The rise and fall of New Labour

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New Labour was the dominant political force in the UK for more than a decade, but even its biggest devotees proclaim it over. Justin Parkinson looks at its rise and fall.


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The 1983 general election marked a low point for the Labour Party. Under Michael Foot, it suffered a landslide defeat, taking just 27.6% of the vote and giving Margaret Thatcher's Conservatives a 144-seat Commons majority.

The party's manifesto, with its pledges of unilateral nuclear disarmament and withdrawal from the European Common Market, was memorably described as the "longest suicide note in history".

Memories of the last Labour government, which had ended in economic paralysis and the "winter of discontent", were strong. The Social Democratic Party, founded by breakaway Labour moderates, was also draining support.

The situation looked hopeless.

Yet, amid the carnage of 1983, two ambitious young MPs entered Parliament - Gordon Brown and Tony Blair. Sharing a Commons office, they began discussing how Labour might, just might, become electable again.


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Neil Kinnock is widely seen as having done much of the groundwork to make the New Labour project possible. As Labour leader he fought hard to remove the left-wing Militant tendency from the party and attempted to modernise its image and policies.

He hired TV producer Peter Mandelson to oversee Labour's next election campaign. Under his guidance the red rose symbol - rather than the red flag - was adopted. Mandelson also talent-spotted Blair and Brown, to whom he became a friend and mentor.

But the 1987 election saw another big loss, with the Conservatives taking a 102-seat majority.

Brown and Blair, on the modernising wing of the party, were beginning to think much of Labour's dogma had to be cast aside if the Tories were to be beaten.

They both rose under Kinnock, with Brown becoming shadow trade and industry secretary and Blair shadow home secretary.

In 1983 and 1987 Labour had expected to lose to the Tories, but in 1992 came its biggest disappointment, with a third defeat in a row.

Much of the blame was placed on Labour's "shadow budget", including shadow chancellor John Smith's proposal to raise the top rate of income tax from 40p to 50p. The Tories were able to lampoon Labour's "tax bombshell".

After the election, Kinnock resigned and Smith took over the leadership, with Brown as shadow chancellor and Blair keeping the home affairs brief.

Blair and Brown now wanted to beat the Tories on their own ground, making Labour appear an obvious, safe, reliable party of government.

The phrase "Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime" was a key example of the strategy. It differed from Tory Home Secretary Michael Howard's "Tough on crime" in appearing to offer a more fundamental solution to the problem of law-breaking, while still being hardline, rather than soft.

Blair, Brown and Mandelson, now an MP, were digesting the lessons of four election defeats. They became convinced that Labour must drop some of its old orthodoxies - such as being seen as a high-tax party - to convince the public it was ready for power.

When Smith died of a heart attack in May 1994, the modernisers knew their time had come.


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The only question was, who would run for leader: Blair or Brown?

Mandelson, previously seen as closer to the early front-runner Brown, switched to back Blair. This caused a huge rift in "The Project", as the modernising scheme became known, which would last more than a decade.

Brown, though widely regarded as the senior figure in the partnership, stood aside for the more telegenic Blair after the two met to hammer out a deal at an Islington restaurant.

Thousands of articles - and even a TV film - have speculated about the terms of their agreement, especially an apparent promise from Blair to hand over power to Brown at some point in the future.

In the ensuing leadership contest Blair easily beat Margaret Beckett and John Prescott.


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Blair, as Labour's new leader, extended the party's lead over the tired John Major-led Conservative government.

The Daily Mirror journalist Alastair Campbell became Blair's spokesman, adding extra media savvy to Blair's team as they sought to win over previously anti-Labour newspapers.

The message was that Labour had changed. Mantra-like, at that year's autumn conference, Blair closed his speech with the words: "Our Party - New Labour. Our mission - New Britain. New Labour - New Britain."

After the words came Blair and the New Labour movement's great battle against the party's traditionalists, eventually doing away with the historic and heavily symbolic Clause IV of Labour's constitution, calling for the "common ownership of the means of production".

New Labour claimed it had changed enough to challenge the Tories on the economy, erasing voters' painful memories of the late 1970s, and began the "prawn cocktail offensive" to win over a sceptical City, convincing many financiers that the party had learned the importance of financial responsibility - or "prudence" as Brown put it.


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On 1 May 1997, Labour's 18 years in opposition came to an end. The party won a 179-seat majority - the biggest in its history on a manifesto which not only promised no income tax rises, but also a pledge to stick to Conservative spending plans.

Blair quickly became the global pin-up for centre-left politicians. He also became a close friend of US President Bill Clinton.

The "Third Way", described as the ideological underpinning of the New Labour project and bringing market models to some government-run services, aroused interest across the western world.

An improving economy boosted Blair and Brown's credibility and their ambition of keeping the Tories out of power for a generation.

For now, New Labour could do what it liked in the Commons. The huge majority meant backbench rebellions could be brushed off.

There was one significant casualty for The Project during the first New Labour government. Mandelson, who had moved from the background to the frontline, was sacked - twice - from the cabinet. He and Brown had long since stopped being close, but he continued to advise Blair.

The Tories continued to struggle in the polls under William Hague, though, and Labour looked set for a continued spell in power.


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In an election dubbed the "quiet landslide" by some commentators, Labour won again in 2001 with another huge Commons majority, of 167.

And, with the first-term pledge to match the Conservatives on public finances gone, Brown could start spending. The NHS, schools and other public services saw large infusions of cash.

Stories about the 1994 "deal" between Blair and Brown became more widespread, with speculation about when the chancellor would become prime minister.

Had the two decided that Blair would give way by 2004, after 10 years as Labour leader? Or halfway through Blair's second term as prime minister? Or any of dozens of other arrangements?

