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This essay examines three major criticisms of New Labour: i/ that it is “neo-liberal,” ii/ that it is over influenced by American approaches to economic and social policy, and iii/ that, as a consequence, its vision for Europe is wrong. It is argued that New Labour—by retrieving the 1945 notion of an enabling state—has gone beyond “neo-liberal” possibilities. It is also argued that critics have tended to over emphasise American influences on New Labour policy, at the expense of domestic demands and realities. Finally, given those demands and realities, NewLabour’s vision for Europe is probably the best any UK government could currently offer. It is a vision that—rather than condemning all to a residual workfare state—can allow a broad diversity of social policy approaches across EU member states.

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1Throughout its time in power, the New Labour government of the United Kingdom has been subjected to much criticism both from within the UK and from elsewhere in the EU. According to many domestic critics the key problem with New Labour is that it has continued the Thatcherite “neo-liberal” project. This complaint is echoed in some assessments coming from France. However, French critics tend to refer to the current UK economic model as “Anglo-Saxon” rather than “neo-liberal.” This label is employed to suggest a link between the UK economic model and that of the United States of America. The UK is viewed as peddling an American economic agenda that is a clear and direct threat to a more desirable European social model apparently favoured in France. The “Anglo-Saxon” label is also employed to suggest a less than healthy political relationship between the UK and the US. The suggestion here is that the UK cannot play a full role in the EU because its relations with the US are too cosy. New Labour came to power vowing to put Britain “at the heart of Europe.” But its actions suggest to many that it is actually hostile to the type of Europe favoured by its most powerful partners. New Labour’s vision is of a Europe of independent nation-states in a free trade zone. For many critics, this is a vision that fails to grasp the potentialities of a more unified Europe acting in unison on the world stage—counterbalancing the current dominance of the US. This constitutes a third form of criticism of New Labour that I will call the “wrong vision” critique.

2The purpose of this essay is to explore the validity of the three types of criticism just identified. I will begin by examining the “neo-liberal” critique. This, I will argue, has little substance because the “neo-liberal” label is wrongly applied to New Labour. The fact is that New Labour has sought to respond to the grosser defects associated with Thatcher’s reforms of the British economy in ways that are simply not available to neo-liberals. I will then move on to consider the second type of critique. I will suggest that the “Anglo-Saxon” label is also problematic. There is a danger of it masking what is actually an inherently complex set of influences that have prompted New Labour to pursue the course it has. Whilst it is true that New Labour is more subject to American influences than those from across the Channel, it does not subscribe to some monolithic Anglo-Saxon model that is out to crush all competitors. Part of my reasoning for taking this view lies in New Labour’s approach to Europe. I consider this approach in the final part of this essay where I examine the “wrong vision” critique.

The “Neo-Liberal” Critique1

  • 1  I have previously presented some of the core arguments in this section in Christopher John Nock, “ (...)
  • 2  See, for example, Stuart Wood, “Labour Market Regimes under Threat ? Sources of Continuity in Germ (...)

3In Britain the usual charge offered against New Labour is that it has continued Thatcher’s neo-liberal project. This charge has some prima facie merit. New Labour came to power praising and endorsing the fundamental aspects of Thatcher’s economic reforms. It committed itself to Conservative spending targets in its first term. It has pursued increasing marketisation of much of what was purely in the public realm. The trade unions have remained on the margins of British political and, indeed, economic life. Emphasis has shifted from the post-war “old” Labour view of the state as a public provider of welfare services to that of the state as a regulator of private providers, and a facilitator of private investment in “public” projects. Welfare provision has become increasingly targeted and, as a consequence, more residual and less universal.2 Given these facts, critics in the UK condemn New Labour for having abandoned the social-democratic principles that were central to the 1945 welfare state. It is, indeed, true that New Labour is short of social-democratic principles, but there are sound historical reasons for this.

  • 3  See Martin Hewitt, “Social Policy and Human Need,” in Developments in British Social Policy, Nick (...)

