Heffernan, Richard: New Labour and Thatcherism: political change in Britain, Palgrave, 2001, 243 pages.
Driver, Stephen - Martell, Luke: Blair’s Britain, Polity Press, 2003, 248 pages.
White, Stuart (ed.): New Labour. The progressive Future?, Palgrave, 2001, 234 pages.
Since New Labour victory in 1997 a particular boom in research of the British Labour party has begun. Both the party modernisation while in opposition and the policies and performance of the first Blair government have provoked active discussions among researchers. The core of them is a question if the Labour party has been changed and modernised indeed, or whether „New Labour” is in fact „Old Labour”, which had to use prefix „new” in order to recall the votes and to return power? The proponents of the „reformist” agenda within the Labour Party have different views on sources and impulses, which caused the change of Labour politics.
In a nutshell three groups of arguments can be identified. The first group of scholars argue that New Labour party chose a conservative approach to many policies (especially to economic one), and that its movement in a neo-liberal direction was nothing more than playing policy „catch up” to Thatcherite economics, working „under false pretences” (on this group, see C. Hay or M. Wickham-Jones).
Others believe that New Labour’s policies are very distinct in substance from those of the Conservative governments (in details, competence, unity, etc), and so should be identified as a post-Thatcherite politics. Some in this group claim that New Labour managed to find the „third way” indeed: trying to keep balance between „economic success” and „social inclusion”, between „market” and „society” (see A. Giddens).
Finally, the third group articulates an alternative view - „New Labour is both new and not new”; despite some discontinuities between its programme and previous Labour party programmes, there are strong elements of continuity between Blair’s government and previous governments, both Conservative and Labour ones. However, they put more emphasis on modernisation within Labour’s own social democratic tradition rather than on accommodation with Thatcherism in order to respond the challenges of the contemporary world such as globalisation (see D. Coates, L. Panitch or M. Smith).
The reviewed books contribute considerably to the continuing discussion concerning New Labour politics. All three definitely deserve to be reference points in the debate on the nature and performance of New Labour.
In his study, Richard Heffernan explores a profound influence of Thatcherism on the British party system in general, and on the Labour party particularly. According to the researcher, Thatcherism was a new centre-right consensus in British politics, which played a decisive role in an emergence of New Labour project.
Richard Heffernan argues that the Blair leadership and premiership can not be considered as „year zero” in Labour politics. Two components of New Labour emergence (beyond the Blair initiatives) should be taken into account. The first one is „the organisational and programmatic reforms” having been initiated by Blair’s predecessors, notably N. Kinnock and his associates. The second, „external” factor played even more a crucial role in the remaking of Labour, and was concerned with ‘the political success of the Thatcher and Major governments, specifically their accomplishment in rooting existing neo-liberalism even deeper within Britain’s political and economic system” (see preface to paperback edition).
Since New Labour was decisively shaped by Thatcherism, R. Heffernan provides a comprehensive analysis of its agenda in two chapters (see the third and the fourth chapter). Thatcherism can be best understood as „an ideological phenomenon, one that is rooted in the ideas of the New Right but also informed by electoral and economic dimensions” (page 3). R. Heffernan explores Thatcherism in terms of its causes, chronology and consequences, providing an excellent analysis of the existing literature on Thatcherism. The researcher points out that it was a coherent ideological phenomenon from 1979 to 1997, which brought the electoral success of the Thatcher and Major governments. Thatcherism also meant a new consensus in British politics. This fact is clearly confirmed by the transformation of the British Labour party into New Labour, which reflects „a seemingly irreversible shift in the balance of power in favour of right-reformist neo-liberal politics at the expense of left-reformist social democratic politics” (page 71).
