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International Socialism, Winter 1999


Michael Lavalette & Gerry Mooney

New Labour, new moralism:
The welfare politics and ideology of New Labour under Blair


From International Socialism 2:85, Winter 1999.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.



The landslide victory for the Labour Party at the May 1997 general election represented a dramatic rebuff of 18 years of Tory policies. From 1979, when Thatcher was first elected, there was a gradual erosion of the welfare state, with council house sell-offs and the introduction of the market into the health service and education system. Revulsion against the visible decline of the welfare state was part of the reason why millions voted Labour in May 1997. Yet after two years of New Labour in government there is increasing dissatisfaction with its welfare programme which has continued many of the Tories’ themes. Benefit cuts have been implemented or threatened against lone parents, those on disability allowances and the elderly. Money that has gone into schools and hospitals has been inadequate to meet the needs of these services and has been tied to the implementation of what Blair has termed ‘best business practices’. The problem of underfunding in education is to be ‘solved’ by appointing roving ‘super-teachers’ who will drop into schools and instruct teachers and pupils in ‘appropriate’ teaching methods and discipline codes. While in the NHS new hospitals being built are to be funded out of the Private Finance Initiative – ensuring that private companies will be guaranteed ‘profits from illness’. Although the national minimum wage was implemented in April 1999 the rate really was minimal – leaving many workers working for poverty pay. The sense of crisis within the welfare system remains significant as more users witness declining services in the face of the privatisation onslaught.

Against this background New Labour has used social welfare policy to assert a new moral agenda. Towards the end of 1999 this increasingly focused on the problem of teenage pregnancy. As The Guardian’s leader noted on 6 September:

Blair has put ‘moral’ on the masthead [of government policy]. And for all his fine talk of modernising Britain it is clear his understanding of that loaded word is saloon-bar suburban: it means sex ... [but his] ... ‘moral’ does not ... cover sex at large ... Moral mean [sic]to him what it did to Octavia Hill in the 1880s: the evils of poor people fornicating. [1]

In practice this is little different from Major’s ‘back to basics’ or the policy prescriptions of some of the most right wing Tories during the Thatcher years.

The consequence is an increasingly vicious attack on poor working class communities. Working class kids on desolate housing estates have been criminalised and are subject to night time curfews, or threatened with jail for a range of ‘anti-social misdemeanours’, such as the two 17-year-olds in Liverpool who face a possible five year sentence if they are caught spitting in public, among other things. [2] Working class families have been informed that they will be held responsible for any crimes or misdemeanours their children may undertake. Those on a range of benefits have been told that work is their ‘salvation’, even if it means working for benefits, and that unemployment is not an option.

Wrapped up in the rhetoric of New Labour is a claim that all these welfare developments are both positive and new, the ‘Third Way’, based on a communitarian ethic of guaranteed citizens’ rights obtained in return for responsibilities to the nation, an attempt to modernise Britain, its institutions and attitudes, to become a dynamic enterprise-based economy for the 21st century. But lurking within New Labour’s policies is a vicious ideology which both demonises and victimises some of the very poorest sections of the working class, that blames the poor and their ‘individual inadequacies’ for their situation rather than the structural constraints of more than 20 years of mass unemployment and welfare cuts. In this article we focus on the welfare policies and ideology of New Labour and its consequences for Britain’s poor.

The New Labour project

In the period following the 1997 general election considerable attention has been devoted to examining and dissecting the Blair project. The emphasis which New Labour places on style and presentation, together with Blair’s pragmatism and eye for the populist selling point, often obscures the thrust of Labour policies. With New Labour there appears to be a complex mixture of disparate and often contradictory statements, viewpoints and policy announcements. In the field of social and welfare policy this has been evident with, on the one hand, attacks on single parents, the disabled and welfare dependency, and on the other, the introduction of more progressive income tax family credits, the introduction of a national minimum wage, albeit at a very low level, and, after widespread protests against the Labour government’s early announcements about benefit cuts, the decision in the 1998 budget to maintain universal child benefit. Despite this, the ideological and political thrust of New Labour is clear.

During its time in opposition Labour politicians were often very vocal in their attacks on the Tory record on poverty and inequality. While some of the party’s leading figures, such as Frank Field – once described by right wing Tory MP and shadow welfare spokesman David Willets as the Tories’ ‘favourite Labour politician’ – could be relied upon to embrace some aspects of Conservative thinking on poverty, many Labour MPs claimed that tackling poverty was the most important objective of a Labour government. Even Tony Blair admitted in 1996, ‘I believe in greater equality. If the next Labour government has not raised the living standards of the poorest by the end of its time in office it will have failed’. [3]

Before we consider these claims in more detail let us first of all examine the New Labour project, in which social and welfare policies play a pivotal role.

