The Labour Party and New Labour

The Labour Party is a political party in the United Kingdom. Founded at the start of the 20th century, it has been since the 1920s the principal party of the left in Britain. Its formation was the result of many years of hard effort by working people, trade unionists and socialists, united by the goal of changing the British Parliament to represent the interests of everybody. The labour Party had been a promoter of social democracy. Social democracy is a form of socialism which aims to reform the capitalist system to reduce social inequality and promote social justice. The core values of the social democracy can be seen in the old Clause IV which supported; equality, redistribution of wealth, social justice, nationalisation, full employment and welfare for all.

The dominance of the Conservative Thatcher government with its ‘New Right’ policies in British politics created a situation which made it increasingly difficult for labour to have any credible influence in the running of the country. The Labour party was seen as a ‘spent force’, with its tired policies being viewed as irrelevant and out of touch with the modern world. Something had to change ideologically within the party in order for Labour to have any realistic chance of being re-elected in the near future. When Tony Blair was elected the leader of the Labour party on 21 July 1994, the Conservative party had been in power for 15 years.

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One of Tony Blair statements about the need for modernisation of the party was very upbeat .Writing in the “New Statesman”, he stated that “the reason we have been out of power for fifteen years is simple -that society changed and we refused to change with it”(Marxism Today, 1998;p11)

In previous general elections the British electorate had chosen to be governed by the Conservative party.

Blair’s goal was to make the Labour party electable again with the help of his New Labour rebranding. One of the first tasks Blair took was to re-write Clause IV from the Labour constitution in 1995, to eleminate the commitment to common ownership and in effect to the old style social democracy. These were replaced by commitments to the free market, to the environment, to the ending of discrimination and to equality of opportunity for all.

New Labour” was first termed as an alternative branding for the Labour Party, dating from a conference slogan first used by the Labour Party in 1994 which was later seen in a draft manifesto published by the party in 1996, called “New Labour, New Life For Britain”.

After becoming leader of the party in 1994, Blair made a decisive break away from Old Labour’s traditional political stance. In policy terms New Labour often refer to themselves as ‘The Third Way’ between Old Labour, which they believe to be too radical, and New Right which they consider to have been overly concerned by the principle of laissez-faire and individualism. The “Third Way” sought to find a middle ground between two rather conflicting ideologies. Traditional Socialism proposed collectivist solutions to most economic and social problems: state ownership of the means of production and major industries, an extensive welfare state, strong trade unions and high levels of personal taxation to finance the redistribution of wealth and income. The New Right, on the other hand, championed free market capitalism, the pursuit of individual self interest, a smaller, reduced role for the state, free labour markets and low levels of personal taxation.

Debate and questions have been raised about the political nature of the New Labour and “Third Way”.

The core of them is a question if the Labour party has been changed and modernised indeed, or whether “New Labour” is in fact “Old Labour”, which had to use prefix “new” in order to recall the votes and to return in power?

The public discussion of this issue become more intense with labour’s landslide victory in 1997 .In the late 1980,s party went through a process of policy review. This process provoked reactions from many scholars Some critics argue that new labour is indeed “new” in the one or the other way (e.g. Heffernan, 2001) other state that it does not represent a break with its younger past but remarks a return to an older paradigm of social democracy (e.g. Shaw,1996) Dealing with specific ideological problem two standpoints can be observed. On the one hand ,some scholar define New labour in many ways as Neo-liberals project which is, in many aspect ,similar to Thatcherism (Hay ,1999 : Heffernan 2001,) Others argue that it does not embrace the absolute social-democracy orthodoxy but still belongs to the family of socialist ideas-even if in a more modern way. Some in this group claim that New Labour managed to find the “third way” indeed: trying to keep balance between “economic success” and “social inclusion”, between “market” and “society” (e.g. Giddens 1998; p7-9).

One part of the debate consists of discussion if new labour includes renewed ideology or it if it only presents a new image.

Tony Blair implied that new labour ideology, instead of giving importance to state control, class struggle and equality – as would be the case with Old Labour-gives much importance to a stable and competitive market, social inclusion and the attainment of economic growth. In Blair’s words “higher educational standard are the key to international competitive and inclusive society for the future” (Blair,1998:p18)

New labour strategy is not based on class-distinction .different from old labour which is biased in favour of the working instead ,new labour puts forward an all embracing category that focuses on community .The enemies of new labour are no longer portrayed as belonging to the ruling or middle classes, but are those who are portrayed as harming the community .

Such findings relate to class identification. Tony Blair famously declared in 1998 that “we’re all middle class now” and has consistently maintained that the class war is over – those are the “old divisions” that we need to get over by, for instance, restructuring education and the labour market .

For example ,as Blair argued, “education is the best economic policy there is”(Driver and Martell,1998:p57)

New labour seeks to move from a passive to an active, preventive welfare state. The welfare system should be proactive ,preventing poverty by ensuring that people have the right education, training and support.

Tony Blair will commit himself to “equality”, rejecting Old Labour demands for “equality of outcome” and defining it as equal opportunities for all in education, employment and as citizens.

Opportunity for all’ was indicated as a goal of New Labour with other similar expressions such as fairness, and social justice as well as other concept of objectives were, sometimes, added with it like equal worth in New Labour’s language. Then what does actually ‘opportunity for all’ mean in their context? White (1998) argues that it involves a commitment to real opportunity for basic goods such as employment and education.

First of all, as Driver & Martell (2000) and Fairclough (2000) indicate, opportunity for all contrasted with, traditional socialist’s value, equality, in particular, equality of outcome. In other words, it shifted the meaning of social justice from equality of outcome to equality of opportunity.

