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After New Labour

Sunder Katwala


New Labour has been the most successful governing project of  the British centre- left for half a century. This project is clearly now over.


There are two truths seldom acknowledged about Labour’s future. The first is that New Labour has been the most successful governing project of the British centre-left for half a century. The second is that the New Labour project is clearly now over.

That these two truths are usually offered as opposing diagnoses – many Labour people will readily agree with either one of these arguments but vehemently reject the other – may go a long way to explaining why each of the most common arguments about where Labour must go next largely fail to convince. Too many of the debates on this autumn’s Manchester conference fringe seem set to offer the party a choice of competing cul-de-sacs: whether to reheat the political scripts of the 1990s, or those of the 1970s.

Next Generation Labour’s brightest voices (rightly) argue that Labour must recapture the mantle of ‘change’. But if they go on to advance an argument for ever bolder, even newer Labour renewed, this risks sounding much more like ‘more of the same’. When that counter-argument is (correctly) advanced, it can be hard to escape the nagging doubt that the speaker’s true desire is for New Labour to be ditched so that it can be safely succeeded by what came before it.

Labour should not be afraid of robust discussion of its values, ambitions and policy platform. But the current framing of its internal debate looks set to doom any hope of political recovery to failure.

Firstly, this is far too much an inward-looking factional argument framed between two minorities on the right and left flanks of the party. Much mainstream left-of-centre Labour opinion, which understood why the party needed to modernise without ever forgetting what it was for, risks being crowded out of the debate about Labour’s future.

Secondly, this ‘New Labour: for or against’ debate sets up a series of unhelpful binary choices: should Labour be proud or dissatisfied with its record in power? Does Labour rebuild its core support or target swing voters? Is the strategic argument for continuity, and defending Labour’s record from reversal, or for a future change agenda? Does Labour need to be more clearly rooted in clear values and principles – or would that narrow the broad appeal needed for recovery?

Thirdly, for all of this internal soul-searching Labour has still yet to conduct a serious inquest into both the scope and limits of the New Labour project. That was missing from the Blair-Brown transition, while the current argument is over such a narrow idea of ‘New Labour’ that it is impossible to imagine how it could have been the dominant force in British politics for a decade.

After three election defeats, the Conservative Party became competitive again when, it finally began a serious inquest into why it was losing. Labour has struggled to adapt to the changed political landscape which results from its own political success. Having half-converted its political opponents into competing for Labour territory, Labour finds that its 1997 playbook no longer works (Katwala, 2007). Yet it has been unable to articulate its own positive social democratic argument sufficiently to re-establish clear public differences between the major parties for fear of being seem to lurch left.

This will leave the next election as a referendum on an unpopular government, not a choice between alternative governments: an unwinnable proposition.


The New Labour coalition

The mythology of New Labour is part of the problem. Phillip Gould, chronicler of the unofficial ‘authorised version’ in his book The Unfinished Revolution, portrays ‘the project’ as the creation a handful of individuals – Blair, Brown, Mandelson, Campbell and himself. This version of New Labour is avidly studied on the Conservative frontbench. It is popular too, with heroes and villains reversed, on Labour’s left flank: the capture of a once proud political party by a tight-knit cabal who broke with Labour traditions and ideas (Gould, 1998).

This does nothing to explain how New Labour was possible. In fact, New Labour was once a majority argument within the party, which won the support of a broad internal coalition across mainstream strands of party opinion. So there were different strands within New Labour and different ideas about what it might become. It was much broader and more plural than it seems to have become today.

New Labour presented itself as a ‘year zero’ project yet the ‘clause IV’ moment of 1995 built on several earlier organisational, ideological, policy and electoral shifts: the expulsion of Militant, the shift of defence and European policy, and the introduction of ‘one member one vote’ under Neil Kinnock and John Smith; the push to elect a decisively greater number of Labour women to Parliament; Giles Radice’s ‘Southern Discomfort’ Fabian pamphlets on electoral strategy and the ippr’s Commission for Social Justice had helped to coalesce opinion around a modern social democratic argument.