The first point to make is that while Blair and his colleagues have made great play of Labour’s policies as ones which will effectively modernise and renew Britain, the ideas upon which they are based are hardly new. Since becoming Labour leader in July 1994, Blair has consistently emphasised his Christian beliefs and values and how these influence his policies. His Christianity also underscores his understanding of socialism and his rejection of Marxism as a rigid, deterministic perspective:

The problem with Marxist ideology was that, in the end, it suppressed the individual by starting with society. But it is from a sense of individual duty that we connect the greater good and the interests of the community – a principle the church celebrates in the sacrament of communion. [4]

The socialism of Marx, of centralised state control of industry and production, is dead. It misunderstood the nature and development of a modern market economy: it failed to recognise that the state and public sector can become a vested interest capable of oppression as much as the vested interests of wealth and capital; and it was based on a false view of class that became too rigid to explain or illuminate the nature of class division today. [5]

Blair’s caricature of Marxism owes more to 1980s and 1990s sociology textbooks than it does to an informed grasp of Marxist ideas. This account of Marxism, however, serves its purpose in the development of Blair’s alternative, which he terms ‘ethical socialism’. This approach does not seek to suppress the individual to the power of the state, as Blair depicts Marxism doing, but sees the individual as paramount. While there are direct lines connecting this view with classical liberal social and political thought, Blair differs from liberalism in his claim that individuals are ‘socially interdependent’ beings and thus individual self interest ‘is inextricably linked to the interests of society’.

This perspective, which Blair calls ‘social-ism’, is one which he sees as pivotal in the New Labour project and informs many of the policies which Labour has enacted. The principles of ethical socialism, he argues, will support the key tasks of the Labour government, ‘intervening to equip and advance the individual’s ability to prosper within this new economy’. [6] Thus Blair’s ethical socialism embraces neo-classical supply-side economics which emphasise self investment in ‘human capital’ as cornerstones in the fight against unemployment. Alongside this stress on the ‘socially interdependent’ individual is an emphasis on two notions which have long been central to conservative thought, ‘community’ and ‘family’:

History will call it the Decent Society, a new social order for the Age of Achievement for Britain. We will respect family life, develop it in any way we can, because strong families are the foundations of strong communities. [7]

One influence on Blair is the Scottish religious philosopher John Macmurray. Writing in the early part of the 20th century, Macmurray argued that individual fulfilment could only be found in communities of intense personal relationships where people were bound together by mutual obligations. It was the individual’s (Christian) duty to meet those obligations placed on them, primarily through helping others. For Blair, ‘the search is on to reinvent community for a modern age, true to core values of fairness, co-operation and responsibility’. [8]

Another source of New Labour thinking on community has been the moral communitarians in the United States. ‘Communitarianism’ has become a popular and influential way of describing political and ideological appeals to community and community values on both sides of the Atlantic. For proponents of communitarian ideas, these appeals rest on a rejection both of the market-led ideology of the new right and of paternalistic and centralised state approaches to welfare of the ‘old left’. Thus communitarianism is viewed by its advocates as steering a path between unfettered markets and an overarching state. The most populist moral communitarian commentator of the 1990s was the American sociologist Amitai Etzioni. For Etzioni, societies like the US and Britain are faced with problems of ‘demoralisation’ – a decline in morality and the absence of a commitment to fulfilling obligations: ‘Communitarians call to restore civic virtues, for people to live up to their responsibilities and not merely to focus on their entitlements, and to shore up the moral foundations of society’. [9]

For Etzioni, the key to the remoralisation of society is based upon the strengthening of morality in and through civil institutions such as the family, education system and voluntary associations; the assertion of public/community interest over special interests; and the reversal of the problem of ‘too many rights, too few obligations’. Or, as Blair put it in an interview in the ever virtuous Sun in early 1998, Britons need to ‘stop wringing their hands and start taking more responsibility for their own lives’.

New Labour’s stress on moral communities is all too evident in its approach to crime. Here is Tony Blair in the aftermath of the murder of Liverpool toddler James Bulger:

I have no doubt that the breakdown of law and order is intimately linked to the break up of a strong sense of community. And the break up of community in turn is, to a crucial degree, consequent on the breakdown in family life. If we want anything more than a superficial discussion on crime and its causes, we cannot ignore the importance of the family. [10]

The notion of a breakdown in law and order, however, is difficult to sustain. Recent analysis of crime statistics suggests there was a decrease in recorded crime in England and Wales in the late 1980s and early 1990s. [11] This has produced a subtle shift in terminology. Increasingly talk is of ‘anti-social behaviour’, which means acts which break the law but do not necessarily lead to the culprits getting caught or prosecuted. [12] In the hands of New Labour supporters and ministers the term ‘anti-social behaviour’ can be applied to a range of activities from infringement of legal codes to ‘morally unacceptable behaviour’. It panders to some of the most reactionary ideas in society about poor working class communities as a pool of lawlessness and moral depravity. For David Blunkett it means that ‘those committed to a 21st century welfare state have to cease paternalistic and well meaning indulgence of thuggery, noise, nuisance and anti-social behaviour’. [13]