Public spending and taxation is one of the areas where the New labour under Tony Blair is most clearly different from old labour. Policies towards state pensions provide a clear example.

Many scholars hold that New labour ideology, strategy and policies are adopted by the Conservative Government.

Some key parts of its inheritance from the conservative are identified like attempts to control public spending .privatisation, the growth of means testing and the growth of inequality.

New Labour has been very enthusiastic towards the voluntary sector – just as the Thatcher government embraced the voluntary sector in the name of liberty and enterprise, New Labour has in the name of community renewal and contributory citizenship.

New Labour’s economic policy is built around the consolidation of a close working relationship between the government and employers, where trade union power hardly features.

Although economic policy would not be different from the one that Conservatives introduced, some policies like social welfare aspects would be adjusted in such a way that it would be in favour of society for example, giving extra funding for health and education without significant changes to income taxation.

There is a stress on discarding the Conservative reforms that failed, but keeping those that worked .New Labour phrase “what counts is what works” (Powell, 1999)

Tony Blair argued that “some things the conservatives got right; we will not change them, where they got things wrong that we will make change” (Labour Party, 1997)

Blair’s conservatism is also reflected in his adoption of the language of the new right: Labour’s policy documents on welfare and poverty are permeated by the notions of welfare ‘dependency’, ‘community’, ‘family’, ‘obligations’,,’duties’ and ‘responsibilities’. Rights and entitlements to benefits, and decent schools, healthcare and housing hardly feature at all in this perspective.

Under slogan of “making work pay”, it is intended that the minimum wage, and a partial fusing of the tax and benefit system will ensure that people who move from welfare to work should be financially better.

The New Deal Policy of welfare-to-work ,The Working Families Tax Credit scheme are clearly set out within New Labour’s 1997 Election Manifesto and are seen as a key part of New Labour’s Third Way policy, which is phrased by the acronym PAP (Pragmatism and Populism).

In a series of publications from the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (1998a and 1998b), the Department for Education and Employment (1997), the Department of Social Security (1998) and the Social Exclusion Unit (1998), the institutional structure to progress New Labour’s urban policy objectives was set out. It was clear from these publications that New Labour saw area-based urban policies as no more than add-ons to mainline policies for housing, health, income support and education. Like Conservatives, Blair’s government stressed the interactive nature of urban policy: centrally funded local programmes were set within the wider context of New Labour’s national programme of social policy reforms in such areas as health, education and the New Deal Welfare for work.

In his speech to the 1997 Labour Party conference Blair argued that ‘a decent society is not based on rights. It is based on duty. Our duty to each other. To all should be given opportunity; from all responsibility demanded.’

There is a pervasive conservatism at the heart of New Labour which forms the basis of Blair’s much vaunted vision of a ‘new society’. Blair talks of creating a ‘new settlement’ between the individual and society, wherein the stress on the individual will be accompanied by a new role for social institutions such as family, community and the state. At the forefront of this process is an attack on those on a range of benefits, but this is a wedge to drive a wider agenda of welfare restructuring where we all have the responsibility to provide for our pensions, our healthcare, the education of our children and so on. State provision is to be removed or, at the very least, residualised and stigmatised. This is an agenda to continue with the Tories’ strategy of privatising what is left of the public sector and cutting the social wage.

Although there seems to be a significant continuation of policy in many areas there ate differences as well. The similarities and differences between New Labour and Thatcherism hold varying degrees of importance in these theories. Tony Blair demurred from the Thatcherites in a number of areas, although they were never keen to emphasise them too hard. Unlike her, he wanted a much more cordial relationship with the European Union: unlike her, he wanted a more socially liberal society, and many of his supporters see the introduction of civil partnerships as one of New Labour’s most enduring changes. Unlike her, he enacted changes to the constitution.

Certainly Labour’s first move was pure free market. The Bank of England gained the freedom to set interest rates and pursue inflation targets. It was bold. Even the Tories had refused to do it, despite pressure from the Adam Smith Institute.

The Labour also managed to introduce legislations for Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly and reform House of Lords.


Although the majority of the policies which have been adopted by New Labour seem to be pushing for a neo-liberal or free market political agenda, it is difficult to collectively identify the party under a single ideological heading, because of the varying political stance it has taken on a range of issues. Furthermore I have explained to what extent New Labour’s social policies can be considered similar to those pursued by previous Conservative government. In general New labour has a clearly distinctive approach from Old Labour, however some policy adoption can be noted with the Conservatives, particularly in the areas of public expenditure, privatisation, the mixed economy, and welfare-to-work.

Atkinson, R. and Moon, G. (1994). Urban Policy in Britain. The City, the State and the Market, Basingstoke and London: Macmillan
Blair, T. (1998). The Third Way: New Politics for a New Century London: Fabians Society
Blair, T. (1996). New Britain: My Vision of a Young Country. London: Fourth Estate.
Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, 1998a: Regeneration Programmes – the way forward, London: DETR.
Department for Education and Employment, 1997: Welfare to Work Employment Zones.
Department of Social Security, 1998: New Ambitions for Our Country: A New Contract for Welfare. London: DSS
Giddens, A.(1998). The Third Way: The Renewal of Social Democracy. Cambridge: Polity Press
Giddens, A. (2000). The third way and its critics. Cambridge: Polity Press
Hay, C. and Marsh, D. (2000). Demystifying Globalisation Basingstoke: Macmillan
Heffernan, R. (2001). New Labour and Thatcherism: Political Change in Britain. Basingstoke: Macmillan

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