James E. Cronin
The emergence of New Labour in Britain in the mid-1990s and its massive election victory in May 1997 are events of genuinely historic significance. The scale of Labour's triumph was virtually unprecedented and prompted informed, if premature, speculation about whether 1997 was perhaps a genuinely 'critical', or 'realigning' election that would remake the nation's 'long-term party order' (Evans and Norris 1999; Butler and Kavanagh 1997; Crewe and Thomson 1999:65; Norris 2001). The 1997 election was 'historic' in another, rather different, sense of the term. For decades scholars and politicians alike have spoken about two historical trends that, between them, should have reconfigured the political landscape in Britain. The first is the tendency for parties of the left to move towards the centre; the second is the secular erosion of class as the dominant fact of modern industrial society and as the primary determinant of political allegiance and behaviour (Evans 1999). Both processes have been described repeatedly and their impact long anticipated. For decades, however, the realities of British politics refused to conform to the patterns emerging so clearly elsewhere (Kirchheimer 1966). Class sentiments, resentments and loyalties remained surprisingly resilient; and despite numerous efforts to move the Labour Party away from its ideological roots, the party and its leaders resisted 'modernization' and clung obstinately to their traditional commitments to equality, redistribution through taxation and public spending, and nationalization. The transition from 'old' to 'New Labour' represents, then, an intriguing variation on the relationship between parties and the electorate: the party ultimately responded in clear and dramatic fashion, but the nature of the party not only delayed the process but forced it to take particular forms.
The linked transformations in the nature of left-wing parties and in their relationship to their traditional working-class constituencies were sociologically rooted in a broader shift in the character of mass parties and the societies in which they operated. In the past it was often assumed - by scholars at least (Almond 1960; Almond and Powell 1966) - that properly functioning parties gave voice to clearly defined social interests, and that parties in turn helped to translate the frequently discordant