Historian takes the 'new' out of Labour

May 5, 2000

New Labour is not as new as it is painted, according to Exeter University historian Andrew Thorpe, writes Olga Wojtas.

Senior lecturer Dr Thorpe, speaking at the conference "New Labour, New Millennium?" organised by the centre for contemporary history at Glasgow Caledonian University, said many current analyses did not take a sufficiently long-term view.

"Everybody (has) a vested interest in saying it's all new. The core round Blair want to say: 'This is so dynamic, we are very different', and it's good copy for journalists to say it's turning its back on its old liberal attitudes. As a historian, I'm trying to look at what has gone on, not just how it's packaged," Dr Thorpe said.

"New Labour is presented as a radical departure mainly because many observers do not look back to the period before about 1980. But that's not comparing like with like, since Labour was in opposition.

"New Labour was often portrayed as having a conservative social policy, a shift from previous liberal approaches. But it has always been 'pretty conservative' in office," Dr Thorpe said.

Since Tony Blair took over as shadow home secretary in 1992, complete with soundbites such as "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime", new Labour's focus appeared to be moving from rehabilitation to retribution.

But a historical perspective revealed continuities with earlier Labour governments. Labour had always believed in the rule of law and in the 1920s the party had been reluctant to move towards the abolition of the death penalty. Returned to power in 1945, it did not suspend the death sentence. Previous Labour governments introduced legislation allowing juries to convict by majority rather than unanimously, removing the right to a jury trial for some offences and reducing the defence's rights to challenge jurors.

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