Renewing Britain’s New Labour Project

Renewing Britain’s New Labour Project

The New Labour “project” is often regarded outside of Britain as a successful example of how social democracy can be modernized. “The progressive consensus” is what the country’s new prime minister, Gordon Brown, calls it. Tony Blair, his predecessor, often spoke of New Labour as representing “the third way” in democratic politics. The joint creators of the project that started thirteen years ago sought a grand narrative for their party that would reconcile constitutional government with the dynamic challenges posed by globalization and rapid technological change.

In their contrasting personal styles, they claimed that they wanted to make Labour’s century-old ethical values of liberty, equality, and fraternity relevant to the modern world—and not only in Britain. Brown and Blair believed that their project held important significance for the progressive left everywhere.

They wanted to marry economic efficiency with social fairness through the development of a successful open-market economy and a domestic agenda focused on the pursuit of social justice (they called it fairness). Under the New Labour project, the individual needs of the consumer and citizen were to coexist with the aspirations of the wider society. This meant trying to establish a balance between rights and responsibilities. Both men claimed that the project required a conscious break with the obsolete dogmas of their party’s socialist past. Too often, Labour’s troubled history had been an obstacle to the successful evolution of British social democracy. As a result, they argued, their party had held power for only twenty-three years in the entire twentieth century—and in no more than twelve of them with an absolute parliamentary majority. New Labour was born out of a legacy of defeat, after an unprecedented four consecutive lost elections. It sought a winning political formula that would appeal not only to Labour’s traditional voters—the poor, the old, the manual working class, and many living in the north—but more important, to the increasingly affluent and contented middle classes of southern England, committed to the pursuit of personal success. New Labour was to focus on the needs of hard-working families who wanted to thrive in an open society, with opportunities for all and not just the few. The project’s primary aim was to provide them with what fellow creator Philip Gould described as “the tools and resources they needed to advance and prosper.” In this way, New Labour was to lay the foundation for a “progressive century.”

Blair explained what all this meant in his personal introduction to New Labour’s general election program in April 1997, when he wrote, “We aim to put behind us the bitter political struggles of right and left that have torn our country apart for too many decades. Many of these conflicts have no relevance whatsoever to the modern world—public versus private, bosses versus workers, mid...