In an increasing number of Labour councils across Britain where Blairites are influential, a stronger line is being taken against ‘anti-social activities’, with tenants having to sign new contracts with authorities committing them to a variety of activities, from keeping gardens ‘neat and tidy’ to looking after children ‘properly’. Where tenants are deemed to be failing in their duties and obligations, the threat of eviction hangs over them. If this fails there is always the sanction of more direct policing via curfews. On one working class estate in Hamilton (just outside Glasgow), Strathclyde police have maintained a dusk to dawn curfew for under 16s for over a year, a policy which a number of Labour’s leaders argue should be repeated elsewhere. [14] Indeed, in August and September 1999 Blair argued that local authorities and police forces were not using their powers against ‘anti-social elements’ with anything like the vigour they should. As he put it, ‘Twelve year old children should not be on the street at night’. [15] Of course, Blair does not mean all children: it is poor children in inner city areas or desolate council estates who instil fear and loathing, and the focus on these ‘problem children’ is part of the wider attack on the ‘moral malaise’ of this section of the ‘community’.

For New Labour, ‘community’ is closely intertwined with a second notion, ‘family’. Despite Labour’s much acclaimed recognition of difference and diversity in social and family life, the implicit conservatism of its social policy project is again very evident. As Jack Straw stated in 1996:

the absence of prejudice should not mean the absence of rules, or order, or stability ... Let our social morality be based on reason – not bigotry. But let us not delude ourselves that we can build a society fit for our children to grow up in without making a moral judgement about the nature of that society ... Any decent society is founded on duty [and] responsibility. A philosophy of enlightened self interest in which opportunity is extended ... [leads to] greater security, safer streets, motivated young people. [16]

In Labour’s green paper on welfare reform (1998) Frank Field, another of New Labour’s committed Christians, shows less acceptance of family diversity:

The family is the bedrock of a decent, civilised and stable society. But it is under enormous strain. Divorce and separation have increased, lone parenthood has risen and child poverty has worsened. The reasons for this may be varied, but the impact is clear: more instability, more crime, greater pressure on housing and social benefits.

A fundamental principle of the welfare state should be to support families and children. But the way of doing that today must change. The shape of the family has changed significantly in recent decades. But families remain the building block of society.

Changes in society mean that parental separation is becoming less exceptional. By providing parents, children and families with great support, our policies may help to stem the tide of family breakdowns. [17]

Interestingly, recent opinion polls suggest most people reject these values. The Observer of 25 October 1998 found that only 8 percent of people thought ministers could be trusted to talk sense on family matters (with agony aunts and Catholic priests scoring better!); two thirds of respondents thought single parents could bring up children as well as couples; and only 15 percent thought government policy and benefits should favour married couples over lone parents.

Nevertheless, ‘family values’ have filtered into a range of welfare pronouncements. We have already noted New Labour’s insistence that anti-social behaviour is a consequence of bad families. For David Blunkett, Secretary of State for Education and Employment, it is also the cause of educational failure:

Where there is a problem, it is all too often because parents claim not to have the time, because they have disengaged from their children’s education or because, quite simply, they lack even the basics of parenting skills ... With such a lack of expectation [reinforcing] generations of disadvantage ... it is the poverty of expectation and dedication which is the deciding factor [in educational failure]. [18]

Jack Straw wants parenting classes to be accepted in the same way as ante-natal classes, though such classes will also involve compulsory counselling and guidance classes for parents ordered by courts to receive help dealing with their ‘delinquent’ children. [19]

New Labour, then, has not been short on appeals to return to ‘family values’, particularly when the issues of crime, parenting and education have been the topic of discussion. The consequence is that a range of religious, communitarian and more conservative themes are brought together in a highly moralistic stew of censure, condemnation and punishment. But the diverse influences on New Labour do not end here. We have already noted the way in which the Labour government has become closely identified with public relations, presentation and style. The media have frequently focused on the role of ‘spin doctors’. These spin doctors are, however, also involved with networks of intellectuals and policy makers, who strive to provide New Labour with some intellectual basis and who are closely involved with the Labour leadership in developing the New Labour project.

New Labour and the search for a Third Way

Much has been made in the press of the ‘special relationship’ which Tony Blair shares with President Clinton in the US. The reasons for this are not difficult to detect and are largely a product of Blair’s approval of the policies pursued by the Clinton government in the 1990s. Much of the media attention has been on Labour’s adoption of the image making and marketing strategies of the Democratic Party in the US. Notable here is New Labour’s desire to distance itself from ‘Old Labour’ and the traditional institutions of the Labour Party, particularly the trade unions. In place of trade union and labour movement officials and activists, New Labour has increasingly relied upon the services of ‘non-partisan’ political advisers and public relations experts, freelancers who move around political parties as the political climate ebbs and flows. The new breed of spin doctors are in control of ‘information management’, ensuring that policy announcements are in tune with the findings of numerous focus groups and telephone canvassing. Again, as with the Democrats, Labour has increasingly sought to canvass and embrace the views of sections of finance and big business, employing leading business people on consultancies and as directors of a variety of projects such as Welfare to Work and the Low Pay Commission. While trade union leaders were given what union leader Ken Jackson termed a ‘bollocking’ by Blair at a meeting in Downing Street in September 1998, the New Labour door has always been open to business representatives.

