Explanatory Concepts in Political Science

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What are the key differences between ‘Old’ and ‘New’ Labour?

Explanatory Concepts in Political Science

Ben Aston
25.02.03
Since 1979 there have been dramatic changes in both the structure and organisation of the Labour Party. In part, this was in response to their failure to win a general election between 1979 and 1997. However, the change goes much further than that and can be perceived as a reflection of the continued struggle between ideologies of different factions within the party. This essay will first try to establish what ‘Old’ Labour was and what it stood for. Then, scrutinising ‘New’ Labour, this essay will discus if, how and why the Labour Party changed and identify the key differences between ‘old’ and ‘new’ Labour.

The Labour Party was initially established as a party to represent the newly enfranchised working class in Parliament. Growing out of the Labour Representation Committee (LRC), the party owed its existence to various trade union and socialist organisations. Consequently, right from its inauguration, the party’s primary purpose was to elect MP’s that would represent the interests of the unions. Although ostensibly not a committed socialist party, by 1918, the party had included Clause 4 in its election manifesto, the principle of public ownership which committed the party to nationalising land, coal mining, the electricity industry and the railways as well as declaring their intention to make rates of taxation steeply progressive to fund a major extension of education and social services.[1] Labour soon overtook the Liberals in popularity and rose to be the principle opposition for the Conservatives, forming three governments between 1926 and 1945. Post-war Labour fundamentally recognised the relationship between state and society in Britain and introduced a number of reforms in education, social security and welfare in an attempt to lay the foundations for a new, more caring society. The post-war Atlee government sent Labour on a trajectory towards socialism with commitments to economic planning in an attempt to reduce unemployment, a mixed public and private sector economy and a comprehensive welfare system which was endorsed by successive Labour and Conservative governments until 1979 when Thatcherism ideology took over. During this time Labour was widely perceived as being orientated towards a socialist perspective as the government took responsibility for unemployment, healthcare and housing.

After Labour's defeat by the Conservatives in the elections of 1979, the party went through a period of considerable internal turmoil that ultimately resulted in extensive reform of the structure and organisation of the Labour Party. Since 1979, there have been three distinct phases of change as ‘Old’ Labour became ‘New’. These can be defined as The Bennite challenge, Modernisation and New Labour.

The first phase of this, the Bennite challenge led by Tony Benn attempted to redress the balance of power within the party. Aided by the leaders of some major trade unions at a special party conference in 1981, the party's left wing activists succeeded in forcing through a number of internal organizational reforms that enhanced the power of grass-roots activists and trade unions in the selection of parliamentary candidates and party leaders. This change meant that ‘the party would now be committed to bringing about a fundamental and irreversible shift of power and wealth towards working people and their families’[2]. In response, a number of leading parliamentarians and supporters seceded from Labour and founded the Social Democratic Party in 1981. Labour presented a radical manifesto that proposed extensive nationalization of industry, economic planning, unilateral nuclear disarmament, and the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Economic Community. The result was Labour's worst national electoral defeat in more than 50 years. It was...
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