Labour managed to stay in power longer than any of these, indeed longer than any other left-of-center party in recent times, including those in the Scandinavian countries. It was a signal achievement, given that the party had never previously held onto power for even two full terms before in the hundred years and more of its existence. The ideological changes associated with the invention of the term “New Labour” were in fact a large part of the reason for its electoral successes.
A fresh vision for left-of-center politics
“New Labour” was not an empty sound bite, designed to cover up for policy vacuity. On the contrary, there was from the outset a compelling diagnosis of why innovation in left-of-center politics was needed, coupled to a clear policy agenda.
In outline it ran as follows: The values of the left – solidarity, reducing inequalities, protection of the vulnerable, coupled to a belief in the key role of active government in pursuing them – remained intact, but policies designed to pursue these ends had to shift radically because of the profound changes going on in the wider society.
Such changes included intensifying globalization, the development of a postindustrial or service economy and, in an Information Age, the emergence of a more voluble and combative citizenry, less deferential to authority figures than in the past (a process later greatly expanded by the advent of the Internet).
Most of Labour’s policy prescriptions followed from this analysis. The era of Keynesian demand management, linked to state direction of economic enterprise, was over. A different relationship of government to business had to be established, recognizing the key role of enterprise in wealth creation and the limits of state power.
No country, however large and powerful, could control that marketplace: hence the “prawn cocktail offensive” that Labour launched to woo the support of the city. The advent of the service or knowledge-based economy was coupled to the shrinking of the working class, once the bastion of Labour support.