“Parties that do not change, die … If the world changes and we don’t then we become of no use to the world” – Tony Blair, 1994.
James Callaghan’s general election loss in 1979 and Michael Foot’s subsequent electoral failure in 1983 catalysed a period of internal division for the Labour party, particularly divisions over ideology and subsequent policy.
As a result of these divisions, the leaderships of Neil Kinnock (1983-1992), John Smith (1992-1994) and Tony Blair (1994-2007) generated strong and sustained reactions, some of the most vociferous coming from their own Party members.
Arguably, Tony Blair received the strongest criticism for drastically altering the Labour Party’s commitments and direction, primarily by diverting its ideological commitment away from the traditional Socialist ideology, whilst others contend that New Labour, under Blair, merely continued a pre-existing process of change.
The Labour party faced a crisis in 1983. Electoral failures, out-of-touch policies and internal divisions left the party’s membership standing at under 300,000, far below its peak of over one million in 1952.
Neil Kinnock was charged with rejuvenating the party and regaining electability, with there being widespread support for the modernisation strategy in the party. This inevitably led to strong reactions from within the party, with many resenting the idea of abandoning Labour’s roots and others supporting the changes as a means of delivering improved election prospects.
Tony Benn, elected to parliament in 1950, was one of the most vocal and committedly Socialist Members of Parliament (MP) in Labour’s ranks, offering thorough and continuous commentary on the changes occurring within the Party.
Benn reflected in March 1995, a mere seven months after Blair’s election to Party leadership, that Labour was ‘unquestionably in a time of transition’ wherein before ‘there was a sort of place for Socialists … there isn’t anymore’, blaming Blair for an intensification of Labour’s disassociation with Socialism.
Benn critiqued Blair’s abandonment of Socialism for a centrist ideology, seen in July 1995 when Benn called Blair ‘the most popular Tory leader in Britain at the moment’, chastising Blair for being the ‘prophet of ideologically footloose politics’ by abandoning Labour’s traditional ideology in a quest for electability.
Some have argued that these comments implied that Benn thought Blair executed a dramatic shift in Party ideology. However, one can observe similar criticisms from Benn of Blair’s predecessor, John Smith.
Benn lamented in May 1993 how Smith distanced Labour from Socialism, labelling Smith ‘a very right-wing figure’. Benn similarly criticised Kinnock for deserting Socialism, thereby altering the ideological commitments of Labour. Benn noted in March 1983 that Kinnock had become ‘indistinguishable from the right wing’, further attacking Kinnock’s ‘modernisation’ of the Party in October 1985 for being ‘an attempt to destroy the left’.
If we were to look at a member of the Labour party on the other end of the ideological spectrum to Benn, this view is complemented.
Robin Cook, after becoming a MP in 1983, demonstrated himself to be a strong and vocal member of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP). Cook was less concerned about Labour’s commitment to its Socialist origins, supporting New Labour’s modernisation of the Party and its ideology.
Cook commended Blair for ‘[catching] a tide among members and supporters who were impatient of electoral failure’, reflecting his willingness to adapt Party ideology as a means of electoral success, also supporting the image Blair was presenting to the electorate of New Labour as a new, different and electable Labour Party.
Despite this implying such an adaptation was constructed by Blair, Cook offered similar support to Smith, as demonstrated by his position as Campaign Coordinator for the Smith Party election campaign in 1992, envisaging a ‘centre-left party’ that could challenge for election.
Cook was also supportive of Kinnock, being convinced that after Michael Foot’s defeat in 1983, ‘Labour had to change to make itself electable’. Cook denounced those on the ‘hard-left’ for ‘always being on the television slagging the party off’ and not supporting a centre-left Labour that could achieve election to government.
One can see how the reactions of prominent Party members with differing commitments to the Socialist ideal offered the same reactions to Kinnock and Smith as they did the Blair.
From these reactions we can see how Blair’s New Labour did not execute a dramatic shift in Labour’s ideology as some argue, but that such a shift was started under Kinnock in a fight for electability which was subsequently intensified by Blair.
Through this we see how Tony Blair’s New Labour did not initiate a dramatic shift in the direction of the Labour Party. There was emphatic reaction to the modernisation of Blair’s Labour, however, such reactions were also directed towards Kinnock and Smith, indicating it was these leaders that initiated Labour’s shift in direction and commitments.
The perception that Blair’s New Labour was the initiating force that modernised Labour’s ideological and policy outlook is a result of the intensive public campaign run by Blair and his Party executive to present an image of New Labour as a Party of change, as the title quote indicates.
New Labour was attempting to shed the unelectable image that had plagued its recent past through revolutionary rhetoric and publicity, working to overwhelming effect with Blair recording a landslide victory in 1997. However, the image sold by Blair does not reflect the reality that Labour had been in a process of change and modernisation since 1983.
Author: Jason Montaner
Jason is a UK-based political journalist specialising in domestic affairs and foreign policy.