Labour Party

Labour Party
   Despite being one of the only two major parties in British politics, the Labour Party has suffered from a lack of electoral success, having won a clear governing majority only three times (1945, 1966 and 1997). It has long suffered from factional infighting, whether by committed Labour Party members who are divided along ideological lines, or by far-left groups who, through a process of entryism, have hijacked the party’s popular support for their own ends (for example, the Revolutionary Socialist League). The moderate centrist factions of the Labour Party have had to contend with the challenges of the Left, to the apparent detriment of electoral success. This once selfprofessed socialist party has, since the 1980s, moved towards social democratic policies acknowledging the importance of the market. In the post-Thatcher era, the party has turned from what many saw as its founding tenets (such as a commitment to nationalized industries, or strong links with the trade unions) to present a pragmatic challenge to the longstanding incumbents.
   During the 1970s the Labour Party swung to the left. The 1960s had seen the government of Harold Wilson (elected leader in 1963) fail both to run the economy successfully and to unite the party. Despite efforts to remedy the balance of payments deficit by reducing overseas expenditure and devaluing the pound in 1967, Wilson’s economic success was limited. Labour lost the 1970 election and were in opposition again. The Left within the party formulated their own ideas, one of the best-known of which was the Alternative Economic Strategy (AES), as it became known. State intervention and control were central themes of the AES. In order to achieve their aims, the Left called for the creation of the National Enterprise Board which was to oversee this programme of widespread nationalization and planning. Recognizing that the radical domestic agenda could not be addressed if the leadership’s hands were tied by Brussels, they also called for withdrawal from Europe.
   During this period, Tony Benn began to emerge as a leading light among the fundamentalist factions within the party. Popular amongst the ordinary party members, he was with, but not of, the leadership; despite his participation in the governments of Wilson (1964–70 and 1974–6) and Callaghan (1976–9), he rejected their social democratic agenda. Benn believed in class-based action and the need for the Labour party to move to the left.
   As the economic situation worsened during the 1970s, so the Left continued their drive for influence of the leadership. The 1973 party conference adopted Labour’s programme, which called for the creation of the aforementioned National Enterprise Board. The 1974 election manifesto was a compromise. Wilson, at odds with the Left and their programme, sought a social democratic path, and the tone of the manifesto was diluted, although it remained in keeping with the policies approved by conference. The Labour Party was elected in February 1974 (with a minority administration until the October general election consolidated their position with a small majority). Once in power, the leadership sought to minimalize the Left’s influence. Initially Wilson placated the Left; Tony Benn and Michael Foot, both doyens of the Left, received prominent government positions, Benn in Industry and Foot in Education. The 1975 Industry Act created the National Enterprise Board, but it was a pale imitation of what the Left had intended, having neither the scope nor funds to achieve the original aims. Benn was soon removed from the Department of Industry and sent to the much less important Department of Energy.
   By the middle of the 1970s, events had overtaken the ideological battle within the Labour Party. Britain was experiencing a phenomenon known as stagflation, with high unemployment and high inflation. Keynesianism could not explain this, but monetarism could. The circumstances required action, and accordingly control of economic policy was wrested from the ideologues. The government was forced to adopt monetary discipline as a condition of an International Monetary Fund loan (necessitated by a run on sterling in 1976). A series of strikes in what was to become known as the Winter of Discontent finished any chance of a revival for Labour and, following a vote of no confidence, they were defeated at the 1979 election.
   The 1980s were a turbulent time for the Labour Party, during which they were divided and electorally unsuccessful. The decade started well for the Left. When Callaghan stood down, Michael Foot replaced him as party leader (1980). In addition, constituency changes had favoured the Left. The party started to develop and adopt more overtly left-wing policies. By 1980, party conference support had been secured for unilateral nuclear disarmament, unconditional withdrawal from the European Community and the Alternative Economic Strategy, which involved increased nationalization. Labour’s programme was revamped again in 1982. This time, however, the election manifesto of the following year (A New Hope For Britain) stuck closely to the policy document, much more closely than Wilson had done. The apparent failure of the Wilson/Callaghan government left social democracy open to its most fervent attack from the Left so far, and the result was a party split; in 1981 Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Shirley Williams and Bill Rodgers left Labour to form the Social Democratic Party (SDP), taking a number of Labour MPs with them. All four were revisionists and opposed the direction in which the fundamentalist Left wing was taking the party. The social democrats who remained within the party regrouped under the Labour Solidarity group banner and faced the 1983 election. Labour suffered a crushing defeat, its worst since 1918. Foot stepped down immediately and was replaced by Neil Kinnock, who chose Roy Hattersley as his deputy. The Left were reeling. They finally had their chance to put their policies to the nation and had been rejected. They now became more isolated as new socialist thinkers found their voices within the party, men such as Bryan Gould, Robin Cook and Gordon Brown. Kinnock was not able to proceed with a revisionist plan at any pace, not least for the reasons that he had the miners’ strike and Militant tendency to deal with. Kinnock rid the party of Militant, launching an attack at party conference (1985) and expelling members. He also condemned the tactics of Scargill during the 1984–5 miners’ strike. Both actions illustrated Kinnock’s commitment to a more moderate social democratic direction; but he moved slowly at first, aware that any radical change forced through in an expedite manner could further divide the party.
