Old Labour vs New Labour: Labour’s ever-changing colours

Old Labour vs New Labour


At the start of this year, Ed Miliband had set a clear path for the Labour Party to follow. Fearing that a radical approach would further alienate voters, he declared that his ‘One Nation’ Labour would acknowledge the lack of relevance that both strands in his party’s post-war history hold in 21st century Britain. Miliband professed that his Labour will reach out to voters alienated by the party in the 1980s, while also standing up to the vested interests courted by the party in government over the past decade. “New Labour”, he continued, “rightly broke from Old Labour to celebrate the power of private enterprise to energise the country … From crime to welfare to antisocial behaviour, New Labour was clear that we owe duties to each other as citizens.” He went on to criticise New Labour’s feebleness under the influence of big businesses, declaring:

“by the time we left office, too many of the people of Britain didn’t feel as if the Labour party was open to their influence, or listening to them.”

Miliband suggests that a sense of inevitable failure was deeply rooted within the policies of both Old and New Labour, and that, historically, his party has quite the poor record. However, is he right to brand these two strands of Labour under the same name? What are the main differences between the ideals of Old and New Labour, and how can this be seen through their policies?

New Labour tended to emphasise the idea of social justice, in contrast to the idea of social equality, which tended to be Labour’s focus under politicians such as Michael Foot. Ideas such as ‘minimum standards’ and ‘equality of oppurtunity’ started to emerge under Blair, sweeping aside concepts such as ‘equality of outcome’, which had started to develop into an aim during Old Labour’s more socialist history. Blair, sensing the toxic brand that Old Labour had become, removed any notion that communist ideals remained in the Labour Party by implementing a sense of merit into his policies, while retaining the more left-wing value of equal oppurtunities. For example, it is under New Labour that the minimum wage was introduced in April 1999, after being a central plank of Tony Blair’s 1997 election manifesto. The policy was hailed as one of the most successful in 30 years, and it is from this  realm of ideals that New Labour morphed from its previous self into a more centrist party, dedicated to appealing to a broad spectrum of voters from a multitude of classes and backgrounds. Here lies the basis of Old and New Labour’s ideological differences, and perhaps the basis of Miliband’s sentiment that New Labour became weak and complacent: from a desire to please everyone spawned an inability to do so in a competent manner.


The fundamental differences between Old and New Labour can be seen through their attitudes towards crime prevention. Old Labour had traditionally held a more compassionate attitude towards criminality – looking at the sociological influence behind crime, as well as economic factors which may result in criminal tendencies. Parts of New Labour’s political philosophy did link crime with social exclusion, but a heavier conservative influence than Old Labour resulted in Blair paving a “Third Way” in relation to crime. He maintained a more traditional approach to crime than Old Labour: the prison population in 2005 rose to over 76,000, mostly due to the increasing length of sentences. Blair’s insistence that he was “tough on crime” (Labour MP Yvette Cooper still supports) was a way of convincing the public that he did not see criminals as victims of Thatcherism, which was argued by the Michael Foot Labour Party that Blair was so clearly anxious to set apart from his own party. Differing attitudes towards crime is just one way in which Blair seems to have been motivated by a widespread sense of disdain towards the stance of the Michael Foot Labour party, which fuelled a determination to hold very different ideals in relation to sectors such as crime. New Labour’s dedication to reducing anti-social behaviour can be seen through acts such as the 1998 Crime and Disorder Act, which introduced Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs).

New Labour held a more prudent economic approach than Old Labour, who encouraged a ‘Tax and Spend’ policy in order to redistribute wealth through high taxation and increased government spending. Old Labour, of course, embraced the idea of public ownership, and it was important to Blair that his new party was not seen to be ideologically pursuing centralised public ownership in order to create a party that appealed to a wider range of voters, in particular the middle classes. He continued to pave a Third Way, by arguing that it was possible to maintain the efficiency of capitalism while achieving the aims of socialism that were key to keeping Labour’s working class base. Under New Labour, economic decisions were made that would maintain the party’s socialist roots such as Working Tax Credit, and Child Tax Credit. These state benefits for people on a low income who are struggling to raise a family highlighted that New Labour was keen to hold on to the strong working class base that Labour had inherited, while continuing to pursue economic growth. In a 2001 statement, Tony Blair insisted, “We are a left of centre party, pursuing economic prosperity and social justice as partners and not as opposites”.

So, how similar are Old and New Labour? It would be naive to suggest that New Labour abandoned its socialist history completely, yet New Labour made a deliberate step away from Old Labour’s socialist brand. Old Labour’s ideological rejection of privatisation was dissolved by Blair’s Private finance initiative (PFI), a way of creating “public–private partnerships”  by funding public infrastructure projects with private capital.  Introduced into the London Underground, the NHS and schools, these policies raised money in the short-term without the need for higher taxes. This is just one way in which New Labour presented themselves as a “sensible”, pragmatic party in contrast to Old Labour’s dogmatic, ideologically-driven ways. New Labour wanted to build a practical, prosperous society and condemned Foot’s Labour as “stubborn” and “old-fashioned” through their insistence that nationalisation and equality of outcome is not a practical way forward.

New Labour – Purple Labour – was a radical step away from Old Labour’s ‘Red’ roots.


Maxime Singleton