To note that the Blair leadership and the public projection of New Labour came after all of this is not to underestimate their importance. Blair shifted gear on each front, replacing a ‘how little change is necessary to win’ approach with a ‘breakout strategy’. New Labour was more than a marketing exercise in brand decontamination. It encompassed a historical critique of how to avoid the serial fate of Labour in power, brought down by economic crisis and government-party splits; a policy argument about how social democracy should deal with the challenges of economic globalisation; and (in its early phase, at least) an argument about the need to modernise the British state and do politics differently.

Only a relatively small minority of the party was consistently and actively hostile to New Labour in principle. The Campaign Group left was always less than one-tenth of the Parliamentary Labour Party, and probably little stronger in the constituencies. 90 per cent of Constituency Labour Parties backed change in the 1995 special conference on the new Clause IV. The much slimmer union majority (54.6 per cent) reflected a reluctant acceptance of New Labour among union leaderships. However, Tony Blair had won a majority of first preference votes in the affiliated and union section of the three-cornered leadership contest of 1994, as well as majority support from individual party members and Parliamentarians. Policy commitments including the minimum wage, signing the European social chapter and attacking youth unemployment through a windfall tax on the privatised utilities helped to bolster trade union support for Labour, beyond the commitment to dislodge the Conservative governments.

The broader ‘soft left’ was constructively and critically engaged with New Labour, believing that public reassurance could ground a strategy to win public trust for a more explicitly social democratic agenda in power. Party loyalists saw New Labour as more ‘Modern Labour’ than ‘not Labour’, building on Neil Kinnock’s legacy and reassured by John Prescott’s deputy leadership role. This group understood the need to break with the folk memory of the winter of discontent and the ‘no compromise with the electorate’ stance of the 1983 manifesto, but saw New Labour as in the moderate, mainstream tradition of the Attlee and Wilson governments; (New Labour celebrated the 50th anniversary of the 1945 general election, but was reluctant to mark the Labour party’s own centenary).

The Old Right of the party could see New Labour as succeeding with a 1990s social democratic revisionism where Tony Crosland and Hugh Gaitskell had failed forty years earlier (Diamond, 1994), though New Labour knew why it wanted to drop the old Clause IV but was ambivalent about Crosland’s argument for equality as defining the mission of social democracy (Crosland, 1956; Leonard, 1999).

So there were always different strands within New Labour and different versions of what New Labour could become. The very first published discussion of the ideas of New Labour and Old Labour came two years before John Smith’s death, in the Nuffield General Election study of 1992:

By 1990 Labour increasingly resembled a social democratic party on Swedish or German lines … The party had become sympathetic to the market as a means of creating wealth, to labour laws that gave rights to workers rather than unions, and to measures to protect the environment. Labour was confident about its main agenda – jobs and economic recovery, education, health, training and transport … Labour was now perhaps divided less on traditional left-right lines than between old Labour and new Labour. Old Labour was identified with the values and interests of the past, with high taxes, public ownership, trade unions, council housing, heavy industry and the north. New Labour sought to identity the party with skills training, new ways of working, improved public services, greater rights for women and families, and protection of the environment. (Butler and Kavanagh, 1992)

The description of an embryonic New Labour agenda, later attributed to Patricia Hewitt (then deputy director of the ippr), was fleshed out in Reinventing the Left, edited by David Miliband, a rather Scandinavian, greener, more feminised and pluralist model of 1990s social democratic revisionism on the eve of New Labour (Miliband, 1994).

The political and policy choices of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were decisive in determining the form which New Labour took. After the fourth defeat of 1992, the emphasis placed on proving that New Labour was not ‘Old Labour’ had significant political and policy consequences: anything which smacked of higher taxes and the overpowering state, being soft of crime, weak on defence, anti-family or excessively influenced by the trade unions was to be avoided. Stakeholder capitalism was briefly promoted as the ‘big idea’ and swiftly dropped.

But this Blair-Brown duopoly was itself an amalgamation of centrist politics, liberal economics and social democratic redistribution. Labour’s policy agenda continued to reflect a social democratic focus on the new responsibilities of an active, enabling state, though this was less prominent in its public messages.

Judged as much by its record as its rhetoric, New Labour was mostly more social democratic in power than it was usually prepared to admit, while observing a particular set of New Labour red lines and taboos about the explicit articulation of a social democratic agenda.