R. Heffernan argues that Labour incorporated many elements of Thatcherism into its programme, especially on privatization, industrial relations and pro-market economic policies. A separate chapter (the last one) is devoted to the party’s attitude to privatisation. Though these changes are often associated with Tony Blair, the Policy Review adopted by Labour with N. Kinnock ahead was in many ways the precursor to New Labour. Thus, the attempts of „Labour’s rapprochement with the realpolitik of Thatcherism” were already evidenced in Kinnock’s agenda. While the Policy Review is defined as „transformation”, the post-1994 reformation is clearly understood as „consolidation” (pages 81-83).
R. Heffernan includes three theoretical chapters (the sixth-eighth ones) in his analysis. He examines the reasons and directions of party and party system change, and identifies the contexts within it happens. Electoral defeat, having been experienced four times by Labour, „…made the Labour party to prioritise office seeking over policy seeking” (page 98).
But the change may not have happened if it had not been reinforced by two features. First, Labour was able to acknowledge not only an alteration in its electoral environment, but also a shift in the ideological climate of British politics. The latter led to Labour’s accommodation to the neo-liberal politics undertaken by the Thatcher and Major governments. Secondly, a party’s readiness for change is defined „…by its genetic code: its historical background, past ideological associations, traditional identity and the various expectations voters and political commentators have of it” (page 99).
Using this material R. Heffernan advances a theory of consensus politics and the politics of ‘catch-up’. The researcher defines consensus politics „as a development of a series of contestable political beliefs translated over time into a set of assumptions common to all parties” (see preface). As far as the politics of „catch-up” is concerned, for R. Heffernan Labour modernisation exactly reflects this process: „...party competition driven party change, the ‘process of catch-up’, results in the consequential interaction of parties where one party is obliged to follow where a competitor party leads” (page 177).
Thus, R. Heffernan could be referred to those scholars who define New Labour to large extent as a Thatcherite political party, which abandoned much of its past and traditional means of social democracy. It is figuratively expressed in the book’s cover cartoon - of Tony Blair waltzing with Margaret Thatcher.
An alternative view on New Labour is suggested in a comprehensive research written by Stephen Driver and Luke Martell. On the one hand, they do not share the idea that New Labour can be defined simply as Thatcherism. They argue that the Blair government has taken politics and policy-making beyond Thatcherism. On the other hand, they can not agree either that Blair has continued modernisation within the Old Labour (social democratic) tradition. Thus the main conclusion of their analysis is that „…New Labour is not just like any old Labour Party, but neither is it Thatcherism Mark 2” (page 21).
The book is divided into three parts. The first one explores the 1997 election results and Labour’s first term in government. The scholars raise a serious question about the character of the Blair government and its relations to both Thatcherism and Labour’s own past. The authors define two camps in interpreting New Labour: „the Thatcherite consensus thesis” and „the modernisation thesis”. While the former puts the main focus on the politics of ‘catch-up’ with Thatcherism, the latter sees „…the process of modernisation (the key word) as part of continual up-dating of the Labour Party and social democratic politics to fit contemporary world such as globalization” (page 19). S. Driver and L. Martell distance themselves from both theses. They admit the fact that Labour did accommodate itself to Thatcherism. But the Labour government brought something (especially in terms of public policy) that allowed it to move beyond Thatcherism. That is why the scholars define the new Labour politics as ‘post-Thatcherism’.
While analysing Labour performance in power (1997-2001), S. Driver and L. Martell address the core question if there is one New Labour or there are many sides to Tony Blair’s administration? After exploring such policy areas as welfare reform, economic policy, public services (health and education), the constitution, and law and order, they confirm their thesis that „…Labour’s policies reflect both continuity and change of previous Conservative policy-making: the New Labour government is neither wholly Thatcherism Mark 2, nor wholly a modernised social democracy” (page 26). For the researchers New Labour is not a seamless political or ideological project: „…rather than search for a singular New Labour, it is better to acknowledge the plurality of New Labours” (page 62).
