The New Labour movement dominated UK politics for the best part of 13 years and produced the longest serving Labour government ever. 20 years on from Blair’s sweeping landslide election victory, the Labour party has turned its back on the centre ground and centre-left politics has died a miserable death. What was it about New Labour that was so enthralling to the electorate and what then caused its timely decline giving way to the populist socialism championed by Jeremy Corbyn?
By 1997, after 18 years of governance, Major’s Conservative party had become tired and decrepit. The political climate begged for change and Blair was the heir apparent for the Prime Ministerial hot seat.
Throughout the 1980’s, despite a large section of the electorate despising Thatcher’s Government, there was no credible opposition. Too Painful were the memories of “the winter of discontent” and the economic and industrial strife experienced under Labour in the ’70s. Neil Kinnock’s party, despite his efforts in removing militant left wingers and in modernisation, was seen as too left wing and not a credible alternative in safe guarding Britain’s booming economy of the 1980s. The Thatcher juggernaut ploughed on and by 1992 Labour had suffered three general election defeats in a row.
Fast forward five years and Labour had just won its largest majority ever with a 179 seat victory over the Conservatives. After nearly two decades of power the Tories were weak and broken and the Labour party were set to rule for a generation. Blair, Brown and Co. had presided over one of the most remarkable political transformations in recent parliamentary history. So then, what happened and how did the centre-left get it so right?
After the 1992 defeat Blair, Brown and Mandelson rose up the party ranks offering a new direction for Labour. They would play the Tories at their own game. Gone were the orthodoxies of old Labour and in was the new big business friendly, media savvy Labour party. Daily Mirror journalist Alistair Campbell was brought in to combat Labour’s image problem and the party was no longer the “high tax” gang. Even the age old “Clause IV” of the Labour constitution calling for “common ownership of the means of production” was thrown to the scrap pile. This was now a party of apparent economic responsibility and was a “New Labour for a New Britain” to borrow and misquote a phrase.
And, in the early days at least, New Labour had huge success. Labour now kept taxes low, embraced the economic efficiency of the free market and rejected centralised public-ownership. The economy grew and Labour were able to implement meaningful social reform.
2001 came and Labour won another landslide victory with a 167 seat majority. Brown could now start his spending and pumped funds into hospitals, schools and other public services. So far so good as far as the public were concerned.
But then came the beginning of the downfall. Iraq. Blair’s slavish following of Bush’s foreign policy (we now know how that ended) dented both Blair’s authority and credibility. By 2005 Labour had won an unprecedented 3rd election victory but this time with a reduced majority and Blair’s days looking numbered. A fresh faced Cameron was now modernising the Conservatives and once again the Tories were a credible opposition.
2007 brought the beginning of Brown’s premiership and, despite a brief period of success, New Labour were now staring down a credit-crunch shaped barrel. Labour’s image as the party of economic responsibility was in tatters after the 2008 economic crisis. Bank’s were bailed out and taxes were raised. Labour performed disastrously in the 2008 local elections and had lost the electorate. The disastrous 2010 election came and Labour mustered only 29 percent of the vote. Electorally speaking Labour were back to the dark days of the 1980s. New Labour was dead.
Fast forward to April 2017 and Labour are now a party of the populist-left led by the long standing antithesis to New Labour, Jeremy Corbyn. Ed Miliband’s 2015 general election failure, which saw the Tories break out of coalition and win an 8 seat majority, left Labour members looking for a clean break from the centre left. Jeremy Corbyn, the second most rebellious Labour MP ever, was elected leader and with that UK’s centre-left was officially defeated. But then so was Labour’s general election hopes.
The latest general election polling shows the Conservatives to have a 17-point lead over Labour. Once again Labour is in the wilderness. With a seemingly unstoppable Tory government, shifting ever to the right and on course for a third election victory coupled with a floundering, weak and backward Labour party, it appears we have accidentally stumbled across Doc Brown’s Delorean and have headed for the ’80s.
If Labour wants to halt the political dominance of the Tories and stand a fighting chance of returning to power (or at least mount an effective opposition), it needs to ditch its’ uncompromised 1970s socialist ideology and return to the centre ground. For a realistic chance of winning the 2020 election Labour needs a leader who can appeal to the aspirational working and lower middle classes. It needs to once again be the party of economic and social responsibility and open itself up to the benefits of the free market. Only a return to the centre-left and the development of a new ‘New Labour’ can save the party now.