The famous early promise to be tough on crime and its causes, suggested that even triangulation could combine reassurance with an ability to open up progressive space. But this ‘rights and responsibilities’ agenda seemed to narrow over time, as the ‘respect’ agenda projected as the party’s core public narrative by 2005.

The boundaries between New and Old Labour were often blurred. Linking the basic state pension to earnings was unaffordably Old Labour, until New Labour’s reform package restored the link. New Labour pledged not to touch the top rate of tax, and took 3p off the basic rate. But it also raised £8 billion with a discretionary tax rise to increase NHS funding. It did not want the impression of tax and spend, but it ‘invested and reformed’ and quietly redistributed, increasing the state’s share of GDP and significantly re-regulated the bottom end of the labour market.

The New Labour domestic policy legacy, now underrated, is considerably more substantive than that of the Clinton administrations in the United States. Few continental competitors could claim a more substantive social democratic legacy in the last decade than the Blair-Brown governments. These have also been the most significant social democratic advances in British politics since the Attlee era, albeit that the Labour governments of the sixties and seventies do not set the bar very high. (It is, however, striking that the earliest policies – the minimum wage, devolution and the windfall tax – still now stand out as Labour’s boldest moves. The government has done relatively little since 2001 has offered a similar level of progressive clarity and ambition, despite often pledging deferred gratification and ‘jam tomorrow’ in a bold second term or radical third term).


The narrowing of New Labour

What is astonishing is how much narrower a political argument ‘New Labour’ has now come to represent, both in terms of its messages and the audiences which it can reach, including when it is described by its friends.

A theological attachment to particular methods of reforming the public services has become the uber-moderniser’s test of the true New Labour faith, while their most vocal internal critics must caricature the government’s record to fit the charge that New Labour has been a market fundamentalist exercise in neo-liberalism. If either account were accurate, it would be impossible to understand how New Labour became a majority argument within the party or managed to construct such a broad electoral coalition beyond it. But both uber-modernisers and opponents sometimes seem to have got into the habit of defining New Labour by ‘thinking of something that the Labour Party is probably against’.

This narrowing of New Labour is also reflected in the gradual fracturing of its public electoral coalition. After victory by popular acclamation in 1997, the case that more time was needed secured the rather more apathetic landslide of 2001. In 2005, the argument that the Tories had still not changed was still just enough to see an unpopular government home, though with just 36 per cent of the vote and 4 million fewer voters than 1997. In 2008, Labour lost in the London Mayoral election, the Crewe by-election and the local elections because not being the Conservatives is no longer enough.

What New Labour did not attempt was any concerted effort to shift longer-term attitudes in a progressive direction. Labour has shifted the policy agenda significantly but has failed to emulate the realigning governments of Attlee or Thatcher, because it was largely a taker rather than a maker of the limits of the politically possible.

There was a defensible case for social democracy by stealth: it is preferable to no social democracy at all. But New Labour has hit the limits of a strategy which enabled it to hold back the tide of rising inequality (for which it is given no credit, on left or right) but not to reverse it. And the longer-term case against this Faustian pact is also that the New Labour era has seen the space for progressive change shrink. Attitudes in favour of social welfare, taxation and redistribution remained solid during the Thatcher era’s assault on these principles, but have fallen sharply since 1997. This counter-cyclical tendency in public attitudes may be partly because the public appetite for more spending was limited, and that New Labour’s relatively modest agenda sated it. But the strategies and language by which New Labour sought to reassure and ensure it had public permission to act – on poverty, crime or immigration – have, over time, shrunk rather than expanded the environment for longer-term progressive change.


Why renewal isn’t working

As a political and electoral strategy, clearly New Labour isn’t working any more. Comparisons with 1931 or 1983 may be somewhat melodramatic but Labour faces a political challenge at least as steep as that faced in the 1950s and in the late 80s and early 90s. This is the first time that the party has faced a crisis of this type while in government. As Dick Crossman argued at the end of the Attlee era, Labour was failing to recover its sense of direction ‘not only because it lacks a map of the new country it is crossing, but because it thinks maps unnecessary for experienced travellers’ (Crossman, 1952).

