Waking Up to the Electorate: The Making of the British New Labour Party
Nick Tiratsoo

Seminar Introduction

In the early decades of the twentieth century, many in the Labour Party fervently believed that it was eventually destined to dominate British politics. The working classes were chafing at their subordinate position, while socialism seemed to provide answers for most of society's ills. It was only a matter of time before the people 'woke up' and the other parties were finally vanquished. Yet as the years passed, such hopes began to fade. Labour established a strong presence nationally and locally, but its overall performance fell well short of expectations. The 21 general elections between 1918 and 1992 yielded only two really emphatic triumphs, while the party only once came near to gaining 50 percent of the votes cast at the polls.

In this seminar, Nick Tiratsoo provides a detailed survey of Labour's record up to the early 1990s. Based on an extract from the book Labour's First Century, he examines why Labour's progress was so disappointing. Some of the party's difficulties were clearly beyond its control. Much of the British electorate remained unsympathetic to socialism. Moreover, the Conservative Party in particular was always a powerful competitor for the popular vote. But there were also self-inflicted wounds, for Labour developed an internal culture that was partly incompatible with its electoral ambitions. Indeed, activists sometimes thought and behaved in ways that actually alienated the ordinary voter. Of course, the Blairites who took control of the party after 1992 were fully aware of this problem, and sought to bring it to an end. New Labour was to be made much more 'voter-friendly'. The extraordinary landslide victory of 1997 seemed to suggest that a major transformation had occurred. Whether or not this was the case is examined in the concluding session.

Learning Objectives:
  • Identify the factors that led to the Labour Party's failure to influence the British electorate.
  • List the reasons why so many of the British electorate felt alienated from a socialist movement centred around local communities.
  • Compare the Labour Party's traditions, allies and campaigns with those of their competitors, such as the Conservative Party.
  • Explain the role of New Labour in transforming the British political climate.

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This seminar is extracted from Chapter 9 of Labour's First Century, Cambridge University Press, 2000.