Blair is further supported by ‘policy entrepreneurs’ organised in a variety of left of centre think tanks, such as the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), Demos and Nexus. It is through the work of these organisations, and academics such as sociologist Anthony Giddens and Geoff Mulgan, Demos director and former stalwart of Marxism Today, that we can trace some of the sources of other US influences in ways which are less to do with style and more to do with ideological drive.

This drive is reflected in Blair’s commitment to basing New Labour on the politics of the Third Way. The Third Way has been the focus of considerable academic and political discussion in Britain since Blair’s policy discussions with Bill Clinton in February 1998 seemed to initiate a new Atlanticist economic and social policy. On his return from the US he spoke of the need to create a new politics which was distinct from both the Old Left and new right. In doing so Blair and New Labour embraced a perspective which was heavily influenced by Clinton and a range of Democratic policy advisers. This is a view which takes globalisation as given and argues there is little that individual economies can do except run with the flow of the world economy, pursuing those policies which would give a competitive edge such as greater labour market flexibility and tight controls on public expenditure, particularly on ‘wasteful’ welfare payments. [20] Thus the state can no longer be expected to redistribute income and wealth nor to modify the worst excesses of the market.

The Third Way is, however, an extremely slippery notion and there is little agreement even amongst Blair’s supporters as to what it consists of. Giddens argues that the Third Way represents a renewed social democracy for the new world of globalisation and rampant individualism. It relies upon a commitment to a new mixed economy where markets are regulated, not controlled, by the state and where rights are matched by responsibilities for both business and the individual.

The overall aim of Third Way politics should be to help citizens plot their way through the major revolutions of our time: globalisation, transformations in personal life and our relationship to nature. Third Way politics should preserve a core concern with social justice, while accepting that the range of questions which escape the left/right divide is greater than before. Freedom to social democrats should mean autonomy of action, which in turn demands the involvement of the wider social community. Having abandoned collectivism, Third Way politics looks for a new relationship between the individual and community, a redefinition of rights and obligations. [21]

The Third Way, whatever it actually means, represents the clearest sign of New Labour’s abandonment of class as a meaningful notion for understanding how society works. While Blair and other leading Labour politicians claim that Britain is a classless society, the notion of class they employ is largely a psychological one, similar to that embraced by Thatcher. While she maintained that class would disappear if people stopped talking about it, Blair argues that ‘class distinctions are unhelpful and divisive’ and that ‘class-bound’ politics belong to the world of ‘Old Labour’. [22] It is left to Blairite supporters such as Giddens to provide some intellectual justification for such a view: ‘With the rapid shrinking of the working class and the disappearance of the bipolar world, the salience of class politics, as well as the traditional divisions of left and right, has diminished’. [23]

For New Labour, British society has changed qualitatively from the days when the old welfare state was at its highpoint. New Labour frequently invokes the radically changing world to provide a basis not only for its attack on the two failed pasts of the state and the market [24], but to add legitimacy to its arguments and policies today. Speaking in the journal of the Labour Co-ordinating Committee, Robin Cook claims:

Tony Blair has made an invaluable contribution to the Labour Party in transforming it into the party of change rather than the party that is opposed to change. An integral part of the crisis for the left during the Thatcher years was that we were transformed into the political force that defended the post-war settlement. As a result, we became trapped into a political culture that was defensive – even, ironically, conservative. By contrast, Thatcherism in part succeeded in capturing support because it conveyed an image of thrusting radical change. [25]

What are these changes? In addition to the emphasis on globalisation and the inability of states to moderate its effects, Labour’s leaders now claim there have been a number of irreversible socio-economic developments in the world over the last 20 years. They suggest that the labour market is dominated by flexibility, information processing, new working patterns, and a greater reliance on knowledge and education, with the consequence that there are no longer jobs for life. Thus the neo-liberal labour market agenda, the drive for greater flexibility, is one which has to be supported if the British economy is to compete effectively. [26]

The main consequence of this, according to Blair, is that ideologies based upon a ‘particular economic prescription’ or on a ‘time-limited view of class’, Blairspeak for Marxism, have become ‘historically redundant’. But it means also that institutions and systems developed for the ‘old world’ are now in need of reform, and none more so than the welfare state:

Reform is a vital part of rediscovering a true national purpose, part of a bigger picture in which our country is a model of a 21st century developed nation: with sound, stable economic management; dynamism and enterprise in business; the best educated and creative nation in the world; and a welfare state that promotes our aims and achievements.