4The 1945 welfare state was constructed around the priority of a universal satisfaction of basic need. This could only be made real through Keynesian economic management that might secure high and stable levels of employment. In an important sense, it was an approach that gave priority to welfare over markets. Only once the basic needs of all were satisfied might the inequalities markets generate be considered potentially justifiable. This approach actually demanded a dual role from the state. First, it should directly aid those unable to help themselves in the avoidance of poverty and want ; and second, it should take steps to enable those potentially able to satisfy their needs in the market place to do so through education, training and labour market policy. By the early 1950s some Conservatives were calling for the replacement of the notion of basic need by that of residual need.3 On this view, the market was the best mechanism for satisfying both basic and personal needs. Accordingly, it should take priority over state welfare. The state would still bear responsibility for meeting the basic needs of those unable to function in the market—these being the residual needs.

  • 4  In 1983 the British electorate emphatically rejected Labour’s offer of a return to state managemen (...)

5It was this approach that finally won out in 1983 when it became central to Thatcher’s reform of the British economy.4

6Thatcher’s revolution did not negate the first function of the post-war welfare state. Aid to those unable to help their selves could still be provided under the rubric of residual need. But Thatcher’s project did largely negate the second enabling function of the 1945 welfare state. This function had been linked to the state’s ability to manage the economy and promote full employment by Keynesian methods. Thatcher’s rejection of Keynesianism—and her corresponding marketisation of the economy—broke the tools of the post-war enabling state. This aspect of the Thatcher revolution was so complete that when New Labour came to power there could be no return to the 1945 social-democratic model. The destruction of Keynesian tools had gone hand in hand with the demise of the industrial economy on which their effectiveness depended. In this new reality, New Labour continued to give primacy to the market. But their approach has not been exclusively tied to the purely residual notion of need central to the neo-liberal project. New Labour seems, rather, to have supplemented the residual approach by retrieving the second element of the 1945 social-democratic principle : the notion of the state as an enabling force.5

7Under New Labour, the state is again consciously embracing the role of enabling those with the potential to do so, to meet their own needs in the market. It is this that distinguishes their project from Thatcher’s and marks an important ideological gap between the two. Thatcher saw little need for an enabling state because she considered markets to be neutral in the ways they distribute opportunities. New Labour recognise that this is not so. Some groups are disadvantaged in their market endeavours and require particular forms of support. In this enabling role New Labour is seeking to secure opportunity for all through the labour market as the key to social inclusion. The British tendency to judge New Labour in comparison with the 1945 social-democratic project employs the wrong yardstick. 1945—by giving priority to basic needs welfare over markets—represented a unique moment in the British experience. We should not expect New Labour to have conjured up a full-blown return to its principles—or, indeed, its practices.

  • 6  I have made this argument in more detail in Christopher John Nock, “Active Labour, Liberty and Dem (...)

8These principles and practice could only fully apply in the period when Keynesian management of the national economy was viable. That moment was long past by 1997. A more appropriate measure of New Labour is comparison with Thatcherism.6 New Labour is clearly more concerned than Thatcher—blinded as she was by the myth of market neutrality—with the negative social consequences of economic liberalism. By retrieving the 1945 notion of the enabling state—a state that can grip and grapple with unfair inequalities in opportunities—New Labour has begun to take steps to address those consequences.

  • 7  See Michael Freeden, “The Ideology of New Labour,” in Political Quarterly, 70, 1, pp. 42-51.
  • 8  See ibid.
  • 9  See Nock, “Active Labour, Liberty and Democracy.”

9While New Labour’s version of the enabling state does mark and advance beyond Thatcher’s neo-liberalism, it is equally insufficient to fill its breach with “old” Labour social-democratic principles. New Labour gives priority to markets over welfare and seeks to promote employment opportunities through policies of labour flexibility, not Keynesian management. In this context, the enabling state is taking on a very particular form. Gone are social-democratic concerns with individual autonomy or broader notions of well being. The notion of “opportunity” has been stripped of concerns about personal development or the realisation of potentialities.7 Opportunity now lies solely in the world of work and its attendant material rewards. The primary—perhaps the only—function of the enabling state is to skill and re-skill individuals for the world of work. As a consequence of this process, welfare itself has been devalued and reduced to a set of support services for the unfortunate and the unlucky—those who have residual needs.8 This marks a transformation from the welfare state of 1945 to a workfare state. The New Labour workfare state lacks the ideal of universality central to the 1945 welfare state. But it also contains post-Thatcherite elements. The targeted New Deal—and other labour activation policies—along with minimum wage legislation, are new enabling tools that go beyond neo-liberal possibilities.9