Labour will need to reconstruct a winning coalition to be able to govern again. But that does not mean that New Labour can or should be resuscitated in 2009. Any progressive governing project will require broad support, and economic credibility to sustain public confidence and support for public investment. But Labour will not be an agent of future change if it insists only on cleaving to the answers to these challenges which it came up with over a decade ago. Its once-modernising mantras have become stale from repetition and too often serve as a substitute for clear thought about the different political and policy context today.

So a new phase of revisionism is now required. Since the party has been earnestly discussing ‘renewal’ since 2001, and with increasing urgency since 2004, its failure to materialise highlights two significant long-term New Labour weaknesses.

Firstly, if New Labour’s breadth was once its core strength, the price has been a difficulty in articulating what Labour is for in positive terms. This has left Labour apparently unable to construct a clear choice between the major parties in terms which the public can understand. The Labour government will be unable to launch a successful fightback on policy while the problem of a lack of clear public political definition remains.

Secondly, generating a progressive policy wish-list will not be enough without also building the coalitions to support them. New Labour’s political culture is now a significant barrier to its abillty to engage with new sources of progressive change.


Next left: more ideological and more pluralist?

Labour’s ability to recover as a governing force in British politics will depend on its ability to root itself more clearly in Labour values and articulate its own positive mission for a fairer society. But this must also be combined with a decisively more open and pluralist approach to the way in which it does politics.


Fairness doesn’t happen by chance

Labour’s mission is greater equality. It must again be the fairness party, or it is nothing.

This must be the foundation both to rebuilding Labour’s public coalition, and to testing the depth of the modernisation of the Conservative Party.

Voters in Crewe and Glasgow East were certainly not protesting that the Brown administration had been insufficiently committed to the personalisation of public services: too much of Labour’s core vote no longer understands what the party stands for, or believe that it stands for them. At the same time, Labour needs to retain swing voters attracted by David Cameron. Too often, Labour’s internal debate is about which of these challenges matter. But Labour will succeed only if it can find a coherent argument for fairness which can rebuild a broad coalition.

Renewing Labour’s claim to fairness will be difficult after the 10p taxation argument, but nor will it be enough. Nobody will stand against fairness, least of all David Cameron’s shiny new Conservatism. So Labour must also stand for doing something about it.

The disagreement between the parties is primarily about the role and responsibility of government. The Conservatives say that the Labour record proves that the state has failed, Indeed, Cameron’s claim to be the true ‘progressive’ is founded on his claim that Conservatives know that it is not the state’s job to act on the important progressive causes of social inequality, climate change or international development. What this will involve, beyond the occasional ‘nudge’ towards social responsibility, is far from clear.

Labour’s argument must be the opposite: ‘fairness doesn’t happen by chance’. Labour has sought to avoid a big state versus small state argument, has tried to advocate the ‘enabling state’. But this argument about means is unlikely to resonate publicly and has not done so. The way to animate this argument is to find a handful of significant but symbolic ‘fairness’ policies which test claims to stand for equal opportunity.

Importantly, the arguments which Labour needs to make to seek to embed and institutionalise Labour’s social democratic policy shifts go hand in hand with the arguments which would test the new Conservative commitments to progressive ends. For example, having legislated on climate change targets, Labour needs to work out how to institutionalise and deepen an emerging consensus on tackling child poverty, measured as a relative inequality target, as well as testing its opponents’ ability to will the means. As Chris Leslie has suggested, a fairness agenda could be used to make a New Labour case about rights and responsibilities among the top 1 per cent of earners (Leslie, 2008).

A handful of voices now advocate that Labour must enter an auction to cut spending and taxation. But Labour would not win that argument, and it is striking that the Conservatives have not prospered by offering that, instead pledging to match Labour spending plans. To outflank the Conservatives on the size of the state would to repeat the tactics which have undermined Labour’s ability to test David Cameron’s claim to have changed the Conservatives, because it has often preferred to make tactical forays from the right (cutting the basic rate, or increasing detention powers to 42 days), several of which have backfired, rather than mounting a sustained and substantive challenge from the progressive territory to which Cameron aspires. Conceding the argument would fail to entrench Labour’s legacy and give the right permission to unpick it. Instead, Labour should be pressing that the Conservatives to recognise the logic of their recognition of climate change: will the Tory modernisers acknowledge that the era of minimal government is over?