But we should not forget why reform is right, and why, whatever the concerns over individual benefits, most people know it is right. Above all, the system must change because the world has changed beyond the recognition of Beveridge’s generation...We need a system designed not for yesterday, but for today. [27]

Thus for Blair, New Labour is above all a ‘modernising project’ underpinned by a pragmatism which transcends the ‘old’ ideological battles. Central to this project is the reformation of the whole welfare state.

New Labour’s welfare programme

Labour’s desire to reform the welfare state was much in evidence before Tony Blair became Labour leader. In 1992, then leader John Smith set up the Commission on Social Justice in an effort to reformulate Labour’s welfare policies. The main report of the commission – Strategies for National Renewal – involved an effective retreat from some of the central aspects of the post-1945 welfare state, particularly in relation to collectivism and the pursuit of equality, which it now called social justice. The report acknowledged that there was a growing social polarisation between rich and poor in Britain, but at the same time suggested that greater inequality was inevitable while simultaneously embracing the Tory view that welfare spending was a drain on resources.

Thus, in anticipation of Blair’s soundbite machine, the commission’s reports have all the key catchphrases of welfare reformers, such as, ‘The welfare state must offer a hand-up rather than a handout,’ and that it should be transformed ‘from a safety net in times of trouble to a springboard for economic opportunity’. [28] The report is also strong on the need to attack what the Tories consider to be the primary problem with welfare, ‘dependency’. Again, in anticipation of some of the Labour government’s subsequent statements, the commission called for intelligent regulation and fair flexibility in the labour market, attempting to marry greater levels of productivity with improved working conditions. Importantly the commission drew a distinction between three types of policy approaches: ‘deregulators’ who advocate the free market, ‘levellers’ who call for the redistribution of income, and ‘investors’ who call for redistribution of opportunity as well as income. In identifying with the latter approach, the Commission on Social Justice set the scene for much of Blair’s welfare reforms, albeit without the commitment to redistribution of income.

Looking back to the Commission on Social Justice after the first two years of the Labour government it is clear how far New Labour has travelled under Blair. Like the Tories before it, Labour has argued the need to reform the welfare system, emphasised the costs of welfare, and has accepted the notion that the old social security programme was doing little to tackle the causes of poverty. What is the evidence for the increased costs of welfare? If we consider welfare spending as a share of total national income, there is remarkable stability in the share going to welfare. In 1995–1996 welfare spending amounted to 26 percent of GDP, the same as it was 20 years before. On social security spending there has been an increase, from 8.2 percent of GDP in 1973–1974 to 11.4 percent in 1995–1996 – more than double in real terms, but this is a direct result of increases in levels of poverty and unemployment as well as longer term demographic factors. [29] The government’s own Social Trends report in 1998 shows that spending per head on welfare benefits is very low, with Britain ninth out of 11 in the European table of spending on social benefits. The report also shows that 90 percent of the population now think that more money should be spent on welfare benefits and public spending. However, Labour, like the Tories, blames the victims of poverty by claiming they are ‘welfare dependent’. The attack on welfare dependency has been a key part of the new right assault on state provision over the last decade. Together with that other catch – all term, the underclass, welfare dependency sits alongside fraudulent claimants, scroungers and welfare junkies as the pivotal reasons why Labour sees the welfare system as in need of reform.

How have such ideas been imported into New Labour’s agenda? One of the most obvious sources here is Frank Field. Giving Field the key post of minister for welfare reform in his first government says much about Blair’s own perspectives on welfare, and while Field has resigned from this position his thinking remains influential in New Labour circles, notably through his successor, Alistair Darling. While starting as one of the founding members of the Low Pay Unit and director of the Child Poverty Action Group in the early 1970s, Field is now associated with some of the most right wing thinking on welfare in Britain. He is a regular contributor to reports by the right wing policy grouping the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA). [30] This may seem a long way to shift politically, but even in the 1970s Field’s right wing views were evident in his calls for the sale of council housing, and, since the early 1990s, he has been a strong advocate of private pension provision. But one of his key concerns is his desire to regulate and police the benefits system much more forcefully and to increase checks on those suspected of not looking hard enough for work, or working and signing on.