Some commentators regarded the pair as joint prime ministers anyway, with Brown having primacy over vast areas of domestic policy.

Increased spending on hospitals and medical staff were popular among all sections of Labour.

However, the leadership used up much of its goodwill within the party with the Iraq war - opposed by 139 Labour MPs - and by introducing "top-up" university fees for higher education students in England - opposed by 71 of their MPs.

The latter measure passed by just five votes, after the intervention of Brown to ensure his backers supported the government.

At the 2004 Labour conference, the rock star Bono likened Blair and Brown to two members of the Beatles, calling them the "John and Paul of the global development stage".

The description might equally have been applied to their lives in Downing Street. While a compliment to their talents, it brought back memories of two great egos increasingly unable to share adulation - and power.


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The 11 September 2001 bombings shocked the world.

The prime minister immediately pledged his support for President Bush's "war on terror". Later that year, the UK joined the United Nations-backed invasion of Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, backed by most Labour supporters.

But the alliance with Bush drew Blair and the UK into New Labour's largest foreign affairs crisis, the invasion of Iraq.

Despite hundreds of thousands of protesters massing on the streets of London in 2003 and a parliamentary rebellion by Labour MPs following a bitter debate, the war went ahead.

The defeat of Saddam was swift but the situation in Iraq was volatile with frequent suicide bombings and 179 UK service personnel and Ministry of Defence staff dying as UK and US planning for the aftermath of war came under criticism too.

The war became more unpopular through New Labour's second term, denting Blair's authority and leading to ever-increasing questions about whether he was planning to step down.


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Under pressure from the Brownites, frustrated that their man had still not risen to the Labour leadership, Blair finally gave way.

He announced in late 2004 that he would fight the next election and then serve a "full term" in office, but leave without contesting a fourth election.

Critics claim that this fundamentally undermined the prime minister's authority, knowing that he had set himself a timetable, however vague, for his time in office.

The expression "full term" caused confusion. Did it mean four more years, 10 years as prime minister? Was it a masterly effort to stall Brown's ambition without actually promising anything much?

Whatever it meant, Blair won an unprecedented third term in power for Labour in 2005, with a reduced, but still sizeable, Commons majority of 66.

After Tory leader Michael Howard stood down, the government faced a sterner challenge in David Cameron, a man who, like Blair and Brown more than a decade earlier, was determined to make his party electable once more.

A young man, he had even described himself during his leadership campaign as the "heir to Blair". The threat was real.

In his first prime minister's questions session Cameron looked at Blair and proclaimed: "He was the future once." The lustre of New Labour and Blair was fading.

There were also frequent newspaper reports of Blair and Brown falling out to such an extent that they were hardly speaking, let alone working, together.

Finally, in 2006, following an attempted backbench coup against him led by Brownites, Blair announced he would leave office within a year.


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Blair left to the sound of applause in the Commons in June 2007, after more than 10 years in power.

Brown, whether people believed a deal had been reached or not, had always seemed the most likely successor as Labour leader.

This proved correct when he easily beat off his rivals, who did not gain enough support among the party's MPs to ensure a vote among the full membership.

Despite lacking Blair's charisma, Brown enjoyed a "honeymoon period", some even saying a less showy alternative to his predecessor was what the country needed - "Not Flash, Just Gordon".

Leading Cameron in the polls, many thought the prime minister would call a general election for autumn 2007. Media speculation was allowed to continue, if not actively encouraged.

But with election fever at a peak the BBC's Andrew Marr was called in to interview the PM and came out into Downing Street to announce Brown had decided against going to the country.

The Conservatives, whose post-conference poll boost was seen as prompting the decision to abandon plans for an election, called Mr Brown a "bottler". His poll ratings slumped, never to recover.


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A key basis of New Labour's electability - economic soundness - was undermined when the credit crunch hit.

This struck directly at Brown, who had been chancellor for a decade before entering 10 Downing Street and taken the plaudits for UK economic success.

As the financial contagion spread, the government acted to bail out the banks, nationalising and part-nationalising some of the biggest names on the High Street.

Brown gained praise for leading a global effort to stem the worst of the crisis, and he and Chancellor Alistair Darling raised the rate of income tax for top earners - something Labour had pledged not to do in their 2005 manifesto.

Despite earning considerable respect abroad for his role in apparently helping the world avoid financial collapse, his popularity domestically kept suffering hits - including from failed Blairite coups and revelations about his closest advisers' connection with a plot to smear Conservatives.

Electorally the party did disastrously in local and European elections, also losing the London mayoralty and being beaten by the SNP in Scotland.

In what could be seen as New Labour's last hurrah, Mandelson, the prime minister's perceived enemy, was brought back in late 2008 from his job as a European commissioner.

Lord Mandelson swiftly became the de-facto deputy prime minister and front man for the government. It was assumed the Blairites would be brought back onside by his return and he was seen as playing crucial roles in stopping coup attempts succeeding.

By the time the general election was called for May 2010 the economy was out of recession - just. But Labour seemed to know it was heading out of office.


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At the 2010 election, Brown's Labour gained 29% of the vote - little more than Michael Foot had achieved 27 years earlier.

The party came second to the Conservatives, with no-one gaining a majority. After a flurry of talks a Conservative-Lib Dem government, the first Westminster coalition since the 1940s, was formed.

David Cameron and his allies had captured much of the coveted centre-ground of politics, so hard won by Blair, Brown and Mandelson in the 1990s.

Brown left, to set up a leadership contest, saying the election result had been "my fault and my fault alone".

Anthony Giddens, the political thinker behind the Third Way, declared: "New Labour as such is dead and it is time to abandon the term."

The five candidates to succeed Mr Brown seem keen to make clear they are a break with New Labour.

But, given that four of them grew up as special advisers, and then ministers, under New Labour, its influence looks likely to live on.