10The New Labour emphasis on work—and its attendant opportunities—offers some explanation of its continued rejection of the extensive state activity associated with the 1945 welfare state. The British experience suggests that the main threat of economic liberalism is to interests that were entrenched by the post-war welfare state. These interests belonged primarily to two main groups : the middle-class and organised labour. The professional and semi-professional middle-class became the primary beneficiary of the work and income opportunities promoted by extensive state provision. And, in large part, this is because it was they who were privileged by access to state subsidised higher education.

  • 10  See Freeden, “The Ideology of New Labour.”

11Large organised labour unions—often through restrictive practices—were able to promote greater job security and benefits than many members might expect in a flexible labour market. New Labour seems to believe that economic liberalism promotes greater equity by breaking these entrenched interests and expanding the opportunities of the poor and disadvantaged. Fairer competition for jobs and education, combined with cheaper goods are the key elements in promoting this process. The workfare state has a positive role to play in helping disadvantaged groups pursue those opportunities. This approach has come to define New Labour’s version of “social justice.” Detached from social-democratic concerns about egalitarian redistribution, gross inequalities are now deemed acceptable—perhaps even laudable—if they help promote benefits for the least advantaged sections of British society. On this view, social justice merely requires that nobody be excluded from the world of work by reason of irrelevant prejudice.10

  • 11  See Marquand, D. -“The Blair Paradox” in The New Labour Reader / eds. Andrew Chadwick and Richard (...)
  • 12  See Freeden, “The Ideology of New Labour.”
  • 13  See Kenny, M. ; Smith, M-J. - “Interpreting New Labour : Constraints, Dilemmas and Political Agenc (...)

12So New Labour is neither neo-liberal nor social-democratic. Unlike Thatcher, it is equipped to recognise that the state has a positive role to play in helping the disadvantaged in the labour market. This ability has been constructed around principles like “social justice,” “opportunity,” and the “enabling state” which have a ring of traditional Labour concerns about them. But, in reality, these principles have largely been stripped of their “old” Labour social-democratic meanings. Recognising that New Labour is neither neo-liberal nor social-democratic raises the issue of how they might be properly labelled. This issue vexes many British commentators and they have offered a wide variety of possibilities. Marquand, for example, suggests New Labour be seen as a peculiarly British phenomenon which is busy repairing the crisis of legitimacy caused by Thatcher’s bourgeois revolution.11 Freeden also sees something peculiarly British about New Labour because he roots its ideology partly in the New Liberalism of the early twentieth-century and the elitist Fabianism of the Webbs.12 Kenny and Smith are keen to draw some parallels between New Labour and both European Christian Democrats and US Democrats.13

13Thus, if some British commentators can form a reasonable picture of what New Labour is not, they are far less clear on what it is. However, no such problem seems to exist in criticism coming from France. Here, New Labour is often presented as an agent of a well-defined—essentially American—political and economic agenda. It is to this image that I will now turn my attention.

The “Anglo-Saxon” Critique

  • 14  See, for example, Graham P. Thomas, “Has Prime Minister Major been replaced by President Blair ?” (...)

14In its broader themes, the Anglo-Saxon charge—like the “neo-liberal” one—does have some prima facie merit. Blair—like Major and Thatcher before him—has tended to look to America for inspiration rather than across the Channel. He clearly had much affinity for Bill Clinton and was happy to follow advice from Clinton’s election team in the run up to the 1997 election. Indeed, many commentators have noted American influence in the style and some of the substance of New Labour. American rhetoric has entered the British political lexicon : “new deal”, “zero-tolerance”, “welfare” as a residual necessity not an overarching good, “workfare”, and the like. Blair has been criticised for pursuing a presidential style of politics contrary to the traditions of British parliamentarianism.14 Surprisingly, perhaps, the obviously cordial relations with Clinton have not got in the way of Blair’s efforts to build solid working relations with the Bush administration. On the face of it, Bush and Blair are what the English might call “strange bed fellows.” Support for Bush on Iraq cost Blair vast amounts of political capital at home and abroad. His credibility is still not restored with the British public, and I doubt it ever fully will be.

