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Unlikely Heirs – New Labour and the Thatcher Revolution
The term New Labour is a relatively recent one but the process of remodelling and 'modernizing' the Party started already in the 1980s and must not be reduced to the impact of Tony Blair or the influence of Thatcherism. It may be argued that – among other factors – the wish to return to power became crucial for the urge to 'modernize' the party in the 1980s and 1990s. Blair, for example, said in June 1995 that "Labour is a party of government or it is nothing" (Davies 1996: 431). The transition of Labour from a socialist party towards a British variant of European social democracy started under Neil Kinnock's leadership and was continued by Smith and Blair. More specifically, the beginning of the process which led to what is now commonly referred to as New Labour could possibly be located in 1987 when Labour was beaten in the general election for the third consecutive time. The key significance of the defeat was not so much the defeat itself or its scale but the fact that, in contrast to previous elections, there was no excuse for losing: no winter of discontent, no Falklands War, no ageing leader, etc. (Hughes and Wintour 1990: 2 3).
The period following the 1987 election was characterized by a controversial and often painful process of recognizing that the social and economic changes which had taken place in the 1980s necessitated further 'modernization' of the Labour Party if it was ever to win a general election again. The awareness of this need became even more acute when Labour – despite the changes in the period from 1987 – lost another general election in 1992. The Sunday Times stated in an editorial headed 'Socialism, RIP': "The most significant lesson of the general election of 1992 is that, in its present form, Labour is unelectable" (Davies 1996: 429). When Blair was chosen as party leader in 1994 this was rather a matter of expediency and the wish to improve the party's electoral chances than enthusiasm. The Economist observes that "left-wingers held their noses", but they also had to acknowledge that "he felt fresh, looked good and was popular enough to offer Labour its best chance of regaining power after 15 years in the wilderness" (Economist, 10 June 2006).
When Labour was finally returned to power in 1997, the Party and its new leadership endeavoured to project the image of a fundamentally renewed party ready for the challenges of the next millennium and of a new start for Britain – New Labour promised new policies and a reversal of the negative consequences of Conservative rule. Bogdanor obviously disagreed when he wrote in 1997 that the general election of the same year was not only a triumph for Blair but also for Thatcher: "It was her final triumph in that it ensured that Thatcherism would survive a change of Government" (Bogdanor 1997: 111). In other words, for him 'Thatcherism' – without Thatcher – as a distinct set of political and economic priorities was accepted by New Labour: "Indeed, Labour was seen as safe to entrust with power only after it had fully accepted the broad outlines of Thatcherism: the priority of the attack on inflation, the importance of the market, the need for the trade unions to be regulated by law, and privatisation – Labour, in short, had to become New Labour if it was to win a general election" (Bogdanor 1997: 111).
Among the complex questions raised by the relationship between Thatcherism and New Labour there are three that stand out: first, the relationship between change and continuity in specific policy areas beyond the rhetoric of party politics; secondly, in how far both Conservative and Labour governments claimed to follow their convictions whereas they were rather forced by circumstances beyond their control to pursue certain policies; thirdly, whether the 'inheritance' could have been turned down by the Labour Party without forfeiting the chance ever to win an election again. The paper will approach these questions in two steps. Firstly, by looking at the concept of 'New Times' and, secondly, by attempting to update the analyses of Hall and others, which were mainly produced in the 1990s, in the light of more recent developments and research.
'New Times', according to Stuart Hall, refers to "social, economic, political and cultural changes of a deeper kind now taking place in western capitalist societies. These changes … form the necessary shaping context, the material and cultural conditions of existence, for any political strategy, whether of the right or the left" (Hall 1996: 223). At least the leadership of New Labour seemed to subscribe to this interpretation of 'New Times' and also to the construction of a causal connection between 'New Times' and Thatcherism. Thus Thatcherism itself became rather a reflection of changes on a larger scale than a 'revolution' instigated by Thatcher and her supporters. Moreover, Labour's radical change of ideology, political convictions and, after being returned to power, policies would appear not so much as a forced shift towards positions of the New Right (Thatcherism), an accusation made by its critics, but rather a necessary or unavoidable response to changed circumstances which had little to do with the 'Thatcher revolution'. Then, but only then, New Labour was simply necessitated by the changes described with the term 'New Times', in particular the 'revolution of the subject'. Part of this 'revolution', which also affected Labour's 'modernisation process', had been the diminishing importance of the category of class in political and ideological terms (although there is no general agreement). Turner, for example, argues that it became "increasingly clear that the course of British social and cultural history since the arrival of 'Thatcherism' ... defied any attempt to identify specific class interests with set ideological positions" (Turner 1996: 218). This development presented a challenge for the Left in general and the Labour Party in particular. Looking at Hall's collection of essays The Hard Road to Renewal: Thatcherism and the Crisis of the Left (1988), Turner points out that what was crucial for Hall's analysis was "Thatcherism's spectacularly successful reconstruction of hitherto traditional political alignments between working-class interests and left populism. After Thatcher, a new alignment emerged, connecting New Right populism, conservative ideologies and the working class" (Turner 1996: 218). The Left found it very difficult to come to terms with this new situation. Some of its members considered the underlying assumptions of much of the 'New Times' writing as a betrayal of the working class or a surrender in the face of 'Thatcher's revolution' rather than a potential opportunity to analyze its own failure to reconstruct its link with the working class and, on a more pragmatic level, to enhance the chances of the Labour Party to get elected. McRobbie says in her analysis of 'New Times' writing that "there is a recognition of the break-up of the older points of collective identification especially that of social class and the reformation of identity around other chosen sites of 'belonging'. ... This is where, for the rest of the left, betrayal begins, the slide into accepting as a fait accompli the 'end of class'" (McRobbie 1996: 242). Blair seemed to accept the notion of a "break-up of the older points of collective identification" (the end of class politics?) when he explained in 1995 that for him modernization was "about returning Labour to its traditional role as a majority mainstream party advancing the interests of the broad majority of the people" (The Times 1995: n.a.).
