The Labour Party
1900 The founding of the party as candidates run in elections
1906 The party officially comes into existence
The Labour Party was founded in 1900, having grown out of the trade union movement and socialist parties of the 19th century. It overtook the Liberal Party to become the main opposition to the Conservative Party in the early 1920s,
1906-45 The party is periodically in and out of government, either as a minority government or in coalition with other parties forming two minority governments under Ramsay MacDonald in the 1920s and early 1930s
1945-51 Labour gains power on its own for the first time and with a huge majority. Led by Clement Attlee
1951-97 Labour is in and out of power under Harold Wilson and James Callaghan, Labour again governed from 1964 to 1970 and 1974 to 1979
1997-2010 Labour is in power continuously. Tony Blair took Labour to the centre as part of his New Labour project which governed under Blair and then Gordon Brown from 1997 to 2010.
What is 'Old Labour'
After the mid-1990s, the basic principles of the 'traditional' Labour Party became known as 'Old Labour', because so-called 'New Labour' had come into existence.
The central ideas were collectivism and socialism which were to be realise through a welfare state, public ownership of major parts of the economy, progressive taxation, and management of the economy-particularly through the principles of Keynesianism
Nationalisation, the creation of the NHS and Welfare State
At the 1945 general election in opposition to Churchill's Conservatives. Labour won a landslide victory, winning just under 50% of the vote with a majority of 159 seats.
Although Clement Attlee was no great radical himself, Attlee's government proved one of the most radical British governments of the 20th century, enacting Keynesian economic policies, presiding over a policy of nationalising major industries and utilities including the Bank of England, coal mining, the steel industry, electricity, gas, and inland transport (including railways, road haulage and canals). It developed and implemented the "cradle to grave" welfare state conceived by the economist William Beveridge. To this day, most people in the United Kingdom see the 1948 creation of Britain's National Health Service (NHS) under health minister Aneurin Bevan, which gave publicly funded medical treatment for all, as Labour's proudest achievement
To broaden its support, the Labour Party began to move away from the its hard left position of the early 1980s. This involved a gradual recognition that, as the old industrial base of the country disappeared and people became more affluent, policies that appealed solely to the traditional working class would not be enough to win a general election. It took two more defeats, in 1987 and 1992, and the leadership of Neil Kinnock and John Smith and finally the election of a forceful new leader, Tony Blair, to complete this process. The party dropped unpopular policy proposals, crucially revising Clause 4 of its constitution in 1995 so that it was no longer committed to nationalisation. The role played by the trade unions in the party was downgraded, and the party leadership developed links with the business community. At the same time Labour became more pro-European as the EU adopted policies that protected workers' rights, such as the Social Chapter.
A strong emphasis was placed on managing the media to project a more modern image, and great efforts were made to ensure that Labour demonstrated unity and discipline. Aided by the disintegration of John Major's Conservative government, Blair won a landslide victory in May 1997.
He was re-elected twice more before making way for the succession of his long-serving Chancellor and fellow architect of New Labour, Gordon Brown, in June 2007.
New Labour: a departure from socialism?
The term 'New Labour' refers to the rebranding of the party's image and a change in the philosophy and policies. As a reaction to four consecutive election defeats the Labour party broke with 'Old' Labour ideas, as shown in the removal of clause 4 from the party constitution. The party was transformed beginning under the leadership of Neil Kinnock then John Smith (1992-94) and finally Tony Blair (1994-2007). The party adopted the so-called 'post-. Thatcher consensus'
New Labour also followed a set of ideas known as the 'third way', an idea developed by sociologist Anthony Giddens in the early 1990s. The third way refers to a centre path steered between the old Labour tradition, which was partly socialist in essence, and the New Right policies of the Conservative Party in the 1980s.
Key distinctions and similarities between traditional (`Old) and 'New' Labour
New Labour stresses individualism, whereas Old Labour stresses collectivism.
