Thursday, March 15, 2012

Assess the nature of modernisation of the Labour Party since the 1980s and the specific impact of Tony Blair’s leadership on the Labour Party modernisation.

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As Eric Shaw rightfully points out between 17 and 18 Labour was “wrenched apart by ruptures of an unprecedented ferocity which inflicted enduring harm on its public image and contributed to the electoral disaster of 18.” (Shaw, 16) After the General Election defeat in 17, the Labour party began to follow the outmoded ideas of the left-wing tradition touted by Tony Benn who had stepped in after the 17 defeat to fill the intellectual vacuum that existed within the Party. At this period in time, the party was in virtual civil war. With the Bennite faction gaining important foot holds in policy formulation at the Blackpool Conference of 180 (Unilateral Disarmament and withdrawal from the Common Market) and at the Wembley Conference of 181 (Electoral Collage), the fateful decision was taken by a group of right-wing MPs (known as the ‘Gang of Four’ - Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams, David Owen and Bill Rogers) to set up a breakaway party � the Social Democratic Party (SDP). The balance had been tipped in November of 180 when Michael Foot narrowly beat Dennis Healey to the Labour leadership. It was at that point really that the four eventually gave up the party as a lost cause. The SDP breakaway and the formation of the Alliance was, as Giles Radice concedes, “an unmitigated disaster for the Labour Party”, and one which he believes that they did not recover from until after the election of 1. (Radice, 4) The SDP were to have an impact not only in strengthening the ‘third force’ in British politics, but it would also have an effect on the structural framework of the New Labour Party in 14/5.

Under the ramshackle leadership of Michael Foot, the Labour Party entered the 18 General Election dubbed by both Tories and the press as the ‘Looney Left’. The manifesto dubbed by Gerald Kaufman as ‘the longest suicide note in history’ lead Labour to a crushing defeat, with the party vote dropping to a mere 7.6% its lowest level since 118. The time had come to revitalise the party, and sow the seeds that would put it back on the road to electability and power.

The election of Neil Kinnock, as I think we now see in hindsight, was a crucial step forward for the Labour Party. Kinnock, essentially a pragmatist, was now the new leader of the Opposition with a monumental task ahead of him, one which Pearce and Stewart believe that he shouldered willingly. He had to make the Party re-elect able, but before he could do that he had to win the trust back from the electorate, and show them that the Labour Party was a responsible and moderate party. (Best emphasised in his 185 Fabian lecture ‘The Future of Socialism’ Pg.115 & 116 of Tudor Jones) Between 18 and 187 he did this in a number of ways

1. The 184 Miners Strike Kinnock although sympathetic to the plight of the individual miner, did not support the strike. (Scargill had not balloted all the members and had adopted a creeping strategy based on individual pits joining the struggle). It was Kinnock’s belief that the strike was less about mining and more about an ideological struggle.

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. Militant Kinnock felt that the antics of Militant Tendency within the Party was highly damaging to the Party’s image and the electorate’s perception of it. He was forced to act, and at the 185 Bournemouth Conference he criticised the individuals concerned (one being Derek Hatton) from the platform. He began to expel them from the party in 186 (starting with 8 from Militant, he would eventually remove 50 members from the Party including to MPs � David Nellist and Terry Fields).

. Organisational changes The main thrust between 18 and 187 general elections where organisational. In June 185, Larry Whitty began to rationalise the Labour Party organisation and replaced the ten departments with three directorates covering administration, publicity and research. In addition policy formation began to shift away from the traditional focus of the National Executive Committee (NEC) to inner circles of policy advisors, with the leadership taking a more directorial role in this area. (Pearce & Stewart, 00).

Yet with another large defeat to the Tories in the 187 General Election (101-seat majority) it was hard to hide the bitter disappointment of a Party that fought a very sleek and choreographed campaign. Ben Pimlott summed up the problems that Party came up against at the election

Labour fought a brilliant campaign but its policy base was weak and the product kept on showing through…much in Labour’s manifesto was merely negative resistance to Tory measures or the half apologetic playing of ancient tunes. Gone were the acute embarrassments of 18. In their place was a designer socialist blandness.

The many traditionalists in the Party claimed that the Armani suits and the portable telephones of the ‘socialist yuppies’ risked undermining what the Labour Party stood for since its creation. Others, most notably the new generation of ‘modernisers’, did not agree and pointed to a third successive defeat if they reverted back. A situation reminiscent of 15 took shape. The leadership was clear in its own mind that either Labour broke out of the electoral doldrums in the 10s or it risked disappearing as a viable political force altogether. It was in this vein that Kinnock established the Labour Party Policy Review, under the directorship of Tom Sawyer, within days of the 187 defeat. Within two years the Review had turned around the most damaging policy lines that had contributed to the last three general election defeats. In the newly published policy document entitled, ‘Meet the Challenge, Make the Change’, unveiled in 18, the first signs of what has become ‘New’ Labour could be seen

• Out went uni-lateralism and in came multi-lateralism.

• In European terms was now a supporter of continued membership as well as closer ties with Britain’s European partners.

• There was a shift towards an acceptance of the new economic landscape in Britain. Labour was now looking to run a capitalist market economy better than the Tories.

