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The Historical Roots of New Labour

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Kenneth O. Morgan finds that New Labour stands firmly in the mainstream of British political history.

Historians of British politics distrust the cult of the new. Continuity rather than novelty appears to be the norm. ‘New’ is a word more commonly applied to US politics – Wilson’s New Freedom in 1913, Roosevelt’s New Deal in 1933, Kennedy’s New Frontier in 1961. In Britain, the adjective ‘New’ is much less usual. But it has become commonplace since Tony Blair’s conference speech in October 1994 repeatedly spoke of New Labour and New Britain. The word ‘new’ appeared thirty-seven times, and 107 times in the draft election manifesto. New Labour was the ever-present watchword in the 1997 general election. When Blair then took over the presidency of the European Union, he proclaimed a New Europe as well, or alternatively a People’s Europe (another favoured usage).

For cautious historians, it is not easy to spell out precisely what is ‘new’ about New Labour policy. But in three respects, the Labour Party today may fairly be said to be different from anything that has existed before. First there is the matter of leadership. Tony Blair is manifestly the most dominant leader that Labour has ever had. Traditionally, the party has been suspicious of strong leadership. It has seen itself as a democratic body, with power emerging upwards from the grassroots, as enshrined in the 1918 party constitution. Keir Hardie, first leader of the party in 1906–08, set the tone when he complained that leading it was a ‘trial and a burden’. The one undeniably powerful Labour leader in its earlier years, Ramsay MacDonald (1922–31) was the exception that proved the rule. His conduct in August 1931, in resigning as Labour prime minister only to re-emerge as premier of a ‘National Government,’ was thought to be an act of treachery by an over-mighty leader who betrayed his party in favour of the ‘aristocratic embrace’ (literally so in the case of Lady Londonderry). Labour leaders thereafter preferred a collective style; down to Neil Kinnock in the 1980s, they all vowed that they would never be ‘another Ramsay MacDonald’.


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