15Understandably, the desire of Blair to pursue close relations with Bush’s America set alarm bells ringing amongst many of Britain’s EU partners. Iraq split the governments of Europe and the rift continues. This has given ammunition to critics of Blair. New Labour’s affair with US appears to have overstepped the bounds of reason into blind love. Britain seems to be in a relationship in which it is a subordinate and weak partner, whilst continuing to fool itself it is in that much desired “special relationship”. This image has bolstered complaints about New Labour’s economic approach which itself seems to owe more to America than EU partners.

  • 15  See, for example, Lodemel I. ; Trickey, H. - “A New Contract for Social Assistance” in An Offer yo (...)

16The Blair government seems convinced by American accounts of the supposed process of globalisation and, more importantly, by American accounts of what is required to successfully compete in the emerging global market place. The key elements in this process are the elimination of subsidies and trade barriers, and a commitment to flexible labour markets. Critics insist that this is little more than a recipe for gross inequality, and a labour market dominated by low skilled, temporary and poorly paid “opportunities” for workers lacking adequate protections.15

  • 16  One crucial British influence was the work of Arthur Seldon. See “Seldon A. - Economist whose reje (...)
  • 17  Marquand, “The Blair Paradox,” p. 78.

17The current UK commitment to flexible labour markets—and the corresponding commitments to low taxation and light business regulation—do owe something to American ideology. In their present form, these commitments entered the British political arena through the Thatcher years when they drew much of their ideological inspiration from the writings of Hayek and Friedman—although British ideas also played a central role.16 New Labour has not undone these crucial aspects of Thatcher’s economic agenda. Like Thatcher, New Labour is suspicious of the European social model. As one commentator has put it, from New Labour’s perspective, “French socialists and German social-democrats are suspect deviationists rather than fraternal exemplars.”17 More deeply perhaps, New Labour also believes that at the heart of the EU lies a desire to protect the social model against global forces. This, I think, renders the view in London the mirror image of the view reaching it from Paris. The fear in London is one of a fortress Europe committed, perhaps, to internal free trade, but bound and determined to stop the unwanted effects of globalisation—read “Americanisation”—at its borders. From Paris, the UK can look like an agent of the very thing that needs to be resisted. The view that we are dealing with two conflicting and incompatible economic models seems to have taken root. If they are allowed to clash one must inevitably lose out. We must dig our trenches and see off the opposition.

  • 18  See Nock, “Active Labour, Liberty and Democracy.”
  • 19  See Freeden, “The Ideology of New Labour.”

18I think the tendency to view New Labour as an agent of American economic imperialism is wrong and unhelpful. The fundamental changes wrought by the Thatcher revolution suggest that New Labour actually had little real choice but to continue to give priority to markets and labour flexibility. And, in any event, even under Thatcher, the pursuit of so-called “neo-liberal” reform in Britain did not really require the adoption of an alien American agenda. Within the British political tradition the allure of free markets, free trade, and residual social policy has long been embedded across a broad range of the political spectrum.18 This was at the core of the dominant ideology in the corridors of power, from the Victorian height of laissez-faire capitalism into the early years of the twentieth century. The New Liberals—from whom Blair draws some of his inspiration19—then reformed the role of the state to respond to the newly discovered “social problem.” But they—like Blair—retained a fundamental faith in the ability of markets to promote welfare provided there was a proper distribution of the opportunities markets promote. New Labour’s commitment to free markets and labour flexibility owes far more to Britain’s own political history than the “Anglo-Saxon” critique often seems willing to accept.