• Acceptance of the irrevocable shift into the privatised world of many previously government-owned and controlled companies and utilities (even the idea of 51% were abandoned by Labour in the early 10s).

• Acceptance of some of the Tory Trade Union legislation (especially when it came to the balloting of members over important issues).

• Taxation was to be progressive but the higher bands were to be limited.

• Some of the traditional elements did still remain � commitment to full employment and Clause IV (though Kinnock was unsure of its implications on a rapidly modernising Labour Party).

• Further changes flagged by Kinnock � OMOV at the 187 Brighton Conference.

There was no doubt that by the General Election of 1 Labour were a new political force, it was now a credible party machine. Yet there were still a number of key elements that troubled the party which included tax and spend policy, where the Labour Party capable of running a sound economy that was just tax and spend? And the eligibility of the Labour leader was also a telling question could anyone see Neil Kinnock at No.10? Unfortunately for Kinnock the answer was no. Kinnock’s second defeat saw him stand down immediately, and look for a career elsewhere.

The Party once again needed a new leader, but this time one candidate seemed to emerge with overwhelming support. John Smith was MP for Monklands East and was also the Shadow Chancellor. He won a resounding victory over Bryan Gould taking 1% of the vote. There was no doubt that Smith was going to continue where Kinnock left off and would take the modernisation of the Party forward. Smith chose the further democratisation of the Party and launched into a campaign to bring about OMOV. The issue was taken to conference in September 1 and Smith won by a very small margin. He had secured a reduction of the Trade union vote from 40% to .% and individual voting rights for all party members. Whether or not Smith would have gone from here and continued the pace of change we will never know, for his career came to a tragic end with a fatal heart attack in May 14. Once more the Party need a leader of a new generation that would continue the momentum forward.

Tony Blair, who came through the leadership contest by beating Prescott and Beckett, was the first leader to be voted in by OMOV rules. He had heavy support amongst the PLP and the CLP rather than through the trade unions and levy payers. But the pace of change would not slacken under Blair. Modernisation for him, as he later explained, was ‘about returning Labour to its traditional role as a majority mainstream party advancing the interests of the broad majority of the people’, a role which, in his view, the Party had abandoned after 17, when the ‘activists steamrollered the leadership and put about the myth that we lost because we were not sufficiently traditionalist socialist.’(Jones, 15). Blair was ready to do what Gaitskell tried and failed, and Kinnock and Smith secretly thought about but had not dared to try. He was prepared from the out-set to re-draft the Party’s fundamental statement of aims including the sacred Clause IV. In 15 he gained the backing of conference and replaced Clause IV with a new aims and directives. The 118 constitution was the basis of ‘Old’ Labour, whereas the 15 equivalent was the basis of Blair’s ‘New’ Labour.

By 16 Labour had been out of office longer than any other mainstream left-of-centre party in the Western world. Blair put this situation in simple terms, ‘The reason for our decline was simple. We lost touch. Society changed but we did not. Out structures were out of date.’ By this time Blair was constructing the rhetoric of the co called ‘Third Way’. He saw the twentieth century develop in three key stages

• The first, symbolised by the Labour Constitution of 118, was the growth of the collectivist state. It roots lay in the early twentieth century but it had seemed to have reached notoriety in the post-war world.

• The second stage, which began to emerge in the 170s, but is identified with the Thatcher years, was a reaction to the first stage. There was growing criticism of the overbearing and deadening hand of the ‘Nanny state’.

• The third stage Blair saw as moving both beyond the crude individualism of the Thatcherites and the old collectivism of the consensus era. In his own words he claimed, ‘My generation stands at the intersection between the old and new.’ ‘New’ Labour wanted to reconcile individualism with community, blending care with enterprise. In place of the inadequacies of state socialism, Blair wished to embrace the fundamental ideas of early ethical socialism � including its emphasis on the need of society to act together to achieve what the individual cannot do alone and its advocacy of the use of the power of society to protect and advance the individual � and then to apply such ideas to the conditions of modern British society.

For Blair, modern socialism consisted not in a particular form of economic organisation based on public ownership but rather in a collection of values such as community and mutuality which were strengthened by the over-reaching concept of the public interest invoked in support of the individual. The primary task of Labour’s new agenda was to translate that concept into practical methods of public action aimed at enhancing the individual’s freedom and interests.

The main features of the ideological revision which Blair was advocating as the ‘governing philosophy of today’s Labour Party have become reasonable clear. They appear to compromise an espousal of the idea of an inclusive community promoting the public interest, a rejection of the elevated status previously ascribed to public ownership, and an unequivocal defence of the merits of a competitive market economy, once regarded by socialists as incompatible with their communitarian beliefs. (Jones, 16).

This was the theory that was peddled just before the 17 general election, and it was no doubt pragmatic to the point of being all things to all men � and being New Labour � all women too. Whatever the theory behind the pronouncements and changes at the time, there was no doubt that the Labour Party was ready to fight a general election. It also had a clear idea of what it needed to do to win. These factors coincided with one of the most weakened governments of the recent past calling the election itself. The outcome was a resounding victory for New Labour with the largest majority of any party this century.

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