New Labour and Tony Blair

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When I think back to the 1990s there are a few things that stand out; getting cable TV; going to my first concert, The Spice Girls, surprisingly; and seeing that rough looking guy from that band my older brother liked, being pictured with that man that everyone wanted at their BBQ.

Those two men were Noel Gallagher, lead singer of what I would come to appreciate as Oasis, and Tony Blair, the man that, just for a short while, seemed to make politics at least a tiny bit ‘hip’ to utilise ultimate 90s kid vocabulary.

Ask pretty much anyone in Britain to name the first person that comes into their head when they think of UK politics in the 1990’s and it will most probably be Tony Blair.

Love him or loathe him, he brought Labour back in ‘from the wilderness’ to win a landslide victory in 1997 that saw 13.5 million people vote red and a majority of 179; rumour has it that there were so many Labour MPs a new desk had to be added to count them as they walked through to vote in a division.

With him he brought ‘Blair’s Babes’, more advisers to parliament than ever before, and the longest stretch of Labour government.

New Labour represented a break from the ‘Old Labour’ days that are easily, quickly, and somewhat unfairly and inadequately described a Michael Foot esque. Regardless of ones political beliefs and normative values involving the left of the party, after 18 years in opposition, the party had to change.

For fear of over emphasising the influence of Blair at the expense of other key individuals it is important to point out the initial progress made under John Smith before his passing in 1994.

Smith, and of course those around him, began to realise the centre ground had moved with the New Right and Thatcherism, and with it, so relatively had the centre left and therefore, if Labour wanted to be electable, they had to do what is electorally popular and get closer to that centre ground.

This meant rebranding Labour from being a party of “working class Northerners and Scots”, removing Clause IV (the most socialist element of the party) and working on policies that allowed Labour to cultivate business while retaining it’s grassroots, union background.

Blair, who was privately educated and a barrister, had the ability to appeal to those who had not previously voted Labour, particularly those in the South; history has come to understand this as the logic for his running, rather than Gordon Brown, who was arguably more of a ‘Labour man’.

Why is the Labour Landslide such a significant political event?

Firstly, it represents the UK’s centre left party realising they realistically could not be as left as they had wanted. The centre ground had moved with Thatcherism; the paradigm had changed and they therefore had to evolve to meet the demands of a modern electorate.

Secondly, it brought profound changes to parliament; there were masses of Labour MPs and the abundance meant there simply weren’t enough committee and governmental positions to entertain them all. As a result of this Labour introduced ‘Consistency Days’ where MPs were encouraged to go back home, this therefore significantly altered the role for many from providing scrutiny or carrying out policy work to being far more focused on local issues.

Similarly, the Labour campaign to recruit more women candidates and the introduction of ‘All Women Shortlists’ meant there were significantly more women in parliament after 1997. In the early 1990s, women constituted less than 10 per cent of MPs and it is claimed there were more people called John than women. There were only 60 female MPs elected at the 1992 General Election, and following the Labour Landslide in 1997 there were 120, 101 of which were Labour MPs compared to a mere 13 Conservatives. The 1997 result therefore paved the way for a much more socially representative parliament.

Thirdly, and probably most importantly for national politics, the massive majority allowed huge constitutional changes to be passed such as the Devolution of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and policy changes such as the National Minimum Wage Act and the introduction of tax credits that arguably improved social mobility and spread wealth more fairly than in the previous 18 years. The New Labour Government also used their large majority to pass transparency legislation such as the Freedom of Information Act that gave normal people access to almost unlimited information and in doing so attempted to counteract some of the pessimism that politics faced following the ‘sleaze’ that plagued much of the Major Government.

Finally, Blair’s strong following allowed him to use his position to set the agenda internationally. He set the direction of foreign policy early on in his tenure as Prime Minister when he supported and encouraged NATO’s intervention in Kosovo. This provided a catalyst for Blair to spell out his views on intervention that are surmised in the well documented Chicago Speech (Blair’s very own ‘I have a dream’) in which he essentially set out the principles that would come to be adopted by the UN under The Responsibility to Protect.

Whether people are Labour affiliated or not, Blair supporters or to the left of the party, it would be difficult for anyone to legitimately claim that Blair did not initiate some of the most significant political changes of the 20th century. The political landscape domestically, with the newly devolved assemblies, and internationally was considerably altered following his leadership, not to mention a number of trivial changes such as the introduction of one thirty minute PMQ session a week and the fact he broke with tradition and moved to Number 11 because it was more roomy.

I am just glad the topic is significant events of the 20th Century, it saves any talk of how the Blair Doctrine played out in the subsequent invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan…

Written by Beth Miller, edited by Sara Mhaidli