On the origins of New Labour

So one of the things I have ended up talking about a lot on the various Corbyn and Labour debates is about New Labour. What is was, what it meant, what its record was. In some respects analysing what New Labour was, and its record in government is key to understanding where we are and what the various motivations of the various factions are. This blog is about looking at the reason New Labour came to be, and my next blog will be my analysis of their time in office and how it relates to our current situation.

My Union’s General Secretary Dave Ward, a man I respect and admire greatly, even if I think he has got things badly wrong on Corbyn, recently described Blairism as a Virus, and this got me thinking about New Labour and Blairism and what it is…..

So here is the thing I don’t think that New Labour, at least to start with, was an ideology at all. New Labour was a strategy. New Labour was originally concocted as medicine, and I’ll talk about that medicine in a bit.

What is interesting here for me is what that virus/disease that they were coming up with a medicine for was.

I think it is hard for us to now, particularly those of us too young to “get it” at the time, what a horribly, horribly crushing blow the ’92 election was. I was into politics (yeah even aged 12. I know what a loser!) but didn’t really have a full understanding of how things worked. But I knew we were expected to win…. That things were going to change for the better…… That the Tories would finally, in my lifetime, be gone.

I remember seeing the shock, surprise and disappointment in my family members, and some of my teachers. I can only imagine what it must have been like for party activists.

So the party had to think about why it lost, how it lost, and how it could win again. The genesis of new Labour was in this process.

So I blogged a while back about why I think electoral reform should be a touchstone issue for the left, and in that I cover off some of the same ground.

So here is the thing. Because of our political system, first past the post, and the way in which our population and demographics split: in most places in the UK, most constituencies are not up for grabs. Anywhere that requires as swing of much more than 10% are probably not going to change hands however much a party campaigns there (over a longer period of time constituencies can and do come in and out of play). Usually in most of these “safe seats” we all know the outcome in advance. This is, for my money, one of the biggest problems with our system of democracy in the UK.

Barring seismic change, like the industrial revolution, universal franchise, or the rise of the Scottish Nationalist movement these long standing biases are unlikely to change.

So that leaves the parties looking pretty much solely at those seats that might change hands, mostly those with majorities under 5000. New Labour was really a project about how could the Labour party pitch itself, in these places, at the right people, to win these seats and win and election.

This then leaves you with a choice, who do you target? Do you try and get 5001 new voters, or do you try and get 2501 Tory voters to switch? It is a conundrum that will face every Labour Party unless (hopefully until) we get some meaningful reform of our broken political system.

The calculation, as they saw it, is that getting voters to switch is the easier and more reliable path. Firstly because switching voters count double (one more for us, one fewer for them) meaning you have to convince a smaller number of people. Secondly that people who have voted before, are more likely to actually vote meaning the work is less likely to be fruitless.

It was therefore seen as “the path of least resistance” to target getting switchers, in places where switching might make a difference. But the truth is the Labour party could have targeted 5001 new members and still have been trying to fix the same problem.

This is where the “Too small blanket effect” starts to come into play though. Because how a party pitches it’s policy can effect who votes for it in both directions. Your chest is cold at night, and you pull your small blanket up, but then then your feet get cold.

A public policy offer is a bit like a blanket that isn’t quite big enough. Pitch too hard at swing voters in the centre and you annoy alienate your left wing, and potential new voters. Pull too much toward your left in search or new voters and the centrists might switch and vote for the other team.

That was the conundrum facing the Labour party after 1992, that is the “disease/virus” then, it is also the difficult strategic facing the Labour Party today.

New Labour was, initially at least, envisaged as a medicine for how we could do enough, in the right constituencies, to win enough votes to win a General Election.

And.It.Worked.

It really did. Labour won consecutive landslides, then a third big majority. It was by any measure the most successful, electorally at least, that the Labour Party has ever been. Nothing before, or in the short time since has come close.

Now you may passionately disagree with what this medicine entailed (I was incredibly unhappy with much of what the New Labour government did). You may believe, as I do, that the way New Labour targeted its win wasn’t the only way it could have won. I for one think John Smith would almost certainly have won in 1997 had he lived and that his government would undoubtedly have had slightly different policy priorities than Blair’s government did.

Heck once the Tories had been in for 18 years I suspect Labour fighting on the 1992 manifesto again would probably have won in 1997, though probably not with such a landslide.

So feel free to disagree passionately with the medicine New Labour prescribed; but don’t think that the disease wasn’t correctly diagnosed, it was. And that disease is still what Labour needs to address if it wants to win a General Election under the current system. And that small blanket problem is going to be an issue whichever policy direction we take.

Understanding the reasons why New Labour took the path it did, and understanding how that relates to the current choices before the Labour party isn’t the same as endorsing the public policy platform of New Labour.

And it certainly isn’t the same as pretending that the decisions of 94–97 are somehow applicable in the political climate we operate in today. The political world, the electorate, the means of campaigning/communicating any many other things are fundamentally different today and any political party’s strategy and policy offer needs to be different.

But until our political system changes, what is needed in order to win an election remains the same. And depending on which route we go to get the votes we need, in the places we need to get them, that approach may well leave another part of the Labour voting coalition a little cold if we have pulled the blanket in the other direction.


Originally published at Lunchtime Legend.