In his book Making Welfare Work (1995) and in his various publications for the IEA [31], Field embraces many of the views of the right wing US social scientist Charles Murray. [32] For Murray, welfare spending has led to the growth of a welfare dependent underclass who live on the margins of society. Chief among the behaviours of the so called underclass which Murray (and Field) deplore and condemn most forcefully are: illegitimacy, family breakdown, criminal behaviour, and the lack of a work ethic. In the past Field’s own perspective on the underclass stressed the role of structural factors such as rising unemployment and demographic and household changes in creating exclusion [33], but his current views are very close to those of Murray. While unemployment and labour market changes are still regarded as important, in an article for the New Statesman in early 1997 Field highlighted the role of divorce, family breakdown and illegitimacy as among the chief factors promoting the growth of an underclass, together with the spread of a ‘lager lout’ culture. [34] Implicitly there is an underlying stress on morality, duty and responsibilities. Again the similarities between Murray and Field are all too evident. Compare Murray’s claim – ‘The long term welfare recipient ... cannot feel self respect, no matter what is done on behalf of her dignity’ [35] – with Field’s: ‘One of welfare’s roles is to reward and to punish. The distribution of welfare is one of the great teaching forces open to advanced societies’. [36] All of which leads Field to conclude that ‘welfare ... should openly reward good behaviour and it should be used to enhance those roles which the country values’. [37]

Similar themes have also been taken up by Gordon Brown: ‘Developing a welfare state built around the work ethic’ is his self proclaimed primary objective. [38] It led to the establishment of a taskforce under the chief executive of Barclays Bank to modernise the taxation and benefits system, with the twin aims of combating welfare dependency and promoting work. As Brown said on the introduction of the Working Families Tax Credit, ‘Work now pays – now go to work’. [39] At the same time 18- to 24-year-olds who refuse subsidised work training or voluntary work were told their giros would be frozen for six months, prompting an unnamed Treasury source to argue, ‘This is a real landmark in welfare reform ... There will now be no excuse not to get a job’. [40]

Brown, Murray and Field are not alone in arguing that welfare undermines the ‘character’ of those in receipt of it. Such perspectives have been adopted by the Democrats in the US, and it is to the US that Field, Blair and other leading New Labour politicians have looked to find ways of ‘thinking the unthinkable’ about welfare. We have already noted that Clinton and his policy advisers have been influential in New Labour thinking. Labour has replaced the term ‘social security’ with ‘welfare’, which has more negative connotations in the US, and the US system of employment and welfare (including ‘workfare’ and ‘tax credits’) have been taken as a model in their discussions of social policy. In Clinton’s 1992 election campaign there were commitments to good childcare provision, job creation and healthcare programmes. But central to his proposals was workfare.

While improvements in other areas of social policy have been ditched, workfare has continued apace in the US. In 1996 the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act was passed, which abolished universal entitlement to aid and introduced a five year limit of state support. Further, mothers aged 18 or below who were ‘unwed’, or children born to mothers under 18 who are already in receipt of aid, were in danger of having support cut or severely curtailed. As if that was not enough, all adult recipients were required to have secured some form of paid employment within two years of being on aid. With more than 30 million Americans living in poverty, the US has the highest proportion of poor people in the Western world, yet federal state welfare spending amounts to only 1 percent of the entire budget. [41] Proposed budget cuts in welfare spending in the US will see an additional 1 million children in poverty, and one ex-adviser to Clinton has estimated that without welfare nearly 58 million Americans would be officially poor. [42]

Central to New Labour’s welfare reforms has been a call for the British population ‘to work’, and to those already in employment to work harder and more ‘flexibly’. Importantly, work has become the key to solving problems of poverty, now termed social exclusion, and welfare dependency. For single parents, the young, the unemployed and other socially excluded groups, work is ‘salvation’ and the route to ‘inclusion’, to being part of Blair’s modern Britain. Again this is couched in terms of individual responsibilities, not rights:

The responsibilities of individuals who can provide for themselves and their families to do so must always be matched by a responsibility on the part of government to provide opportunities for self advancement. The government’s aim is to deliver services of such high quality that there would simply be no reason why people should not take them up ... The government’s commitment to expand significantly the range of help available therefore alters the contract with those who are capable of work. It is the government’s responsibility to promote work opportunities and to help people take advantage of them. It is the responsibility of those who can take them up to do so ... For example, the New Deal for Young People provides high quality options, all of which include education and training, designed to attract accredited qualifications. Those who unreasonably refuse an offer or fail to take up a place will be sanctioned. [43]

Enforcing work commitments forms the basis of Labour’s New Deal. Importantly the New Deal is not about creating jobs, but is once more about asserting a moral agenda: refashioning attitudes to work, creating a work ethic and stressing the importance of labour discipline. Work is, to use the terminology of New Labour, a matter of character, self respect, obligations and responsibilities. The problems facing many of Britain’s growing numbers of the working poor are neglected here and will not be addressed through a low minimum wage. [44] From the autumn of 1999 there will be an even tighter regime of sanctions, with Brown claiming that ‘there can be no excuse for staying at home on benefit and not taking jobs on offer’. [45]

Similarly the government has sought to continue with the Tory attempts to transform Britain into Europe’s ‘sweatshop’. Thus Mulgan claims that ‘well-being is as much about life skills as it is about income’ [46], while Field talks of the ‘non-economic’ causes of poverty. This desire for flexibility also provides a key to understanding Labour’s coolness towards the trade unions, and its unwillingness to reverse the Tories’ anti trade union legislation, whilst the minimum wage rate set at £3.60 an hour can only be understood as part of these wider, labour-cheapening goals.