Old Labour sought to modify and regulate capitalism, creating a mixed economy of both public and private sector. New Labour accepts free-market capitalism and encourages it.
Old Labour saw the state as a key means by which society can be improved. New Labour sees the role of the state as merely enabling individuals to prosper.
Old Labour saw society in terms of class conflict, whereas New Labour thinks class is insignificant and that individual interests are more important than class interests.
Old Labour sought to promote economic and social equality, whereas New Labour sees inequality as natural and something that can be tolerated as long as there is equality of opportunity and opportunities are enhanced.
The main similarities are summarised below. Both Old and New Labour believe:
in fundamental social justice — that excessive inequality in society is unacceptable
that the welfare state is a key element in creating and maintaining social justice
that there should be widespread equality of opportunity
that there should be equal rights and no artificial discrimination against any sections of society
that, in a capitalist society, private enterprises need to be regulated to ensure they do not act against the public interest.
The creation of New Labour aroused intense controversy. Many traditional socialists rejected these modernising efforts as a betrayal of their heritage. They felt that Blair was too much at home with business leaders and too enthusiastic for the values of the market. His building of close links with the US government, culminating in the 2003 Iraq War, further damaged his credentials as a progressive figure. On the other hand, Blair's supporters argued that New Labour was a necessary adaptation to a changing society and that, in the words of Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, it embodied 'traditional values in a modern setting'.
What were the key features of New Labour in power?
· Emphasis on wealth creation rather than redistribution The New Labour governments sought to reduce poverty but did not make the elimination of inequality a priority. For example, they introduced a national minimum wage, a long-standing ambition of the Labour Party, but at a less generous level (f3.60 an hour for adults) than the trade unions wanted. Blair in particular regarded individual aspiration to a better standard of life, achieved through a person's efforts, as entirely natural.
· People need to be aware of their responsibilities to the community as well as their rights
A key Blairite belief was the idea that rights should always be balanced against responsibilities. In this sense, Blairism was influenced by communitarianism. The desire to strengthen social duty and moral responsibilities. The prison population in 2005 rose to over 76,000, mostly owing to the increasing length of sentences. Following the September 11 attacks, the Labour government attempted to emphasise counter-terrorism measures. From 2002, the government followed policies aimed at reducing anti-social behaviour; in the 1998 Crime and Disorder Act, New Labour introduced Anti-Social Behaviour Orders Blair declared that a Labour government must be 'tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime' — willing to punish criminal behaviour, while continuing to tackle poor social conditions.
· Responsibility in handling the national finances New Labour maintained Conservative spending plans in their first two years in office and, during this time, Gordon Brown earned the reputation as an "Iron Chancellor" with his "Golden Rule" and conservative handling of the budget However, the increase in National Insurance contributions in 2002, led to the largest ever rise in spending on the NHS.
New Labour accepted the economic efficiency of markets and believed that they could be detached from capitalism to achieve the aims of socialism while maintaining the efficiency of capitalism. Markets were also useful for giving power to consumers and allowing citizens to make their own decisions and act responsibly. New Labour embraced market economics because they believed they could be used for their social aims as well as economic efficiency. The party did not believe that public ownership was efficient or desirable, ensuring that they were not seen to be ideologically pursuing centralised public ownership was important to the party.
· Enlisting the public sector to deliver public services For example, Private Finance Initiative (PFI) contracts were awarded to private firms to build new schools and hospitals.
· Influence of liberal ideology on Labour thinking This showed in devolution — the transfer of central government functions to new representative bodies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland — and the passage of the Human Rights Act. However, New Labour governments proved willing to curb civil liberties in their campaign against crime and terrorism, extending the time that suspects could be detained before being charged, widening police powers and proposing the introduction of identity cards.
Labour under Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband: politics after the crash
The financial crisis and recession of 2008-09 led to a shift in policy by the Brown government.
· The Treasury pumped money into the banking system in an attempt to boost economic activity.
