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Study Notes

New Labour

AS, A-Level
AQA, Edexcel, OCR, IB

Last updated 22 Mar 2021

The term “New” Labour was first mentioned in 1994 by Tony Blair at the Labour Party Conference. Under the influence of the sociologist Anthony Giddens, who believed that it was important to find a “third way” between Thatcherism and traditional socialism, Blair’s New Labour abandoned ‘Clause IV’ of the Labour Party constitution (which committed it to nationalising the means of productions), loosened ties with the trade unions, and advocated a balance of pro-American, pro-minority and socially caring policies.

After 18 years of Conservative Government, New Labour was aimed to appeal to all social classes, but above all it tried to capture new, young, white-collar middle class voters from Thatcher. It did this by accepting the market economy, trying to foster an enterprise culture, allowing some public services to be built and delivered by private companies through the Private Finance Initiative (PFI), announced a belief in meritocracy as opposed to egalitarianism, aimed to reduce welfare dependency and became more authoritarian in terms of law and order than previous Labour administrations.

Clause IV had been printed on the back of Labour membership cards since 1960, when a previous Labour leader, Hugh Gaitskell, had tried to change it. Having found that it might not be possible for the middle class to trust Labour whilst it existed, Blair changed it, after a controversial vote at the 1995 Labour Conference to the following:

The Labour Party is a democratic socialist party. It believes that by the strength of our common endeavour, we achieve more than we achieve alone so as to create for each of us the means to realise our true potential and for all of us a community in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many, not the few, where the rights we enjoy reflect the duties we owe, and where we live together, freely, in a spirit of solidarity, tolerance and respect

Despite calling themselves a democratic socialist party, New Labour actually referred to their programme as social democracy. They wanted to push for people to engage in cooperative self-help, be self-reliant and aim for self-improvement. They believed that the state was not a panacea but a facilitator – offering a hand up not a hand out.

Policies that implemented this philosophy included:

  • ‘Welfare to work’ – a programme of subsidies and training for benefits claimants to get back onto the job market – including tax credits to bump up income
  • ‘New Deal’ – aiming at single mothers and the disabled to get them into work too
  • ‘Minimum wage’ – aimed to make work pay higher than benefits

Significantly, due to Anthony Giddens’ belief that the majority were now middle class, policies were aimed more at those excluded from society – disabled, single mothers, extreme poor underclass, homosexuals – making sure they had rights too. So, Equality and social justice were still central to New Labour, but in a different manner to traditional Labour policies.

Traditional Labour supporters were and are still dividedas to whether New Labour was nonsensical and hollow spin or a new take on social justice. Left-wing Labourites sniped that their leader was “Tory Blair” but he did win three elections.

Yet it could be said that no Labour government had more of an opportunity to pursue a traditional socialist programme than New Labour, who had an enormous majority but also a budget surplus and growing economy left to them by the previous government that could have allowed to them to pursue a radical programme.

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