Beyond the Intrigues: Britain, New Labour, and the Global Age

Article excerpt

JOEL KRIEGER is the Norma Wilentz Hess Professor of Political Science at Wellesley College and Editor-in-Chief of the Oxford Companion to Politics of the World.

Britain's New Labour government has garnered considerable international attention, and for good reason. Since Tony Blair's election in May 1997, there is an unmistakable sense in the United Kingdom that something extremely interesting and potentially significant is under way. From the start, New Labour's signature claim to represent a "Third Way"--a model of government not simply between, but beyond neoliberalism and traditional European social democracy--has generated enormous interest and mobilized important new recruits, most notably Germany's Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. Blair's willingness to experiment with ideas and policy and his call to modernize almost everything in the grasp of government have contributed to a sense of political renewal and intellectual ferment in Britain. And his ability to rise to the occasion, from his stewardship of the nation during the period after Princess Diana's death to his aggressive efforts to achieve a potentially historic peace agreement for Northern Ireland have created an aura of decisive, sometimes inspired, leadership.

Viewed more critically, despite some impressive efforts to define, explain, and theorize New Labour, the coherence and originality of Blair's project remain to be demonstrated. Should a government nearly half-way through its term still seem so enigmatic? To be sure, New Labour is riding very high in the polls despite a round of scandals, resignations, and bitter dust-ups between ministers since Christmas. Yet nagging doubts are growing among many Britons that Blair's strength lies in launching new initiatives on health care, education, welfare reform, and, most dramatically, on the constitutional shape of the United Kingdom, but that New Labour cannot quite be trusted to follow through on these measures. Parliamentary backbenchers are growing weary of cabinet squabbles, and the mid-term grades handed out by pundits leave much room for improvement before the next election (which must occur before May 2002 and is expected to occur a year or two earlier). It has not gone unnoticed that key pledges on everyday issues that people care about have not yet been met. Until class sizes and waiting lists for treatment are both reduced, the electorate will not let New Labour off the hook on education and health care. For the first time, respected critics in the United Kingdom are talking of a meltdown of support among key "Middle-England" voters, whose decisive swing to Labour in May 1997 handed Blair his landslide victory. While few leaders in the world would not trade their troubles for Blair's--he is an extremely popular leader with an overwhelmingly secure position--Blair has raised the bar very high by proposing a new model of center-left government that promises a legacy of irreversible changes.

What are the goals and aspirations of New Labour? How does its understanding of globalization help explain the disparate elements of its project? What are the dilemmas and challenges to which New Labour's project give rise?

New Labour's Project

New Labour can be identified most readily by its critical assessment of--and emphatic distancing from--traditional British Labour party politics. Above all, in electoral as well as deeper ontological terms, New Labour rejects the notion of class or interest-based politics. In 1997, Labour enjoyed its electoral triumph due to support from across the socio-economic spectrum, especially from the middle to lower classes. In organizational terms, it rejects the historic ties between Labour governments and the trade union movement, and emphasizes instead the rights of individual workers. It continues the Thatcher-era project of eviscerating the collective political and industrial strength of workers, recasting unions as legal service providers. …