· The government nationalised, or part-nationalised the most vulnerable banks in order to restore confidence.
· Brown broke an earlier promise not to raise income tax levels by creating a new 50 per cent band, to be paid by those who earned more than £150,000 a year — a sign that Labour wanted the better-off to assume some responsibility for dealing with the perilous economic situation.
· Brown proposed to maintain public spending, arguing that drastic cuts, recommended by Conservatives, would starve the economy of resources and prolong the downturn.
This led to claims that New Labour ideology had been abandoned. However, these were emergency measures at a time of heightened concern for the future of the financial system, and were quite unlike the ideologically driven commitment to public ownership of the 'Old Labour' period.
Miliband’s victory in the leadership election was widely interpreted as a victory for the Brownite wing of the Labour Party over its Blairite wing. Miliband fostered this view by announcing that ‘New Labour is dead.’
However, under Ed Miliband's leadership it maintained some elements of New Labour policies, while shifting only slightly to the left. The need to re-establish Labour's reputation as a competent manager of the economy was an important concern for Miliband and his Shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls. The challenge that confronted Miliband as party leader was to establish an alternative to the Coalition’s budget reduction programme without allowing Labour to be attacked as ‘deficit deniers’. In this context, Miliband and his shadow chancellor, Ed Balls, were clear about the need to reduce borrowing levels, which they accepted were too high. Labour’s position was essentially that the Coalition had gone too far and too fast in reducing the deficit, broadly keeping faith with the stance the party had adopted in 2010. In the early phase of the 2010–15 Parliament, Miliband’s central criticism of the Coalition focused on its failure to develop a strategy to promote economic growth. This hit hard as the recession proved to be deeper and more protracted than Coalition ministers had predicted, the implication being that severe spending cuts were part of the problem and not part of the solution. However, once the UK economy started to revive in 2014, Labour switched the focus of its attack to a concern about the ‘squeeze’ on living standards and the allegation that the economic recovery was benefiting the few and not the many. In the 2015 general election, Miliband and Labour committed themselves to cutting the deficit every year in order to balance the books as soon as possible, pledging also that there would be no additional borrowing for new spending.This nevertheless exposed them to the criticism that they did not take the deficit sufficiently seriously, while, at the same time, failing to reject austerity or to propose an alternative. Falling between two stools, Labour under Miliband appeared to support a kind of ‘austerity-lite’. Barack Obama's campaign adviser, David Axelrod, was hired as a consultant for the 2015 campaign, after sitting in on Labour strategy meetings he commented derisively that they could be summed up as “Vote Labour and win a microwave”. Unless Miliband could present the public with a bigger and more inspiring message, Axelrod told Miliband, it would be impossible to regain the support of the white working-class voters who were deserting the Labour party.
The sense of desperation which gripped the Labour party as the 2015 election approached became apparent when in a car park in Hastings, Miliband unveiled an 8ft 6in slab of limestone, into which had been carved Labour’s six election pledges. The mockery was so intense that the location of the “Ed Stone” became the subject of frenzied media speculation after the election.
By 2015 there was pressure for Labour to adopt a much more radical approach. Some party members attributed the landslide victory of the SNP in Scotland, where Labour was left with just one Westminster seat, to the party being insufficiently left wing.
labour under Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn’s victory in the 2015 Labour leadership election was one of the most unexpected events in modern politics. Corbyn was a veteran of Labour’s ‘hard’ left; he had never held ministerial or shadow ministerial office; and he had frequently been at odds with the Labour leadership. Indeed, he represented a wing of the party that had appeared to have been in virtual internal exile since the rise of New Labour. Corbyn’s success derived from a combination of Miliband’s switch to a ‘one member one vote’ leadership election process that placed the outcome squarely in the hands of party members (together with ‘affiliated supporters’ and ‘registered supporters’) and the influx into the party in the run-up to
Why did Jeremy Corbyn arouse such enthusiasm in the Labour Party?