19In any event, a combination of free markets and labour flexibility does not exhaust the economic realities of the United States. From afar, the US can appear as a threatening and monolithic economic force. But the internal reality is somewhat different. The “American” economy—and the “American” polity—is something of a regional phenomenon. The eastern seaboard, the south, Texas, California, and the mid-West have different economic interests, different cultures, and differing political demands. Certain regions—like California—are dependant on military spending, much of the mid-West relies on farming subsidies of various sorts, the Texan economy is oil based and so on. Many large business interests are only regional in their reach. People from the north east often wonder why we would think they have anything in common with their fellow citizens from Ohio, or Oklahoma, or California, or Texas, and vice versa. Of course, the federal government does seek to promote US interests—broadly understood—abroad, it does drive hard bargains, and it cannot be relied upon to live up to its trade agreement. Its free trade agreement with Canada, for example, became practically useless to Canada once it failed to support the war in Iraq. The US will use its economic might to pursue broad strategic non-economic goals. Britain cannot do such things. It is a small second rank European power, not a super-power. Britain must seek partners and live up to its agreements wherever its partners are willing to. The further fact is that America simply does not need Britain to help it secure its economic and strategic goals.

  • 20  See Kenny and Smith, “Interpreting New Labour.”

20As such, the US/UK relationship seems to owe far more to the realities of British politics than the “Anglo-Saxon” critique seems willing to allow. Much of the British polity is inherently “Euro-sceptic”. It was incessant internal battles over Europe that eventually rendered the Conservatives unelectable. Many in the Conservative Party—and many of its voters—tend to favour things American over things European. In the past, the Labour Party has also been inherently Euro-sceptic. It opposed membership in 1962 and 1973, and it advocated withdrawal in 1983. Much of the British electorate—primed by the Euro-sceptic media—tends to be cold on Europe. Whatever the historical reasons for this—and there are too many to mention—Blair has actually managed to pull off a remarkable balancing act. He has shifted Labour away from an “old” Labour anti-Americanism that became unappealing to voters during the Thatcher years and, at the same time, he has shifted it towards a less Euro-sceptic position that voters seem relatively comfortable with. Britain may not be at the centre of Europe, but it is in there accepting the reality of the EU. Controversial matters connected with EU membership are handled with great care and presented in very particular ways. A telling example of this was New Labour’s introduction of minimum wage legislation that was required by their signing up to the social chapter. Blair played down the European dimension to this process focussing instead on the “social justice” appeal of a minimum wage regime. More importantly, however, he continually focussed attention on the fact that minimum wage legislation applies in the US. It was as if he was selling a European good in an American box, rendering that good more palatable to the Euro-sceptic elements of the British electorate. I think this strategy for selling the minimum wage also indicates something important about the extent of American influence on New Labour’s economic approach. Its closest ally is the US Democrat model of free market capitalism combined with a commitment to a thin—but nonetheless meaningful—account of social justice.20

  • 21  See Marquand, “The Blair Paradox.”

21Despite its relationship with the US, New Labour is not to be inherently hostile towards Europe. This marks an important advance for the EU project beyond “old” Labour and Conservative Euro-sceptic approaches. This British government accepts the need for functional integration where necessary. It accepts intergovernmentalism. It even accepts that the economic benefits may incur a supra-national cost.21 In part, of course, this is because Britain is not a super-power like America and cannot go it alone.

22But it is also because—as a consequence of this weakness—it has a particular approach to globalisation. It believes that the effects of globalisation are best managed in co-operation with partners. The aim is to manage globalisation in ways that maximise benefits and minimise costs. It is not something that must necessarily be resisted. Accordingly, the New Labour vision for Europe looks something like this : a free trade zone of independent nation-states co-operating together to mitigate the effects of globalisation. This is a Europe that should seek constructive engagement with the US—and other states and trading blocs—wherever possible. Any EU moves towards integration need to proceed organically as necessary, not for its own sake. The same is true of ever-closer union. New Labour—like any UK government not inherently hostile to the EU—needs to proceed this way to be able to carry its Euro-sceptic citizens with it. And it seems to be of the opinion that this is the best way for its partners to proceed for now given the recent referendum results on the EU constitution. This vision appears not to be shared by some of the UK’s important EU partners. But does this render that vision wrong ? It is to this question my attention now turns.

