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Is New Labour a coherent ideology or just an electoral strategy?
The perception of New Labour underlying this question is that it is distinctive. It is at once an overhaul of the commitments and the programme of the Labour Party, and an acceptance of the institutions that it inherited from two decades of Thatcherism. It is perhaps even more distinctive that the New Labour era lasted for 13 years (1997-2010), the longest period of time the Labour Party has ever been in office. It was particularly spectacular given that many feared that the Labour Party would never return to power after 18 years in opposition. Given the distinctiveness of New Labour's position in British history and its programme, many scholars attempted to fit it into a narrative. Those who argue for the radicalism of the Thatcherite era also argue for its long-lasting legacy that defined New
Labour; some such as Steven Fielding argue that New Labour is the continuation of 1950s
Croslandite revisionism within the Labour Party; some would echo the view of Roy
Hattersley, Kinnock's deputy that the Labour Party has been the victim of a coup started by the small clique of Blair, Brown and Peter Mandelson; and lastly, some suggest that New
Labour was simply a desperate move by the Parliamentary Labour Party to win an election after being out of power for nearly two decades (Fielding 14). There are some merits in pointing out the significance of election considerations to New Labour's programme,
especially in the late 1990s. However, this essay argues that New Labour is a coherent ideology to a considerable extent. Regardless of whether it is completely novel or not, it was marked by an acceptance of the primacy of market mechanisms, but also a greater commitment to the equality of opportunity compared to the previous Conservative governments (This is a bit awkward to follow in terms of structure).
New Labour's victory in 1997 was carefully orchestrated. The electoral environment that it was operating was characterised by the voters' willingness to find an alternative to
1 the Conservatives, but at the same time their hostility to idea of redistribution. Class has declined in significance as a factor in party preference. For many, the memory of economic recession under the Wilson and the Callaghan governments, the bailout by the IMF, and the
Winter of Discontent remained fresh (Hay 3). The Labour Party was still perceived to be marked by 'Keynesianism, (quasi) corporatism, collectivism, egalitarianism, expansive welfarism' (Hay 8). It was obvious that the Labour Party that was associated with public ownership and trade unions would not get elected. Andrew Gamble argues that New Labour has opened a new chapter of political pragmatism in British political history. According to this view, the Labour Party repositioned itself according to the first principle that 'no policy stance should be declared off-limits on principle, if electoral calculation determined that it was necessary to win votes' (Gamble 643). Blair and Brown borrowed from Clinton the method to build credibility of a left of centre party after the rise of neo-liberalism (Gamble 643). A clean break from the 'Old Labour' was the emphasis of Blair the moment he became the party leader in 1994. In fact, the term 'new' was used 37 times in Blair's speech to the
Labour Party conference in 1994 and a further 104 times in the 1996 Road to the Manifesto document (Hay 3). The Party took two actions that were significant in revolutionising the image of the Labour Party. The first was the revision of Clause IV in the party constitution in
1995. Clause IV committed the party to advancing the 'common ownership…of the means of production, distribution and exchange' (Fielding 57). Although revisionists like Crosland and
Gaitskell had long pointed out that there were no necessary linkages between greater equality and public ownership (good point), no action was taken to revise the clause before
Blair, partly because of opposition from the left of the party and trade unions, but partly also because many revisionists thought the clause was of little consequence (Fielding 66).
There were never radical attempts to bring industries into public ownership during Labour's
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