Labour's policies in the Corbyn era
· Economic policy
A National Investment Bank. The renationalisation of the railways, a policy the New Labour governments refused to adopt. Instinctively supporting intervention of an Old Labour kind. He was opposed to austerity, characterising it as a 'political choice' that harmed the most vulnerable members of society, rather than an 'economic necessity'.
· NHS & Welfare policy Corbyn strongly opposed benefit cuts. As a socialist he regarded the poor as the victims of capitalism, who are entitled to public support. An extra £6 billion a year would be pumped into the NHS, and spending on social care would be boosted by £2.1 billion; hospital parking charges would be scrapped.
· Law and order policy Corbyn was opposed to the more hard-line policies of the New Labour era, such as increased powers to combat terrorism and the introduction of identity cards. This became a less controversial policy area within the Labour Party: both Blairites and Corbynites found common ground in opposing government cuts to police numbers, which they described as jeopardising public safety.
Nationalisation. The railways, the Royal Mail, the water industry and, and in the future the energy industries would be renationalised.
Education A NHS-style service for education would be established, with a commitment to increase spending on education and early years in total by more than £25 billion (the biggest single cost would come from the scrapping of university tuition fees).
Employee rights. Zero-hours contracts and unpaid internships would be banned, and the minimum wage would rise to at least £10 an hour by 2020. All existing EU rights and protections would be retained.
· Foreign policy Corbyn consistently voted against the use of force, and favoured the withdrawal of the UK from NATO's military structure and the abolition of the Trident nuclear weapons system, again placing him at odds with New Labour. He and his then Shadow Foreign Secretary, Hilary Benn, took opposing positions in the December 2015 Commons vote on military intervention against 'Islamic State' terrorism. The party was so divided on the issue that Corbyn had to allow his MPs a free vote.
Corbyn was a life long sceptic about the benefit of belonging to the EU but he followed the mainstream of his party in supporting continued British membership of the EU, emphasising its positive role in protecting workers' rights, but more enthusiastic Labour pro-Europeans felt that he campaigned in a lukewarm manner in the 2016 referendum.
Keir Starmer Following Labour's worst election result since the second world war, Keir Starmer replaced Jeremy Corbyn as leader. He has indicated a move away from Corbyn's policies- with an emphasis on pragmatism and realism- which may mean a move away form left wing socialism.
2019 general election and resignation of Corbyn
Early in his leadership, Keir Starmer was keen to push away comparisons with predecessors, especially questions over whether his ideas and ambitions were more aligned to Jeremy Corbyn’s socialist agenda or to Tony Blair’s much more ‘centrist’ interpretation of the party’s values. Descriptive words about Starmer such as ‘thoughtful’ and ‘serious’ tended to proliferate — as did a sense that while there was a genuine desire to tackle inequality and poverty and to improve people’s lives, the means to do so remained steadfastly unclear.
In a 2020 BBC interview, political editor Laura Kuenssberg highlighted the difficult job that Starmer faced. He needed to ‘distance himself’ from the failure of Labour under Corbyn, as symbolised by the 2019 election manifesto, while not alienating many of the Labour voters who believed strongly in that agenda and who would still form the bedrock of the party’s support in a 2024 general election.
The main directions of Keir Starmer’s first years as leader revolve around putting an end to the damaging factional rivalry within the Labour Party, rooting out the destructive forces of anti-Semitism that had plagued the party under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and establishing his own distinctive agenda.
Ending division and uniting the party Division and factional rivalry are characteristics of all long-standing political parties, the modern Labour Party more so than most. Controlling the rise and fall of key organisations that exist under Labour’s broad umbrella has posed a challenge for all Labour leaders, with battle lines currently drawn between ‘hard left’, socialist, Corbyn-supporting groups, and those that champion the centre- left aspirations of more moderate members. Ending the rivalry and uniting most groups within the party around an agenda that is internally supported and externally electable is the single most important challenge for Keir Starmer.