The “Wrong Vision” Critique

23A Europe of independent states does seem to ignore the potentialities of a more unified Europe acting on the world stage counterbalancing the current dominance of the US. Surely it would be better for all concerned to quickly develop European institutions that enable the EU to present a unified front on the world stage offering alternatives to American assessments and solutions ? Perhaps it would be, but New Labour has good reasons for not supporting any dash towards such institutions. The main reasons have already been touched on in this essay. For one thing, the UK is clearly far less US-sceptic than some EU partners are. The US is not considered necessarily wrong or unhelpful by the UK government—or many of its citizens. As the world’s only current superpower, the US has resources at its disposal that can be used to promote good in the world. The British government’s view seems to be that Europe is better to work with the US to seek to ensure this is the case, rather than being necessarily hostile towards it. Secondly, as I have mentioned, the UK has a particular need—given its Euro-sceptic citizenry—to ensure that EU institutional development proceeds as an organic process driven by bottom-up functional need rather than grand design. This does not preclude the eventual development of the types of institutions needed to enhance the EU’s voice in the world. But it does preclude a top-down dash for them. Nation-states involved in partnerships like the EU are likely to require functional supranational space in the political realm. New Labour seems to accept this fact. The key problem here, for New Labour, is that of convincing partners of the prudence in approaching the matter in a long-term functional manner.

  • 22  See Brown, G. - “Why it is make or break for European social reform,” in The Financial Times, 13 O (...)

24A similar problem lies in New Labour’s views on globalisation. New Labour has a particular prescription for the challenges they believe globalisation poses. They need to persuade EU partners of the prudence of this approach and are currently seeking to do this. In a recent article for The Financial Times, “Why it is make or break for European social reform,” Gordon Brown laid out the New Labour case for its version of the reforms needed to respond to the challenges of globalisation. On Brown’s view, the limitations of the European social model have been exposed by ongoing problems of low growth and high unemployment. What’s needed to address the failure of the European social model is market reform.22 This requires removal of all internal trade barriers—direct and indirect—within the EU. It requires EU agreements with the US on removing subsidies, and both economic and non-economic trade barriers. Finally, it demands further and faster reform of EU labour markets to promote much greater flexibility.

  • 23  Ibid.

25According to Brown, this is all necessary because “globalisation has brought challenges none of Europe’s founders could foresee. It is global…brands that now dominate…[and] global flows of capital that drive change.” Accordingly, “pro-Europeans must honestly say that Europe can no longer succeed as a trade bloc looking in on itself. Instead Global Europe must be outward looking…focused on external competition, and adjust its social model to combine flexibility with fairness”. On this view, America begins to look like a relatively small part of the economic problems facing the EU. European growth rates over the past ten years have been only half that of the US. At the same time, “Europe has grown at only one-quarter the rate of China and India.”23 Both Europe and the US are losing jobs to China, India and elsewhere whilst these emerging economies produce four million graduates per year. Europe and the US must work together to help both respond to the need to focus on high skill, high value-added economic activity. It’s clear that Brown’s article is meant to signal the need for European market reforms that mirror those already undertaken—and ongoing—in the UK itself. Low growth and high unemployment are symptomatic of what, in the 1970s, was called “The British Disease.” The message is that Europe, not Britain, is now the “sick man.” Britain has taken its medicine and has become quite well. According to New Labour, it is now time for Britain’s EU partners to do the same.

  • 24  For a full account and philosophical defence of this view see Nock, C.J. - “On the Dissent Theory (...)

