The Labour Party won only six of the fourteen general elections and formed the government for a mere 17 of the 52 years between 1945 and 1997. Moreover Labour held office with a sizeable majority on only two occasions (1945-50 and 1966-70), ruling with tiny majorities for five years and as a minority government for two years. Also, whereas both major parties’ share of the vote declined after 1970, the fall in the Labour vote over the subsequent six elections was more marked.
While its average share of the vote between 1945 and 1970 was slightly ahead of the Conservatives at 46. 05 per cent compared with 45. 5 per cent, its average vote between February 1974 and 1992 dropped to a paltry 34. 3 per cent, compared with the Conservatives’ 40. 06 per cent. Between its post-war peak in 1951 and 1992, Labour’s vote fell by 2. 4 million. Explanations of Labour’s decline can be grouped into the long-term and short-term. First, the contraction of the working class and trade unionism and the expansion of the middle class and of the home-owning sector resulted in an approximate 6 per cent reduction of the Labour vote and an increase in the Conservative vote by about 4 per cent between 1964 and 1987.
With the south-east enjoying a prolonged boom and the north sunk in recession, skilled workers in the south-east became more likely in the 1980s to vote Conservative and Labour was ,’driven back to its Northern redoubts’. Among the new working class living in the south, the Conservatives enjoyed a 46 per cent to 28 per cent lead over Labour in 1987. Labour remained dominant over Conservative only in the traditional working class of the north of England and Scotland, which voted 57 per cent to 29 per cent in its favour.
The short-term explanation relates to public perceptions of the party’s behaviour in office and its internal divisions. The Wilson and Callaghan governments (1964-1970, 1974-79) proved disappointing to Labour supporters and Labour’s failure between 1979 and 1992 also rested on perceptions of its disunity, fostered by its 1981 split (when some leading figures in the party left to form a new Social Democratic Party) and the bitter internal warfare of the early 1980s. It is argued that New Labour was a response to Labour’s failings in the past.
Labour’s lack of electoral success and the decline of its natural base, the working class were both major contributors to the birth of New Labour. But there were other motivations for the move away form ‘Old’ Labour principals. The success of some Thatcherite values such as widening home-ownership made Labour look out of touch. Changing world economic conditions (the so-called globalisation of the economy, which has intensified competition) meant that Labour had to look outwards, rather than inwards, to a free market world in order to succeed.
Also the Wider influences of the collapse of communism, which seemed to confirm the superiority of market capitalism, increased the pressure of change. Electoral reform in the 19th century gave an increasing number of working class men the vote. The Labour Party was set up in the beginning of the 20th century specifically to represent the interest of these newly enfranchised working class men in Parliament. The Labour party owed its existence to the support of the trade union movement, of which links have remained ever since. A process of class dealignment has taken away much of the Labour Party’s natural base.
As Crewe put it: ‘In the 1945-70 period, nearly two thirds of all voters voted for their class party. From February 1974 the link slowly and fitfully weakened and since 1983 the proportion has been under half with a majority voting for the ‘class enemy’ or for the non-class centre nationalist parties. ‘ Since the 1960s there have been important changes in the structure and pattern of employment in Britain. A process of ‘de-industrialisation’ has taken place. De-industrialisation has gathered pace since 1979 and it is no surprise that it has affected the way is which people vote.
Both class dealignment, and the shrinking of the working classes both meant Labour had to change its focus to secure votes. There were, however, other social and economic trends that Labour had to deal with in order to make their party electable. Partisan de-alignment also forced Labour to change tactics. Parties which were once seen as essential to protecting basic interests lose the loyal and life-long commitment of whole sections of the population. The Labour Party’s key voters of the early twentieth century i. e. miners, railwaymen, heavy industrial workers etc. have all vastly declined or disappeared altogether.
In the 1980s Mrs Thatcher appealed to the new working class who aspired to owning their own houses and who worked in white-collar jobs. Citizens no longer fear the opposing party coming into party Voters now tend to choose parties as ‘products’ and do not develop long-term loyalties to parties. Survey data from general elections usually shows a tendency for younger people to vote Labour and older people to vote Conservative. This gave Labour a particular problem as Britain has an ageing population.
Not only are the over 65s more likely to be Conservatively inclined, but they are also more likely to vote. In the 2001 general election 87% of over 65s turned out to vote, but only 53% of 18-24 year-olds. This problem was less acute in the early 90s, but was still a problem for Labour. New Labour appealed more to the elderly population, where economic security and less left-wing policies appeal. During the 1980s, political commentators increasingly used the term ‘North/South divide’ to describe the geographical polarisation of support for the Labour and Conservative parties.
Traditionally those in the North are more inclined to vote Labour, and those in the South of England vote conservative. However there is a concentration of electorate in the South. This meant that if Labour was to secure an election victory, it would need to secure the vote from the south, and the middle classes, the so-called ‘Middle England’. New Labour offered a more acceptable set of policies for the south, distancing itself from its more leftwing radical sides, and focussing more on good business sense, and centre party politics.