Economic insecurity is difficult for any incumbent government. But there is also a clue about how to offer that clearer choice. The credit crunch has shown how citizens look to government to provide stability and insure them against the worst risks. In truth, we are torn between insisting on a consumerist individualism and wanting collective security. Labour needs to make the popular case for government on the side of citizens: voters should decide whether more free childcare and safer streets would be better for them than tax cuts.


Progressive movement politics

Labour’s crucial test will be to build effective public coalitions for a fairness agenda.

One downside of Labour’s acknowledgement of the necessity of state action is that so much campaigning is so heavily government-facing, with too little acknowledgement of the need to shift broader public arguments (Horton, 2007). Campaigning too often becomes a simple shopping list of policy demands, with a call on government to show leadership and act.

But New Labour’s internal political culture is now a significant barrier to building the progressive coalitions necessary for a more ambitious agenda.

It is easily forgotten now how central a ‘new politics’ was to New Labour’s public argument in 1997. Blair advocated realignment, influenced by David Marquand’s The Progressive Dilemma and the counsel of Roy Jenkins. The scale of Labour’s 1997 victory, to which this outward-facing pluralism contributed, led Blair to drop his plan to invite Liberal Democrats to join his Cabinet. Labour opponents of electoral reform kicked the pledged referendum into the long grass. The party tribalism of British politics reasserted itself: cross-party cooperation would remain a matter of necessity, not choice.

But New Labour was never comfortable with internal pluralism. An incisive critique of New Labour’s presentation of itself as the only possible route to modernity has been made by James Purnell, one of the leading New Labour voices in government.

Today’s public debate of politics is trivialised and sclerotic … triangulation cuts the path to trivialisation. This is because it sets up false choices – our left wing critics would do this odd thing; our right wing critics would do this bad thing, so the only option is to do our reasonable thing. By definition, such false choices cannot be debated. (Purnell, 2006)

So what was striking was not how much Labour changed party politics but how little. And the organisational methods of New Labour reflected traditional top-down party management and betrayed the youthful sectarian left apprenticeships served by many of its leading figures, before their march in sharp suits right past the soggy social democratic centre-left mainstream to advocate modernisation with equal certainty and fervour.

Renewing Labour’s commitments on child poverty and international development could do a good deal to bring progressive energy back to Labour. But there are significant progressive constituencies who are no longer on speaking terms with the Party: here, the 42 days argument has reopened and exacerbated the divisions after the Iraq war, while little progress has been made in embedding a red-green social democratic agenda.

Restarting these conversations will be difficult, and will present major challenges not just to the party but to broader progressive constituencies too.

For all of Labour’s current difficulties, there is as little sign of any viable left-of-centre governing project which does not involve Labour than at any moment in the last hundred years. But that does not necessarily mean that significant progressive constituencies necessarily want to be part of any progressive governing project. In a politics with ever more opportunities for articulation and aggregation, the danger is that compromise and collective decision-making seem to have become optional extras.

Again, Labour must be more securely rooted in its own identity and values if it is to win the argument that left and right still have meaning in politics. But it will also have to decisively embrace a more pluralist mode of politics – and give up a claim to have a monopoly of progressive wisdom – if it is to begin to build the alliances and coalitions which can make a next left possible.



Butler, D. and Kavanagh, D. (1992) The British General Election of 1992, London, Macmillan.

Crosland, A. (1956) The Future of Socialism, London, Jonathan Cape.

Crossman, A. (1952) New Fabian Essays, London, Fabian Society.

Diamond, P. (2004) New Labour’s Old Roots, Imprint Academic.

Gould, P (1998), The Unfinished Revolution: How the modernisers saved the Labour Party, London, Little Brown.

Horton, T, Pinto-Duchinsky, D. and Studdert, J. (2007) Facing Out, London, Fabian Society.

Katwala, S. (2007) The Vision Thing, London, Fabian Society.

Leonard, D. (1999) Crosland and New Labour, London, Macmillan/Fabian Society.

Leslie, C. (2008) ‘Time to Play the Fairness Card’, Fabian Review, Summer 2008.

Marquand, D. (1999) The Progressive Dilemma, London, Weidenfeld and Nicholson.

Miliband, D. (1994) Reinventing the Left,London, Polity Press/ippr.

Purnell, J. (2006) ‘Are choice and competition Labour?’, Social Democratic Futures,