Labour History Review

‘The Smallest Party in History’? New Labour in Historical Perspective

Labour History Review (2004), 69, (1), 83–103.

Abstract

Historians, commentators and political scientists have divided over whether New Labour marks a definitive break with the pre-1994 Labour Party, or instead represents ‘traditional values in a modern setting’. Steven Fielding has recently offered a systematic and apparently persuasive exposition of the latter argument. In his view, the Labour Party, under Tony Blair's leadership, has been faithful to its past. This article challenges this interpretation of Labour's history, and by extension Blair's own ‘core values’ argument, to which (it is argued here) Fielding's claims bear a marked resemblance. It is suggested that such interpretations create the risk of a Whig interpretation of the party's history. Moreover, not only are some of the specific historical judgements used to back them up open to doubt, but also Fielding's focus on the party's parliamentary leadership inevitably brings about a misleading conclusion. Blair's accession marked a shift in the balance of forces within the party, and a focus on the ideology of the leadership alone is bound to obscure this. The article will therefore conclude by exploring the merits of Tony Benn's remark that New Labour is ‘almost certainly the smallest party in the history of British polities’. It is argued that ‘New Labour’ should be seen not as something that has superseded Old Labour', but as something that exists alongside it, providing leadership as part of a wider coalition.

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Toye, Richard