Media Review: The Transformation of Labour

By Taylor, Gary | Contemporary Review, February 2001 | Go to article overview
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Media Review: The Transformation of Labour

Taylor, Gary, Contemporary Review

Editor's Note:

In the opinion of almost all politicians and political commentators, Britain will almost certainly have a General Election sometime this year, most likely within the next few months. Since 1997 British politics has been dominated by Tony Blair. In the late 1980s during Margaret Thatcher's long premiership most observers saw little prospect of Labour ever returning to power. Now many of those very observers pronounce the same verdict on the Conservatives.

In the following articles two British academics discuss the effects of Tony Blair and New Labour on British politics. Gary Taylor shows how the media portrayed the transformation of the traditional Labour Party into Tony Blair's New Labour. The worst crisis suffered by the Blair government, the fuel protests of last autumn, is the only time the Tory opposition surpassed Labour in the opinion polls. Fred Nash sees an additional perspective to that crisis: the declining role of Parliament in British politics.

WHEN Tony Blair became leader of the Labour Party in 1994, he took charge of a party in the process of transforming itself. The Labour Party had been out of office since 1979, and did not regain political power until 1997. Mrs. Thatcher transformed the political landscape of Britain, and made it unfashionable to hold onto overtly socialist ideas. Like the Conservative government of 1992-1997, the Labour Party suffered from extreme internal divisions. These were aired in public and contributed to a sense of despair amongst Labour supporters, and a general feeling that the Labour Party could not be trusted with national political power. This transformation of the Labour Party has been covered by the broadcast media in Blair's Thousand Days (BBC2, 2000), Denis Healey: The Man Who Did the Dirty Work (UK Horizons, 1999), Confessions of a Spindoctor (Channel 4, 1999), The Real Peter Mandelson (Channel 4, 1999), If John Smith Had Lived (Channel 4, 1999), A Night to Remember (Channel 4, 1998), Bye. Bye Blues (Channel 4, 1997), Labour's Old Romantic: A Film Portrait of Michael Foot (BBC2,1997), and The Wilderness Years (BBC2, 1995). These documentaries capture at least some of the frustration and heartache of those who were called upon to abandon some of their cherished beliefs in the interests of making the party electable once more.

The Labour Party was in tatters following the 1979 election. The Labour government of 1974-1979 fell after a series of economic problems and industrial disputes which culminated in the so-called 'winter of discontent' when public sector workers went on strike against the government's pay award. The veteran Labour MP Peter Shore claimed that rival explanations of the 1979 election defeat shattered the unity of the Labour Party. On the right, people like the former Chancellor of the Exchequer Denis Healey claimed that the working class had turned against the unions and voted for Mrs Thatcher because they were disgusted with what the unions had done during the 'winter of discontent'. On the left, Tony Benn argued that the unions had felt let down by the Labour government. The Labour leadership was accused of betraying the workers, and of abandoning socialism. This gave rise to a virtual civil war in the party.

The left was determined to revolutionise the party and regain a sense of purpose that had appeared lacking since the time of Clement Attlee's Labour government of 1945-1951. Benn believed that the Labour leadership had become too elitist and that it should be forced to abide by the decisions of the party conference. He was disillusioned with the Labour leadership and had told Prime Minister James Callaghan prior to the General Election that he wanted to return to the back benches rather than take a place in the Cabinet/Shadow Cabinet. He believed that the campaign to reform the Labour Party was a popular uprising with its roots in the tradition of working class struggle. He fought for the right of individual members to select their candidates, to determine policy and to sack ineffective party leaders.

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