Looking back at New Labour: A Changed Political Landscape

Posted on June 5th, 2017 by David Blunkett

In the first of a series of blogs marking the 20th anniversary of New Labour coming to power, Crick Centre Board Chair and former Labour Secretary of State, Professor Lord Blunkett, considers the changing political landscape of the last two decades.

Twenty years ago and those heady days of “a new dawn has broken has it not?”, seems a very long time ago.

As with so much in politics, the landscape directly impacts on how the process of politics is conducted.

The landscape being the complete transformation of Britain’s relationship with Europe (because we will still have to have one), following the Brexit vote.

The change in our internal constitution, with substantial devolution to Scotland and to Wales and Northern Ireland – and the embryo moves towards devolution to the English regions.

The extraordinary meltdown in the influence and effectiveness of social democratic politics, both in Europe and North America.  With Donald Trump’s extraordinary victory in the presidential election, the emergence of Vladimir Putin as a major player on the world scene, and the extraordinary result in the French presidential election, where in the first round the official socialist candidate received only 8% of the votes cast.  That is 8% of the party that has held the presidency and sway in the French Assembly over recent years.  Yet another sign of the impact of global change on the traditional political scene.

It is that global change which is so significant in relation to looking back over those 20 years.  The financial meltdown from 2008 and the failure of social democracy to provide a narrative as to why it was that formal democratic politics “saved” the ego the global economy from crash, rather than being responsible for the consequent austerity measures arising from saving those financial institutions, leading to a paradoxical rise in right-wing sentiment.

This takes us back to Frederick Hyek, Milton Friedman and Margaret Thatcher.  If you can present Government as being the “problem”, then less government, or government that facilitates the markets, becomes a logical beneficiary of disillusionment and disengagement from formal politics.

But of course nothing is simple.  There was engagement in the referendum vote to a considerable degree more substantial than in recent general elections in the UK.  The engagement this time was not participatory in the normal sense of civil society but of a black and white choice which not only reflected disdain for the European institutions and the concept of collaboration across Europe but also anti the establishment, alienation from the normal processes of decision-making and a feeling of victimhood, relating not just to internal austerity measures but also to the impact of globalisation more broadly.

So, 20 years on for some the halcyon days of investment in education, health, housing and the environment at the same time as low inflation, low interest rates and low unemployment seem a million miles away.

Finally, why has so much of what happened at least in the first 10 years of the 1997 Labour Government been either forgotten or dismissed as irrelevant?  Well, partly from 2007 and particularly from 2010, that the Labour Party leadership itself chose to play down the great successes of that government – from the introduction of the national minimum wage through to the reduction in deaths from heart disease by almost a quarter and waiting-list in the National Health Service reduced from 18 months to 18 weeks.

From opening up access to higher education to tens of thousands of young people, through to the establishment of Sure Start and the rebuilding of hundreds of schools, where the roof was leaking and the toilets outside the building.  Yes, that was 1997.


Lord David Blunkett is Professor of Politics in Practice at the Sir Bernard Crick Centre, Department of Politics, University of Sheffield.

Notes: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Crick Centre, or the Understanding Politics blog series.