The second part of the book is both conceptual and comparative. It examines Labour’s ‘third-way’ project which was broadly debated in 1997-1998. A central issue for the ‘third-way’ politics is globalisation. As a response to its pressure, contemporary governments have to look for a ‘third-way’, departing from both social democracy (Old Left) and Thatcherism (New Right). The researchers argue that „…Blair’s third way combines rather than transcends Left and Right but, in doing so, produces new configurations which in themselves may not be easily identifiable as being strongly either Left or Right” (page 95).
Two chapters of the second part are devoted to the current state of social democracy across Europe in Germany, France, Netherlands, Scandinavia and Mediterranean, and its response to the challenges of globalisation and social change. Though almost all European social democrats are now looking for a third way between neo-liberalism and old-style social democracy, they choose different paths in accordance with various nationally specific factors. Thus, the researchers believe, there are different third ways rather than one. For their better understanding they explore three possible social democratic responses to globalisation: 1) neo-liberalism; 2) active nation-state interventionism; and 3) political globalism (see pages 113-125). The sub-chapter, which explores the European policy of New Labour, is of particular interest. The researchers fairly point out that „Blair’s attempt to be a leader in Europe, rather than a mere member of a reluctant or destructive presence, has not always been as successful as planned” (page 131).
The final part of the book examines four key challenges for the Blair government: (1) the balance between national identities and multi-cultural and multi-national states; (2) strong government and pluralist politics; (3) social justice and economic efficiency; and (4) work and family. The Labour approach to these issues reinforces again the main thesis of the researchers: New Labour must be understood as a new political consensus as far as many aspects of its first government lay beyond Thatcherism, or were even quite un-Thatcherite.
Stephen Driver and Luke Martell obviously belong to the group, which argues the idea of Labour’s distinctiveness from the previous Conservative governments. At the same time, they also doubt on some claims that New Labour’s project has been carried out within social democratic traditions. Thus, being apologists of New Labour, they believe the latter has brought a genuinely new consensus in British politics.
The collection of essays, edited by Stuart White, is another sample of a valuable survey of New Labour. The main focus of the book is a question if New Labour can offer a fresh approach to progressive politics, one that is fitted to the demands and constraints imposed by contemporary economic and social developments. The authors believe New Labour (like Thatcherism) will evolve in the course of time; that is why it is hard to offer a definitive assessment of New Labour now. The book attempts to report on political work-in-progress.
The structure of the book reflects an original approach of the authors: they examine New Labour’s claims to be a new form of progressive politics from three perspectives: (1) from the standpoint of ideology; (2) from the standpoint of major policy initiatives; (3) and by looking at what progressive parties and governments elsewhere are doing with a view to casting a comparative eye on New Labour (see Introduction).
The core question of the first part is what New Labour stands for. S. White recognises that one can identify distinctive value and policy frameworks that define a ‘third-way’ approach to economic and social policy. However, he doubts that the ‘third way’ is a distinctive, coherent and progressive public philosophy as New Labour often claims. The ‘third-way’ project is relatively broad, and contains a number of fundamental ambiguities, which reflect the coalitional character and ambition of New Labour. The researcher argues that the ‘third way’ can be better understood as a „rhetorically defined space”, the definition, given by Steven Lukes (page 3). S. Beer finds New Labour’s philosophy is much closer to the British Liberal tradition (particularly of the „positive liberalism” of David Lloyd George and Jo Grimond) rather than to social democracy or Thatcherite neo-liberalism. P. Norris suggests the results of survey, which help to understand how Labour positioned itself between the traditional ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ on the political spectrum, and how this relates to patterns of party competition in the British electorate. The researcher argues that Labour effectively occupied the centre ground not only because of its own willingness to shift policy and attitude, but also because of the apparent unwillingness and/or inability of the Conservatives to offer serious competition for the centre ground (page 39). The most obvious explanation of Labour’s move to centre-right is that it rationally adopted an electoral strategy to gain the voters of ‘Middle England’ after 18 years of opposition. Thus, Labour behaved in accordance with a spatial theory of electoral competition, which assumes that ‘catch-all’ parties have the capacity to gain popularity by moving strategically to the centre of ideological spectrum (page 42).
