New Labour, Blue Labour, and conservatism. Whoever wins, the blues will triumph

Jonathan Davies
Jonathan S. Davies

by Jonathan S. Davies, De Montfort University

Active Citizenship: Navigating the Conservative Heartlands of the New Labour Project (Policy & Politics, Volume 40, Number 1) by Jonathan S. Davies, De Montfort University, is available free until 28 February 2014.

One of many bones of contention about New Labour was the extent to which it was faithful to traditional Labour ideas, albeit in a new form, or a radical departure onto the terrain of Thatcherism, neoliberalism and conservatism. The Blair and Brown governments (between 1997 and 2010) represented themselves as modernising traditional social democratic ideas and making them fit for a globalised knowledge economy. Advised and supported by leading intellectuals such as Anthony Giddens, they concluded that with the right policies, a dynamic market economy is entirely compatible with the principles of social justice. In place of redistributive measures to achieve income equality (such as high taxes on the rich), it advocated equality of opportunity; the idea that investing in people is a better way of achieving justice than income redistribution. New Labour appropriated the slogan “no rights without responsibilities”, reflecting the idea that entitlements should be earned.

New Labour supporters saw this complex of ideas as distinguishing them from Thatcherites. While accepting the principles of a global free market, they argued, investing in equality of opportunity created clear red water on the terrain social policy. In this paper, I argue that in fact New Labour’s social policy agenda drew inspiration from conservatism, not social democracy. I use the speeches of ministers and government documents to demonstrate this point in six different areas of active citizenship policy: learning, democratic renewal, volunteering, family policy, personal thrift and public consumption. Not only did New Labour draw explicitly from Conservative thinkers, it also utilised ideas fashionable in the later years of Margaret Thatcher’s government and throughout John Major’s. Perhaps most strikingly, in announcing that there should be no rights without responsibilities Tony Blair turned out to be plagiarising none other than Margaret Thatcher. In short, I found strong continuities between Thatcherism and New Labour in precisely those areas that New Labour sought to differentiate itself. I argue that throughout the economic and social policy fields, New Labour broke from traditional social democratic ideas and instead maintained continuity with the ideas of Conservative forebears; and by extension, continuity with the neoliberal agenda of free markets and right wing morality as a whole.

Events since the General Election of 2010 have only confirmed my suspicions. The Labour Party has flirted with the reactionary “Blue Labour” ideas of Maurice Glasman. Blue Labour openly advocates the conservative view of citizenship that motivated the Blair and Brown governments, promoting traditional values of “family, faith and flag”. The Conservatives, for their part, have Philip Blonde’s “Red Tory” and its “big society” derivative. Lambasted and ridiculed by Labour as a cover story for austerity cuts, the “big society” quickly disappeared from public discourse. But the idea is very persistent. Big society commitments to rolling back the nanny state, de-centralising power, promoting personal responsibility and neighbourliness were always familiar themes in the speeches of New Labour ministers including Tony Blair, David Blunkett, Gordon Brown, Alan Milburn and Jack Straw.

While distancing himself from embarrassing comments by Glasman, Ed Miliband has been happy to associate himself with Blue Labour thinking. If he is elected Prime Minister in 2015, there is no reason to think he will abandon those ideas. On the contrary, conservatism looks like the only game in town. And it is in any case a far happier bedfellow for neoliberal economics than the socialist principles of egalitarianism and working class solidarity. It looks as if Britain will continue with the ‘blues’, whoever wins the next election.

Active Citizenship: Navigating the Conservative Heartlands of the New Labour Project  (Policy & Politics, Volume 40, Number 1) by Jonathan S. Davies, De Montfort University, is available free until 28 February 2014.

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