   However, by the time of the 1987 election the manifesto was devoid of many of the Left’s earlier promises. The radical agenda was diluted, as in the case of nationalization, or expunged, as in the case of the promise to leave the European Community. Kinnock stuck with the commitment to unilateral disarmament, but agreed to increased commitment to NATO. Further, Kinnock moved with the spirit of the time with regard to the economy, accepting the market and limiting his commitment to nationalization to key public areas. He talked of the social control of the economy, trying to coalesce social democracy with marketdominated economics. The process of change proceeded slowly during the period 1983–7 with Kinnock carefully laying important foundations period on which he was to build subsequently. Thus it was that Labour entered the 1987 election with a less radical agenda—and lost. Following the 1987 election defeat, the pace of revisionist reform increased. A comprehensive policy review was instigated, which took two years to complete and culminated in the publication of the 70,000-word report, Meet the Challenge, Make the Change. The policy review set the trend for the Labour Party for the coming years. It was a practical response to Labour’s lack of electoral success. It sought to increase the popularity of the party by moving away from unpopular policies such as nationalization and high taxation. In May 1990, a revised and slimmer version of the report, Looking to the Future, was published and formed the basis of Labour’s 1992 election manifesto. The document had to contend with the fall of Keynesianism and move away from left-wing statist policies. Kinnock maintained that the review did not contradict the essence of the Party, although the commitment to the unions was weakened with an acceptance of many of Thatcher’s restrictive reforms.
   Kinnock managed to unite the party, and he altered the tone and direction of Labour policy. He offered a practical approach to making the party electable and led them to the 1992 election—only to suffer Labour’s fourth consecutive defeat. He resigned, and John Smith, Kinnock’s former shadow chancellor, succeeded him as leader of the Labour Party three months after the election. Smith was Labour Party leader until his untimely death in May 1994. He continued in the spirit of change if with his own style. Less antagonistic than Kinnock, he did not force the revisionist case so openly; yet he achieved monumental change. Significantly, he reformed the selection process for parliamentary candidates under the slogan ‘One Member One Vote’, weakening the power of the trade unions. Smith also came under pressure to reform Clause IV Part Four (viewed as Labour’s commitment to nationalization and in essence the expression of the party’s socialist commitment), most notably from Jack Straw, the shadow environment secretary. Clause IV had formed the essence of Labour Party policy for many years and although Smith was a modernizer he did not force the pace of change over this contentious issue. Cautiously and cleverly, he worked to further unite his party while continuing a programme of change. Following John Smith’s death, Tony Blair was elected leader. All early indications were that Blair would continue the work begun by his predecessors. Blair was clearly committed to a market economy and not afraid of making changes quickly. To Blair, socialism was not about a strong state controlling society but about society cooperating to the benefit of all; likewise in the economic sphere, he believed that government and industry should work in partnership. Soon after his election, Blair moved to alter the nature of the Labour Party and began by addressing the issue of Clause IV In October 1994 he put forward a proposal to reform the constitution of the party, in his first platform speech as leader. This move received much press coverage and affirmed Blair’s commitment to change. The new text of Clause IV was finally published in March 1995. Written principally by Blair, it set out Labour’s commitment to the community and radically altered Labour’s economic goals by detailing a belief in the market economy and the importance of both public and private ownership, thus giving up the commitment to common ownership and openly advocating a mixed economy. It also spoke of ensuring a just society and a caring community, in which the rights and interests of all are fairly represented. On 29 April 1995 Blair secured approval for the new proposal. In a short time, he had redefined the Party’s aims as set out in its own constitution, creating what has become known as New Labour. As a consequence, the party secured a massive majority at the general election in May 1997. Blair remains committed to change. His charismatic, almost presidential, leadership style stands as testament to this. He appears to have the support of his party in modernizing their organization and aims. Labour party policy continues to distance itself from previous left-wing ideals, leading some commentators to question where the process will end. Regardless of this, the Labour Party has undergone an extensive programme of modernization and reform. This change can be viewed partly as a response to changing social values, partly because of changing economic thought and partly due to a lack of electoral success.
   Further reading
    Jones, T. (1996) Remaking The Labour Party, London: Routledge.
    Shaw, E. (1996) The Labour Party Since 1945, London: Blackwell.

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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