The second chapter examines what New Labour was actually doing in government (1997-2001). Though it does not cover the whole range of government policies, it represents an interesting analysis of such areas as education and training; welfare policy; industrial relations; decentralisation; and feminism. Education and training were at the heart of New Labour’s ‘third-way’ project. ‘Employability’, ‘flexibility’, ‘lifelong learning’, ‘welfare-to work strategy’ became label words of New Labour’s education and training initiatives, which it tried to employ at home, and to advertise in Europe. The main conclusion of S. Wood is that, on the one hand, there is considerable ambition and coherence in the educational strategy of Blair administration that deserves encouragement. On the other hand, the obstacles facing the government, resulting from familiar structural problems of the British economy, and from incompatibility between new Labour’s own policies, are sizeable (page 48). However, New Labour’s ‘welfare-to-work’ policy had a profound effect on social justice; it is scrutinised by C. Oppenheim in Chapter 6. Labour’s constitutional reforms are perceived by S. Teles and Marc Landy as the most important initiatives, which can reshape politics far into the future. Generally speaking, the principle of policies’ selection, suggested by the researchers in this part, is quite obvious: they analyse those areas, where Labour’s initiatives on values of social justice, effective liberty and democratic self-government are most noticeable.
Finally, the last part focuses on various ‘third way’ projects in Europe and the USA. Having recognised the fact that one should speak about various ‘third ways’ across the world, the researchers try to understand if New Labour has something in progressive politics from what parties abroad can learn, and if New Labour itself should take some lessons from other nations. The analysis of the „New Democrat’s” experience in the USA is worthwhile so far as Tony Blair’s leadership has often been compared with Bill Clinton’s one. The relationship between New Labour and continental social democracy proved to be more complicated. Since there are two politicians among the contributors to this part, the analysis is of particular interest for a reader.
Any collection of essays can not give an impression of single authors’ approach as a monograph does. In this connection, the last chapter is quite important because S. White and S. Giaimo try to draw together some findings from the foregoing chapters and offer some provisional conclusions. The researchers examine New Labour project within context of ‘social liberalism’ rather than Thatcherite neo-liberalism. For the authors, New Labour’s record in social and economic policies does to some extent represent an implementation of a progressive social liberalism. However, New Labour project is criticised by some contributors of the book for ‘the modesty’, ‘the unevenness’ and ‘the potential weaknesses of social liberalism itself’ (pages 215-216). The latter means that in one extreme form, social liberalism might be called ‘Left Thatcherism’: „…an ideology which says that we should try to assure citizens roughly equal initial endowments of marketable assets and then let the free market rip” (page 216). As far as the move towards social liberalism in other countries is concerned, the researchers believe that other progressive governments face very different institutional inheritance; thus, New Labour project differs considerably from other ‘third ways’ (the best example is comparison with Germany). The contributors name three key areas in which New Labour should do some work: (1) to develop a clear and attractive public philosophy; (2) to resolve the tension between its social investment and taxation commitments (the area of public spending); (3) and to build civic commitment.
The book obviously tends to analyse New Labour within the tradition of the ‘popular liberalism’ of late nineteenth-century Britain. The researchers believe that if New Labour wants to deliver the ‘Progressive Century’ Tony Blair talks about, it should cultivate a truly popular social liberalism, and rebuild a supportive civil society. The approach seems to be quite idealistic in its perception of New Labour and its future, neglecting ‘New Right’ component in Blair’s politics.
Though these books consider New Labour, its policies and impact it has produced on British and European politics from various perspectives, and the authors’ views are ranging and sometimes even polarising, nevertheless all three are strongly recommended to all who research on the British Labour party, contemporary Britain, and broader issues of social democratic tradition. Whatever the suggested views and approaches to New Labour the reader will share, the books are indispensable for better understanding of complexity of New Labour, and British politics in general.
Copyright (c) 2004 Larissa Kuzmitcheva
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