Last year, following the publication of the pre-budget report, in particular, many argue that the Brown government has made a return to the Left or even that we have seen ‘the end of New Labour’. This might mean we are witnessing another sea change of modern British politics similar to those experienced with Thatcherism in the 1980s and, most recently, with Blair’s New Labour. However, although there has been always extensive range of ideological debates especially when new politics emerged, few of them has been based on substantial evidence. This study attempts to define the ideology of the government whilst comparing it with redefined Old Labour, Thatcherism and Blair’s New Labour through content analysis of political texts. The study adopts an analytical framework with six ideological elements which were extracted from a literature review of comparative debates over New Labour to Old Labour and Thatcherism: interpretation of contemporary major challenges, objectives, political philosophy, role of major actors, major strategies, and the concept of citizenship. In this analysis, Old Labour, Thatcherism, and New Labour are redefined, and continuity and differences of the Brown government as well as their implication on future social policy development are examined.
Following the publication of the pre-budget report at the end of the 2008 featuring new higher tax rate for the highest earners, Toynbee (2008) declares that “the New Labour era is over” and “Labour unfurled its old battle banner for social justice”. When this proposal was finalised with even higher top tax rate last April, one of the senior Conservative politician claims “the death knell of New Labour”(BBC, 2009) and other fears back to state-controlled economy (Janet, 2009) reminding of Old Labour government in the 1970s. No matter whether this means start of new politics or return to the old politics, this might mean we are witnessing another sea change of modern British politics, which have shown relatively clear establishment and development of certain ideological foundations. Since post-war consensus era, which generally praised and few explicitly challenge its legacy such as free health care and compulsory education, there had been Wilson and Callaghan’s Old Labour government in the 1960s and 1970s, then Thatcher and Major’s Conservative government defined by Thatcherism in the 1980s and 1990s. From 1997, Blair’s New Labour government followed. This tradition of ideological initiative in British governments has had worldwide influence as we have witnessed the dominance of neo-liberal discourse of Thatcherism’s and the Third Way debate instigated by the emergence of New Labour in the 1990s.
These changes have been also significant not only in politics but also in social policy terms, as they also have entailed profound change of social policy strategies of the government. This has been reflected by extensive range of ideological debates in policy studies when new politics emerged particularly since Mrs. Thatcher came in the power. However, whilst there has been little consensus, few of them have been based on substantial evidence. For instance, since New Labour emerged, there have been various arguments from focusing on its renewal or continuities of Labour’s tradition (Allender, 2001; Bevir & O’Brien, 2001; Rubinstein, 1997, 2000; Smith, 1994; Thompson, 1996) or break of the tradition (Kenny & Smith, 1997; Larkin, 2001; Pimlott, 1997) to its inheritance from the Conservatives (Heron & Dwyer, 1999; Powell, 2000). Yet each side of argument tend to show certain policy initiatives by New Labour such as minimum wage, or marketisation of service delivery and welfare to work scheme as evidence for their arguments without comprehensive comparative framework.
Still, there are a number of studies to evaluate the New Labour government in the past decade (Kitson & Wilkinson, 2007; Rutledge, 2007; Sawyer, 2007; Wiggan, 2007; Wilkinson, 2007) but they usually focus on the policies and performances of New Labour government rather than the ideology. Moreover, although there are some ideological reflections of New Labour (MacLeavy, 2007; McAnulla, 2007; Page, 2007), their approach to the ideology of New Labour are not based on rigorous evidence. When it comes to Brown government, some studies attempt to reveal what differences could be expected but mostly limited to certain policy areas such as diplomacy (Bulmer, 2008; Dunn, 2008), education (Hatcher, 2008) or immigration (McGhee, 2009). Therefore, although we now talk about ‘the end of New Labour’, there is by no means clear full picture what the Blair’s New Labour was then where the Brown’s Labour government is heading to.
2 This is probably because, when it comes to debate on contemporary politics, this is usually regarded as something we can see on daily bases. Therefore, use of rigorous evidences and systemic approaches are easily ignored. Yet, as we witnessed in the debates on Thatcherism and New Labour, discussion on government ideology is too contentious to go without them. Therefore, this study attempts to define the ideology of the government including Old Labour, Thatcherism and Blair’s New Labour government 1 then comparing Brown’s to them through content analysis of political texts. High profile speeches by Prime Ministers and political writings are analysed along with election manifestos. The study adopts an analytical framework with comprehensive ideological elements which were extracted from a literature review of comparative debates over New Labour to Old Labour and Thatcherism. In this way, Old Labour, Thatcherism, and New Labour are redefined, and continuity and differences of the Brown government is examined.
Kim, B. Y. 2009. “The Brown government: a return to the Left? Defining government ideology in policy studies” presented at the SPA Annual Conference.