The Legacy of New Labour

It’s never too soon to begin writing histories. After being ousted from power in the UK elections last month, the legacy of former Prime Minister Gordon Brown and the Labour party is already being examined and written by commentators. Recently I read two good evaluations: a thorough critique by Tony Wood in New Left Review titled “Good Riddance to New Labour” and a more sympathetic one from John Cassidy in the New York Review, “Right and Wrong New Labour” (the latter is available online to subscribers and buyers only.)

Although Wood’s piece was written before the general election, he targets the social and political platform of New Labour as one not worth reelecting. Pointing to Blair and Brown’s complicity with the American War on Terror, and their support for neoliberal economic policies that weakened the UK’s public sphere, he argues there is no longer any difference between Labour and the Tories.

Cassidy, on the other hand, argues that the UK enjoyed a period of relative social and economic prosperity under Blair and Brown, whose achievements included the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into British law; a falling poverty rate; and increased dedication to the National Health Service.

Yet while Cassidy reads the current recession as an unpredictable outside factor that Brown and New Labour can’t be faulted for, and sees Brown’s rescue of banks like Northern Rock, the Royal Bank of Scotland, and Lloyds-TSB as a necessary step, Wood is not so generous. In his article, he writes that “Brownomics” meant a fundamentally conservative stance on economic matters that set the stage for the effects of the recession, including allowing banks to regulate themselves, which brought a temporary and ephemeral financial boom to the country at the expense of the public sector. Wood continues:

The meltdown of 2008 and ensuing recession brought the unravelling of Brownomics, as Labour leapt to the defence of the banks. Government balance sheets had long been squeezed in the name of fiscal rectitude, but when the banks’ share prices nosedived the Prime Minister rushed through a series of cash transfusions and taxpayer guarantees. For the sake of the City, Brown has shattered twice over his own ‘prudence’ threshold for government debt of 40 per cent of GDP; meanwhile the population at large has been subjected to downsizings and repossessions of a kind not seen in a generation.

The new government under the Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition has already stated it will implement harsher measures to curb government spending as it faces a £156 billion deficit, beginning with freezing welfare benefits and cutting child tax credits. It would be difficult to argue that the neoliberal policies of New Labour aren’t now coming round full circle.

UPDATE: The new piece “Time to Repent” by Ross McKibbin in the London Review is another great critical evaluation of New Labour’s legacy, as well as a survey of current party politics in the country.

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