Another key aspect of New Labour’s welfare reforms is its concern to address social exclusion. For Mandelson, the biggest challenge which Labour faces is:

… the growing number of our fellow citizens who lack the means, material and otherwise, to participate in economic, social, cultural and political life in Britain today. This is about more than poverty and unemployment. It is about being cut off from what the rest of us regard as normal life. It is called social exclusion, what others call the ‘underclass’. [47]

In the hands of New Labour social exclusion is used to replace any concern with inequality and redistribution. It is attractive because it moves the political goalposts from an emphasis upon structural causes of poverty and inequality to the individual’s connections, or the absence of them, with paid forms of employment and to the ‘community’. Income is not the issue. To quote Mandelson once more:

Let us be crystal clear on this point. The people we are concerned about, those in danger of dropping off the end of the ladder of opportunity and becoming disengaged from society, will not have their long term problems addressed by an extra pound a week on their benefits. [48]

Blair launched the Social Exclusion Unit (SEU) in December 1997 under the slogan ‘Bringing Britain Together’. The move was heralded by John Lloyd, New Statesman columnist and New Labour devotee, as ‘an exposition of a revolution in the philosophy and practice of provision, in the conception of the welfare state, in the methods and ethos of addressing poverty’. [49] The unit was at the fore of Labour’s efforts to develop a social policy underpinned by ‘compassion with a hard edge’. Run by a former private secretary to John Major, the SEU is, according to Mandelson, modelled on the Tories’ failed ‘Action for the Cities’ initiative, launched by Thatcher in 1987. In place of what are dismissed as Old Labour concerns with the standard of living and income levels of the poor, there is a focus upon Welfare to Work and the problems of inadequate parenting, school truancy, crime and delinquency, and those who sleep rough. With the SEU’s Rough Sleeping Initiative announced in July 1998, for example, there was compulsion placed on those sleeping rough to take hostel accommodation once it was available. Those not doing this were warned that they may be forcibly removed from the streets. Similarly, where children truant or get involved in anti-social behaviour, the cause must be family breakdown or inadequacy and thus compulsory parenting classes become part of the solution. What we are witnessing is the pathologisation of the poor, where the hard edge of government policy is obvious but the compassion less apparent.

The stress on social exclusion marks Labour’s abandonment of any wish to redistribute wealth and income and tackle the problems of increasing social polarisation. Several ministers have already stated that New Labour is not about equality of outcome, but equality of opportunity, with the emphasis on economic growth instead of redistribution. [50] As David Marquand, ex-SDP MP and now leading Blairite, puts it, New Labour is ‘manifestly unshocked by the huge and growing disparities of income’. [51] Inherited wealth and income is regarded by Field simply as ‘one of those unappreciated webs so binding families and friends together that individuals are knitted into society’. [52]

Labour has no anti-poverty policy as such, despite Darling’s claim in August 1999 that Labour would ‘free 1 million from poverty’. [53] Poverty is to be tackled through employment, the promotion of enterprise and an emphasis on duty and responsibility. For Mandelson and Roger Liddle, in their book The Blair Revolution, anti-poverty policy will be concerned with ‘the irresponsible who fall down on their obligations to their families and therefore to their community’. [54]

Labour’s abandonment of a commitment to redistribution, and its commitment to Tory tax policies, have been criticised from some very unexpected sources. Roy Hattersley has emerged as one of its strongest critics, dismissing not only the SEU but also attacking Gordon Brown’s reluctance to address the issue of growing inequality. In a debate between them in the pages of The Guardian in the autumn of 1997 [55], Hattersley attacked Brown for New Labour’s willingness to accept gross disparities in income and wealth, with Brown replying that equality of outcome simply imposed ‘uniformity’ and ‘stifled human potential’. [56]

Labour has been a government of targets: a target for inflation, a target for borrowing levels, a target for interest rates, and both Blair and Darling have now announced a target for reducing poverty. But the prospects do not look good. Labour’s refusal to address the real causes of poverty will lead to a growth in the numbers who are poor by 1 million between 1997 and 2002 [57], due in the main to rising levels of unemployment and the effects of Labour’s own Welfare to Work and New Deal proposals.

