Brown, Blair, and Labour's legacy in Britain
After a 13-year run, Britain’s Labour Party is out of power. How should we assess its legacy?
The era of Labour hegemony is over. How should we assess its legacy?Skip to next paragraph
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It is conventional these days to disparage the record of Labour in government over the past 13 years. Even quite supportive observers tend to argue that little of substance has been achieved. For the more swingeing critics, Labour in power – Labour as New Labour – has been more than a disappointment; it has been a disaster. The party led an onslaught on civil liberties, betrayed leftist ideals, failed to make any impact on inequality and, worst of all, embarked upon a calamitous war in Iraq.
New Labour promised a New Dawn and many feel betrayed. I’m not without sympathy for these criticisms. Yet one can mount a robust defense of many of Labour’s core policies, and a balanced assessment is needed if an effective future path is to be charted. A realistic base line for so doing is to compare Labour’s period in government with the fate of its sister parties in other countries over roughly the same period, such as Bill Clinton and the Democrats in the United States, Lionel Jospin’s socialists in France, or the Social Democratic Party in Germany, led by Gerhard Schröder.
Labour managed to stay in power longer than any of these, indeed longer than any other left-of-center party in recent times, including those in the Scandinavian countries. It was a signal achievement, given that the party had never previously held onto power for even two full terms before in the hundred years and more of its existence. The ideological changes associated with the invention of the term “New Labour” were in fact a large part of the reason for its electoral successes.
A fresh vision for left-of-center politics
“New Labour” was not an empty sound bite, designed to cover up for policy vacuity. On the contrary, there was from the outset a compelling diagnosis of why innovation in left-of-center politics was needed, coupled to a clear policy agenda.
In outline it ran as follows: The values of the left – solidarity, reducing inequalities, protection of the vulnerable, coupled to a belief in the key role of active government in pursuing them – remained intact, but policies designed to pursue these ends had to shift radically because of the profound changes going on in the wider society.
Such changes included intensifying globalization, the development of a postindustrial or service economy and, in an Information Age, the emergence of a more voluble and combative citizenry, less deferential to authority figures than in the past (a process later greatly expanded by the advent of the Internet).
Most of Labour’s policy prescriptions followed from this analysis. The era of Keynesian demand management, linked to state direction of economic enterprise, was over. A different relationship of government to business had to be established, recognizing the key role of enterprise in wealth creation and the limits of state power.
No country, however large and powerful, could control that marketplace: hence the “prawn cocktail offensive” that Labour launched to woo the support of the city. The advent of the service or knowledge-based economy was coupled to the shrinking of the working class, once the bastion of Labour support.