26This, of course, brings things back to the types of socio-economic concerns that underpin the “Anglo-Saxon” critique. Even if Britain is not best understood as an agent of American economic imperialism, it is still true that it is wedded to a lean mean market regime demanding labour flexibility, an end to subsidies, and an end to all trade barriers. Accordingly, it might still seem reasonable to charge New Labour with peddling a form of economy that poses a fundamental threat to the social model. In my view, however, it is very difficult to make this charge stick. Economic liberalism does place some immediate limits on certain types of social policy : it cannot allow policies that operate as direct or indirect subsidies, or as restraints on trade. Beyond this, however, it is essentially non-prescriptive on the matter of social policy. Economic liberalism does compel governments to be judicious in the realm of corporate taxation : the tax regime must not be responsible for driving away valued business. Nevertheless, it is clearly not as limiting with regard to direct and indirect personal taxation. This leaves government a large degree of freedom to pursue a diverse range of social policies, provided the policies it does pursue are sufficiently valued by a citizenry who are willing to fund them. Whatever social policies exist in a given country—and the tax regime that supports them—can be judged acceptable to citizens wherever there is a lack of widespread and sustained dissent against them.24 To a significant extent then, New Labour’s vision for Europe does not demand that other partner states move towards the UK’s residual workfare model.


27New Labour has been criticised on many counts. The “neo-liberal,” “Anglo-Saxon,” and “wrong vision” critiques—like other types of criticism—have significant elements of truth to them. But it seems that none of them is wholly convincing in their own right. The retrieval of the notion of an enabling state—linked to New Labour’s thin conception of “social justice”—does mark and advance beyond Thatcherism, and employs tools unavailable to neo-liberals. New Labour is greatly influenced by things American especially in matters of economic and social policy. However, its closest American ideological ally is the US Democrats version of free market capitalism combined with “thin” social justice.

28This approach is more akin to Clinton’s Democrats than Bush’s Republicans. In any event, to view New Labour as an agent of American economic imperialism is both wrong and unhelpful. New Labour’s economic approach owes far more to the arrangements it inherited after eighteen years in the wilderness, and intellectual influences that have strong roots in the British political tradition.

29New Labour’s approach to Europe is less obstructive than many critics allow. Its bottom-up functional approach to institutional development does not preclude the types of supranational arrangements thought necessary to strengthen the EU’s voice in the world. It demands, rather, a measured and timely approach, rather than top-down grand design. New Labour is in no position to impose this aspect of its vision for Europe upon its EU partners. It has to continually seek to persuade them of the prudence of this approach. The same is true of the economic aspects of New Labour’s vision for Europe. Trade liberalisation and labour flexibility are at the heart of New Labour’s prescription for mitigating the effects of globalisation. But the UK cannot impose these things upon its EU partners. It must work with them and persuade them of its diagnosis and the value of the medicine it offers. One thing it can do to bolster this aspect of its vision is to highlight the fact that its prescription of economic liberalism does necessarily not condemn others to the current UK version of residual social policy. Economic liberalism does not demand convergence towards some lowest common denominator. All it does require is that states with more extensive provisions provide them through taxation of their own citizens.

30The real problem with New Labour lies primarily in the fact that it seems to believe its own “spin.” Blair is fond of insisting that Labour’s principles remain the same and what has changed is the economic context in which they must be pursued : “what matters is what works.” But the fact is that those principles have been stripped and emptied of their traditional social-democratic meanings. New Labour’s language of “social justice” is not wholly meaningless, but it does have a hollow ring to it. The market is pre-eminent, and the principles must be continually massaged to fit its needs.

31What holds New Labour together is not a popular conviction of its rightness. Rather, I think, it is a fortunate confluence of factors. Firstly, a weak and divided Conservative opposition that—at bottom—has little to offer but endlessly recurring internal battles over Europe. Secondly, a weak and divided left wing of the Labour Party that—probably correctly—recognises its only chance of influence is through a New Labour government. And thirdly, a largely atomised and consumerist electorate—which first emerged under Thatcher—that has tended to see its economic fortunes advance under New Labour.

