New Labour, new paradigm

April 11, 1997

The pick of the papers from the Political Studies Association conference in Ulster

A Labour victory at the forthcoming general election would underline rather than threaten the political dominance established by neo-liberal ideas over the past 20 years.

So argues Richard Heffernan, who teaches in the government department at the London School of Economics and was co-author of Defeat From the Jaws of Victory, a well-regarded study of the failure of Neil Kinnock to win power at the 1987 and 1992 general elections.

Mr Heffernan delivered a paper on Exploring the Power of Political Ideas: The Rise of Neo-Liberalism and the Re-orientation of Political Attitude in the UK 1976-1996 at this week's Political Studies Association annual conference at the University of Ulster.

He argues that there has been a "paradigm shift" in British politics since the mid to late 1970s, completely changing the ideological ground on which the two main parties fight.

This, he stresses, does not mean that there are no differences between the parties, or that they are totally constrained in making policy choices, but it signals "a shift in the preconceptions underlying political ideas, of the possibilities of, and limitations on, government action."

He prefers "paradigm" to the notion of "hegemony" as a means of analysis, arguing that the latter implies an attitude change in the broader populace. He agrees with the Conservative historian Maurice Cowling that politics has far more to do with elites than with the mass of the population. And he argues that the shift in opinion from the postwar social democratic consensus has been among the political elite rather than the whole population.

"If you look at surveys of public opinion, all the evidence is that the broad weight of popular views is still more social democratic than neo-liberal, even if voting at general elections has not shown that."

Mr Heffernan cites the famous comment by James Callaghan, facing defeat at the 1979 election, that "perhaps once every 30 years there is a sea-change in politics. It then does not matter what you say or do. There is a shift in what the public wants and what it approves of. I suspect there is now such a sea-change - and it is for Mrs Thatcher".

He notes that the party agendas of the mid 1970s were closer to those of the early 1950s than of only a few years later.

"The four pillars of that paradigm were full employment, the welfare state, re-distributive taxation as a positive social good and a mixed pseudo-Keynesian economy. Every government from Attlee to Callaghan, except for a short period during the Heath government, operated on that territory and on those assumptions."

The breakdown of that model led to its replacement by neo-liberalism, whose victory is signalled by New Labour.

"Labour's policy preoccupations now are exactly those of the Conservatives in 1979 - inflation given priority over employment, rekindling enterprise culture, controlling trade unions, curbing public expenditure and using the state to regulate the economy rather than intervene directly in it," he says. The Conservatives, he adds, have failed in 18 years of power to reform the welfare state. This may be one of the tasks newly neo-liberal Labour will attempt, he suggests.

Labour's transformation has been given its impetus by consecutive heavy electoral defeats. But Mr Heffernan differs from those who see New Labour as the natural successor to the revisionist social democracy of Anthony Crosland and Hugh Gaitskell.

"The reality is that the social democratic baby has been thrown out with the Bennite bathwater. Crosland and Gaitskell were both committed to the old Labour social democratic model - egalitarianism, progressive taxation, the redistribution of wealth and state intervention." This, he notes, is one reason why the Croslandite Roy Hattersley, once regarded as a pillar of the Labour right, has emerged as a critic to the left of the leadership.

Mr Heffernan argues that there is scope for an alternative left of centre view.

"Leninism and Trotskyism are dead, and there is no point in refighting old battles. But there is space for politics based around some of those social democratic values. The mixed economy and welfare state are far from dead."

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