Within the Labour party in the 90s there was an awareness that Thatcherism provided an alternative ideological perspective. To survive and prosper, the Labour party needed to counter the challenge presented by Thatcherism and to present the electorate with a convincing programme of its own. It was the response of the left within the party to these problems which precipitated the internal struggles. Led by Tony Benn, many on the left argued that the reasons for difficulties experienced in government after 1974 and the electoral defeat in 1979 was the party leadership had betrayed its socialist principals.
Based upon this analysis, the left argued that more radical socialist policies required in order to counteract Thatcherism. This leftward shift resulted in a split in the Labour Party. It was only after the election of Neil Kinnock as leader in 1983 that Labour began to rebuild itself as a credible opposition party with an internal cohesion and policies which appealed to the electorate. After the 1987 electoral defeat he set in motion a wide-sweeping policy review. The document ‘Meet the Challenge, Make the Change’ produced in 1989 is of great importance in defining New Labour ideas.
Another very important influence on Labour’s evolution was the election victory of the New Democrat, Bill Clinton in the 1992 US Presidential elections. In the 1980s, the pollster Stan Greenberg talked of reaching the lost middle class whose core values were, ‘work, reward for work, and responsibility’. Under the influence of Stan Greenberg the New democrats were formed. Some Democrats believed they needed to get away from both the Republican anti-statism and the liberal big-government activism of the past, and so the idea of ‘new progressivism’ was born later to become the ‘third way’.
The New Democrats argued that the ‘big institutions’ could no longer deliver on the social contract as they did before. Anthony Giddens argues,’The advent of new global markets, coupled with the ending of the cold war, have affected the capability of national governments to manage economic life and provide an ever expanding range of social benefits. [The New Democrats] need to introduce a different framework, one that avoids both the bureaucratic, top-down government favoured by the old left and the aspiration of the right to dismantle government altogether. ‘
Partly borrowing from the New Democrats, and partly following its own line of political thought, the Labour Party in Britain converged on similar ideas. Under Tony Blair’s leadership, the party broke with its own ‘old progressivism’ – Clause 4 of the Labour party constitution. Labour borrowed some tactics directly from the New Democrats. The staged confrontation with left wing and minority groups to differentiate the new from the old in the public mind. Also the arrival of Excalibur in Millbank was clearly based on observations of how the Clinton War room operated.
During this era, as it is now, leadership was increasing in importance. Previous Labour Party leaders had been ridiculed. Neil Kinnock, although he began the modernisation of the Labour Party in the 80s, was made to look incapable, and non-statesman like. It was important for the Labour Party to put forward a strong leader, perhaps not as single minded as Thatcher, but with more presence than John Major. After the death of the Labour Party leader John Smith in 1994, the ensuing leadership contest saw the election of Tony Blair, the youngest ever leader of the Labour Party.
Blair was widely known to be a moderniser and his leadership election statement was clear that Labour must be reformed radically if it was to win office again. Yet for any still in doubt, Blair showed his true intentions in his first speech to party conference as leader, when he called for the updating of Clause IV of the party’s constitution. While opposed by some traditionalists, the proposed change won overwhelming support at a special conference in April 1995. This was followed in 1996 by the publication of ,’New Labour, New Life for Britain’, the draft manifesto that was discussed and voted upon by party members across the country.
Labour’s agenda was fully costed, to avoid the arguments over tax that had dogged them in 1992, and centred on five pledges: education; crime; health; jobs and economic stability. By the mid-1990s the party had repositioned itself ideologically in the political centre as ‘New Labour’. The major symbol of this change was the substitution of the old Clause IV public ownership commitment in the party constitution by a new clause committing the party to work, ‘ for a community in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many not the few’.
The New Labour ideology represents a blend of neo-liberal Thatcherite economics, a more traditional communitarian emphasis and a Liberal-style interest in constitutional reform. So while it can be argued that New Labour is a development of traditional socialist thought in new circumstances, it is also true that New Labour has adopted ideas from both Thatcherite Conservatism and Liberalism. In practice, it has also meant that the policies pursued by the Labour Government have been remarkably similar in many respects to their Conservative predecessors.
In 1993 Heywood argued, ‘Labour has been damaged by the shrinking of the manual working class, the decline of public sector employees and the shift of the population from urban to rural areas. All evidence suggests that these trends are set to continue… following (The Conservatives Party’s) forth election victory in a row, it can be expected to stay in power until at least 1996… and there are good reasons to believe Conservative dominance will be extended’ The creation of New Labour made the climbing of the electoral mountain set before the Labour Party possible.
It is hard to question the success of New Labour. The 1997 General Election ended eighteen years of Conservative government at Westminster and began the first term of New Labour. The landslide win for Tony Blair came as turnout fell to a post-war low (71. 7%) and the share of the national vote for the Conservatives collapsed to just 31%. Labour finished the 1997 election with 418 seats and a Commons majority of 176, this was followed by the historic landslide victory for a second term in 2001.