While the group expulsions only affected around 1,000 individual party members, Starmer’s intention to steadily move the party ‘back’ to the centre, working closely with Labour to Win, and promoting into the shadow cabinet MPs with centre-left credentials at the expense of ‘left-wing’ former Corbyn-allies such as RebeccaLong Bailey, appears to be increasingly evident.
‘Rooting out’ anti-Semitism
On accepting the leadership, Keir Starmer condemned what he referred to as the ‘stain’ of anti-Semitism within the Labour Party and avowed his intention to ‘tear out this poison by its roots’. In holding meetings with Jewish groups (including the Board of Deputies, the Jewish Leadership Council, the Community Security Trust and the Jewish Labour Movement) within days of his election, Starmer was praised in a joint statement by those groups as having achieved ‘in four days more than his predecessor in four years in addressing anti-Semitism within the Labour Party’.
Since then, Keir Starmer has responded assertively to a report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) into allegations of anti-Semitism and harassment within Labour Party. It gave a damning verdict and highlighted breaches of the Equality Act amid ‘a culture within the party which, at best, did not do enough to prevent anti-Semitism and, at worst, could be seen to accept it’.
In response, Keir Starmer released a detailed plan for tackling anti-Semitism in the Labour Party, committing again to the already-established independent complaints process and to addressing the ‘backlog’ of anti-Semitism cases. In addition, high-profile suspensions of members, including Jeremy Corbyn, and a robust challenge to allegations that anti-Semitism in the party is ‘exaggerated’ have led many Jewish groups to continue to praise Starmer’s approach.
Delivering a distinctive agenda
In early 2020, Keir Starmer’s leadership campaign focused upon ‘Ten Pledges’ based on what he referred to as ‘the moral case for socialism’. The pledges included increasing tax on the top 5% of earners, abolishing Universal Credit (the unpopular welfare payment system established by the Conservative Party), and commitments to public service ownership, devolved power, tackling climate change, human rights and the rights of migrants.
Since then, and most notably in September 2021 ahead of the Labour Party Conference, Keir Starmer published an 11,500-word essay on what he stands for and how he wants to lead a UK that is ‘crying out for change’. In a bid to silence critics accusing him of lacking vision and direction, Starmer’s wide-ranging pamphlet had several targets, including:
■ An emphasis on ‘putting families first’ by highlighting better levels of ‘security and opportunity’ through sustained investment in skills and stable jobs. Branding prime minister Boris Johnson as ‘utterly unserious and completelyunprepared for the great challenges of our time’.
■ Accusing the Conservative Party and the SNP of being ‘in thrall to nationalism’ and stating that Labour’s stance could be ‘proudly patriotic’ while ‘rejecting the divisiveness of nationalism’.
Within the collection of policy priorities in the first 2 years of Starmer’s leadership, there were some more traditionally socialist strands. These were most evident in the commitment to higher taxes on the wealthy and on businesses, a recommitment to nationalisation, and significant public investment in education and healthcare. However, alongside these sit some notable links to New Labour’s agenda such as constitutional reform, enhanced rights and devolution. The renewed focus on patriotism and the dropping of a previous Starmer pledge to reintroduce free movement within the EU as ‘impossible’ can be seen as policies designed to appeal to former Labour voters, particularly those concerned about their communities changing though unchecked immigration, and about wages being kept low by the availability of temporary workers from overseas.
The early 2020s was a difficult time for any Opposition leader to gain traction. The health crisis and the low point for Labour of the 2019 general election certainly provided the most unstable of bases from which to launch a radical plan of action. Keir Starmer delivered an effective 2021 Conference speech, and was praised for tackling anti-Semitism within the party. In 2022 his standing in the country and the Labour Party's fortunes improved when the Conservative Party removed Boris Johnson shortly followed by Liz Truss. Labour seem on course for victory at the next election.