The changes denoted by the phrase 'New Times' and Labour's move towards what has been described as the 'political middle' or the 'mainstream' had an important impact on the target audiences of Labour's election campaigns. That the Labour Party could not any longer rely on its traditional electoral base had become evident already in the 1983 election. The elections in 1983, 1987 and 1992 had shown that it was not any longer possible to win elections by relying on simple campaigning strategies that addressed the corporate identities of, say, the working class. Hall observes that "[t]he individual has become more important, as collective social subjects – like that of class or nation or ethnic group – become more segmented and 'pluralized. ... The 'subject' is differently placed or positioned by different discourses and practices" (Hall 1996: 226). More specifically, this meant that there was less of a chance for the Labour Party to appeal to 'collective' social identities of working-class voters and supporters. Labour had to acknowledge that 'the working class' consisted of individuals who did often share only fragments of the alleged 'collective' identity of the good old days. Trade unionists, traditionally staunch supporters of the Labour Party, had become consumers, house-owners, shareholders, critics of state education, ecologically aware citizens and people who shared to varying degrees what was then considered to be Thatcherite ideology – much of what today would pass as common sense across the political spectrum. Arguably, the latter change is one of the longer lasting legacies of the 'Thatcher revolution'. Not surprisingly, Labour described itself in its 1997 election manifesto, Britain will be better with new Labour, as "a national party, supported today by people from all walks of life" (Election Manifesto 1997).
The analysis of the continuities and discontinuities between Thatcherism and New Labour, however, cannot be reduced to the 'revolution of the subject' aspect of 'New Times' and Labour's response to it. Both the Conservatives and the Labour Party had to come to terms with the new post-Fordist economic context of an increasingly globalised world economy. For Blair, argues Davies, it seemed to be obvious that the defeat in the general election in 1992 was a consequence of Labour's failure "to respond to the social and economic changes which had transformed Britain in the 1970s and 1980s" (Davies 1996: 439). The success of the Conservatives thus could be interpreted as a better (at least electorally successful) response to the changes. So Labour's answers to the economic and social challenges had to be different (or appear to be different) from both those of its own past and from those of the Conservatives. For example, New Labour's relationship with industry was characterized as completely new: "The old left would have sought state control of industry. The Conservative right is content to leave all to the market. We reject both approaches. Government and industry must work together to achieve key objectives aimed at enhancing the dynamism of the market, not undermining it" (Election Manifesto 1997). The new political position of Labour was described as one that "differs both from the solutions of the old left and those of the Conservative right. This is why new Labour is new. We believe in the strength of our values, but we recognise also that the policies of 1997 cannot be those of 1947 or 1967" (Election Manifesto 1997). Kenny and Smith, who argue that one of the decisive changes associated with New Labour is the "elaboration of a new political economy", point out that Blair and his advisers were highly conscious of the fundamental changes of the external economic environment in which Britain operates and "that policy has to be conceived and applied in the context of the globalisation of financial markets, fundamental reconfigurations of international economic power and a transformed macroeconomic environment in which interest rates, inflation and public sector borrowing are far more difficult to manage" (Kenny and Smith 1997: 220, 226). The paper does not deny that these changes have taken place but will also address the question whether they have also been pushed by Thatcherism and Reagonomics. The aim is to refute the claim, partly also reflected by some of the 'New Times' writing, that globalisation simply 'produced' Thatcherism while diminishing the active role that Thatcher and others played in preparing the ground for an intensification of certain globalising processes.