also be analyzed by looking at the actions and plans that they implemented while in office. In some ways, New Labour’s implemented policies provide better insight into the party’s ideals because they show what New Labour gave precedence to while in office (Driver & Martell, 2001). In its 1997 manifesto, the British Labour Party argued that the reason for creating New Labour was to come up with a party that could “meet the challenges of a different world” (The Labour Party, 1997, p. 9). For New Labour, the incoming millennium represented a new era for Britain, one that gave the nation reasons to be optimistic.

Looking at New Labour’s manifesto of 1997, the first thing that to note is that the party started to move away from the leftist politics of “Old Labour’. The manifesto proudly proclaims that the party has been “transforming itself into a party of the future” (The Labour Party, 1997, p. 8). Part of this change came in the rewriting of the fourth clause. In its old wording, the fourth clause called for means of production in Britain to be collectively owned. This and other statements made most people consider old labour to be a socialist party (Moran & Alexander, 2000). For new Labour to claim that it had transformed the party, it was necessary for the clause to be rewritten. Doing so would indicate an outright shift in the party’s ideology from the left to the centre left (Fairclough, 2000; Giddens, 2010). Under Tony Blair, New Labour reworded the clause to get rid of its socialist appeal. The new clause argued for “the enterprise of the market and the rigour of competition” (Giddens, 2010) Analysts perceived Blair’s success in changing the clause as a big step towards the party’s electability. New Labour’s renewed ideology appeared to have an immediate effect on the party’s popularity. Between 1992 and 1997, the party gained more supporters within the middle and upper social classes in Britain (Heath, Jowell & Curtice, 2001). However, the party did not seem to endear itself to the working class as it lost supporters who appeared to have preferred the collectivist ideals.

Mark Bevir (2000) argues that even though New Labour’s policies were different from Old Labour’s collectivist ones, the party was still socialist in some way. For Bevir (2000), British socialism promoted the concepts of social justice, community and citizenship and it was from this variant of socialism that New Labour was descended and modified. Issues that had dominated British politics in the 1980s played an important role in the emergence of New Labour (Bevir, 2005). The three keys issues were inflation, a change in the structure of the working class and the emergence of an underclass in Britain. To deal with these issues, the socialists felt that they needed to break away from their old policies (Diamond, 2004). Resultantly, these new problems forced a re-imagining of the ideas of social justice, community and citizenship (Beech, 2005). New Labour exemplified this new way of thinking by accommodating policies and discussions that the labour party had previously shunned (Bevir, 2000). For instance, New Labour accepted the right’s policies of decentralizing the public sector and using agencies to provide some of the services (Coates, 2000). Additionally, Blair and Brown appeared to be warming up to the concept of privatization as they campaigned for the 1997 elections.

New Labour’s perception of the welfare system also represented a shift from the ideals and arguments of Old labour (Woodcock, 2011). The emergence of an underclass in the 1980s was an issue that dogged British politics. The term referred to over a hundred thousand people in Britain who were workless, had no skills to speak off and in most cases were homeless (Underclass, 2013). The mainstream society marginalized them and considered them the entrenched five percent (Lund, 2002; Purdy, 2000). For many people, the underclass was a menace that threatened to destabilize British society. This view was in some ways exemplified by the Brixton Riots of 1981, which started after police placed a black man under arrest (Easton, 2011). Some people argued that the welfare system had helped to create the underclass by giving people handouts that did not bear any obligations. New labour employed policies that were supposed to remedy the situation. Blair argued that the new welfare system would “reduce dependency and get rid of disincentives to paid work” (Cited in Bevir, 2000, p. 23). This bold statement underlined New Labour’s political views on citizenship and welfare. Bevir (2000) claims that for New Labour, citizenship was not just about people receiving rights and liberties from the government but also about them bearing duties and responsibilities. The renewed views on welfare also exposed a more radical perception where people who failed to perform their duties were not regarded full citizens (Oakley, 2011).

The ideals that New Labour promoted regarding welfare were only partly implemented by the party once in power (Coates, 2000; Driver & Martell, 2006). Even before New Labour had gained control of the country, Blair had already created a body to deal with the underclass crisis (Macintyre, 1997). Some of the party’s policies were praised while others were criticized for either taking the party back to its purely socialist stance or for being too harsh and radical. Some critics even went as far as to call the regime’s policies “Thatcherine” (Heffernan, 2000).

New Labour’s foreign policy also reflected the party’s political ideals. The state of international politics during the 1990s presented Britain with a chance to realign its position in the world. The party pledged to apply foreign policy within ethical dimensions (Lawler, 2000). Security and trade would remain to be key areas of concern (Lownsbrough, 2009). Along with those two issues, the party planned to rally for international cooperation on environmental issues as well as the promotion of democracy around the world. These promises were kept, in part, with the successful interventions in Sierra Leone, Bosnia and Kosovo. However, the success was by with Britain’s involvement in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars (Giddens, 2010). This involvement in different conflicts for humanitarian reasons exemplified the pledges that the Labour party had made concerning ethics in foreign policy. Additionally, the idea of ethics being applied in politics in some ways reflected some of the ideas that New Labour had for British politics concerning welfare and citizenship (Lane, 2012).


It is quite clear that New Labour is a remodelling of the same ideals and concepts of the Old Labour. Most of these ideals are the same at the core, with the main differences coming from the way that they are interpreted and implemented in the context of the contemporary world (Allender, 2001). Emerging issues of the time definitely played a key role in influencing these ideals, as did the demands of the British voters. It is worth noting, though, that some of these ideals brought desirable changes to the British economy and society. Additionally, New Labour was more than happy to embrace views and policies from the right that they perceived to be effective and beneficial. The evidence presented suggests that even though New Labour did not represent a radical shift in the political ideals of the labour party, it did indicate an important change in the way that the party thought.





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