32Domestic dangers lurk for New Labour should the economy turn sour, and the Conservatives regenerate under a new leader. The left wing poses a threat should New Labour begin to appear weak and unelectable. Despite these potential domestic problems, New Labour remains the best bet for Britain in Europe. It lacks the inherent Euro-scepticism of the Conservative right and some elements of the Labour Party’s own left wing. Its vision for Europe does not resist the types of supranational institutions some EU partners favour—it merely seeks a more organic approach to their development. Finally, New Labour’s European vision does not demand its partners adopt a workfare state. They may employ whatever social policies and programmes their citizens are willing to fund—insofar as these do not counteract free trade. Thus, whilst there may be many things wrong with New Labour, these tend not to be the things most critics emphasise.

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Robins, L. ; Bill J. (eds). - Debate in British Politics Today, Manchester : Manchester University Press, 2000

Wheen, F. - How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World : a short history of modern delusions, London : Farth Estate, 2004

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1  I have previously presented some of the core arguments in this section in Christopher John Nock, “Active Labour, Liberty and Democracy,” a paper presented to the Colloque Comparatif Franco-Britannique held at the University of Bordeaux IV (October 2003).

2  See, for example, Stuart Wood, “Labour Market Regimes under Threat ? Sources of Continuity in Germany, Britain, and Sweden” The New Politics of the Welfare State in ed. Paul Pierson, Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2001, pp. 368-409.

3  See Martin Hewitt, “Social Policy and Human Need,” in Developments in British Social Policy, Nick Ellison and Chris Pierson eds., Basingstock : Macmillan, 1998, pp. 62-3

4  In 1983 the British electorate emphatically rejected Labour’s offer of a return to state management of the economy—it was this that finally clinched the triumph of Thatcherism.

5 See United Kingdom Employment Action Plan 1999 : Executive Summary available at

6  I have made this argument in more detail in Christopher John Nock, “Active Labour, Liberty and Democracy.”

7  See Michael Freeden, “The Ideology of New Labour,” in Political Quarterly, 70, 1, pp. 42-51.

8  See ibid.

9  See Nock, “Active Labour, Liberty and Democracy.”

10  See Freeden, “The Ideology of New Labour.”

11  See Marquand, D. -“The Blair Paradox” in The New Labour Reader / eds. Andrew Chadwick and Richard Heffernan, Cambridge : Polity Press, 2003, pp. 77-81

12  See Freeden, “The Ideology of New Labour.”

13  See Kenny, M. ; Smith, M-J. - “Interpreting New Labour : Constraints, Dilemmas and Political Agency,” in The New Labour Reader / eds. Chadwick and Heffernan, Cambridge : Polity Press, 2003, pp. 66-76

14  See, for example, Graham P. Thomas, “Has Prime Minister Major been replaced by President Blair ?” in Debates in British Politics Today / eds. Lynton Robins and Bill Jones, Manchester : Manchester University Press, 2000, 13-26

15  See, for example, Lodemel I. ; Trickey, H. - “A New Contract for Social Assistance” in An Offer you can’t Refuse : Workfare in International Perspective / eds. Ivar Lodemel and Heather Trickey, Cambridge : Polity, 2000, pp. 17-29.

16  One crucial British influence was the work of Arthur Seldon. See “Seldon A. - Economist whose rejection of state intervention came to underpin the Thatcherite belief in free-market policies.” An obituary in The Times, 13 October 2005

17  Marquand, “The Blair Paradox,” p. 78.

18  See Nock, “Active Labour, Liberty and Democracy.”

19  See Freeden, “The Ideology of New Labour.”

20  See Kenny and Smith, “Interpreting New Labour.”

21  See Marquand, “The Blair Paradox.”

22  See Brown, G. - “Why it is make or break for European social reform,” in The Financial Times, 13 October 2005

23  Ibid.

24  For a full account and philosophical defence of this view see Nock, C.J. - “On the Dissent Theory of Political Obligation,” in Polity, XXVIII, 2, 1995, pp. 141-57.

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Christopher Nock, « What’s Wrong with New Labour ? », Observatoire de la société britannique, 1 | 2006, 157-172.

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Christopher Nock, « What’s Wrong with New Labour ? », Observatoire de la société britannique [En ligne], 1 | 2006, mis en ligne le 01 février 2011, consulté le 05 juin 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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Christopher Nock

Lecturer à l'université de Royal Holloway, Londres

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