This represents a damning indictment of New Labour and everything it stands for. Its leaders are willing to castigate and penalise the poor and disadvantaged, while at the same time promoting policies which increase their misery and hardship. Blair’s desire to embrace the market and to extend the Tories’ labour market and welfare policies will create unprecedented levels of affluence for the rich and big business but will do nothing to help the most needy and vulnerable. Blair and the Labour leadership claim their project is one which will create a new, modern and revitalised Britain: ‘one nation’ for the new millennium. The reality is very different. Britain is an increasingly divided country, divided between the rich and powerful on the one hand, and those who are poor and disadvantaged on the other. Indeed a government report published in September 1999 claims that Britain is fast becoming ‘two nations’ because of the divide between rich and poor. [58]

Blair’s conservatism is also reflected in his adoption of the language of the new right: Labour’s policy documents on welfare and poverty are permeated by the notions of welfare ‘dependency’, ‘community’, ‘family’, ‘obligations’ ,’duties’ and ‘responsibilities’. Rights and entitlements to benefits, and decent schools, healthcare and housing hardly feature at all in this perspective. Further, the strong element of compulsion, enforcement and regulation in Blair’s approach surpasses even that of the Tories. Labour’s desire to attack benefit ‘fraud’ and welfare ‘scroungers’ has reached a new height. For Mandelson and Liddle ‘New Labour’s mission is to move forward from where Margaret Thatcher left off, rather than dismantling every single thing she did’. [59] In his speech to the 1997 Labour Party conference Blair argued that ‘a decent society is not based on rights. It is based on duty. Our duty to each other. To all should be given opportunity; from all responsibility demanded.’

Despite all the talk of ‘social-ism’ and the ‘Third Way’, there is a pervasive conservatism at the heart of New Labour which forms the basis of Blair’s much vaunted vision of a ‘new society’. Blair talks of creating a ‘new settlement’ between the individual and society, wherein the stress on the individual will be accompanied by a new role for social institutions such as family, community and the state. At the forefront of this process is an attack on those on a range of benefits, but this is a wedge to drive a wider agenda of welfare restructuring where we all have the responsibility to provide for our pensions, our healthcare, the education of our children and so on. State provision is to be removed or, at the very least, residualised and stigmatised. This is an agenda to continue with the Tories’ strategy of privatising what is left of the public sector and cutting the social wage. To emphasise the point, recent figures show that public spending is now at its lowest for 40 years, with even the Blairite Guardian claiming that ‘Thatcher was more lavish than Labour’. [60]

Conclusion: New Labour in context

In part, New Labour’s welfare agenda is a continuation of a number of themes that have been central to British government policy for the last 20 years – the attempt to reconstruct welfare and to establish a new welfare settlement. It is an attempt both to cut government spending and cheapen labour, to reinvigorate British capital and open up the British economy to multinational capital. But the project is also built around a deeply conservative moral agenda where the poor working class are increasingly identified as a problem who must be forced to accept the values of modern capitalism. For New Labour’s ideologues the excluded must reintegrate themselves within modern society by engaging with work – in whatever conditions and for whatever rates of pay. For Blair and Co capitalism works and brings benefits to us all, but this necessitates us taking responsibility for our own welfare and not relying on the state, accepting that the world has changed and periods of unemployment are inevitable, and recognising that we are competing in a global labour market and thus need to work more flexibly and cheaply. For New Labour the state’s role is reduced to one that enables citizens to provide their own welfare, but state provision is curtailed and focused on more disciplinary aspects of social control. Such commitments mean that even when there is an estimated surplus of up to £12 billion in the Treasury’s ‘war chest’ the government will not voluntarily increase spending on wages or welfare. [61] This is an important point to emphasise. The war chest is not the result of a booming economy or a reduction in need but is a direct consequence of policy choices and the government’s refusal to spend on much needed social and welfare services.

The problem for New Labour is that increasing numbers do not accept its logic. Social Attitudes surveys emphasise that we want more money spent on state welfare, that we want more trade union rights and better pay and working conditions. Further, whilst we are told to work harder for less, the bosses continue to award themselves huge salaries and perks. New Labour has tried to stigmatise and target different sections of the poor but its attacks on the disabled, pensioners, lone parents and refugees have provoked a response which has forced it to backtrack. In the months ahead there is little doubt that such attacks will continue and that they will continue to feed the hostility towards the Blair government within the labour movement – the degree to which New Labour will be successful is much less certain.

When we look at the New Labour government and its welfare policies there are two potential pitfalls to avoid. The first is to see them as something alien to the Labourist tradition and a complete break with anything Labour governments in the past could have done. The second danger is to see nothing new in New Labour: Labour always sells out; Blair is no different. While Labour governments have certainly always sold out, they were nevertheless ideologically committed to the politics of reformism, to dealing eventually with structural inequalities, to promoting equality of opportunity via comprehensive education and a national healthcare system, and to protecting, however inadequately, the poor by redistributing income. Within the ideology of New Labour, however, there clearly are a number of themes that break with traditional Labourist conceptions. New Labour’s moralism, its rejection of the structural causes of poverty, acceptance of dramatic income inequality, attempts to pathologise the poor, and the promotion of a series of conservative family and community agendas, represents a substantial break with old Labourist ideology. The fact that Roy Hattersley has been such a trenchant critic of Blair and Brown perhaps emphasises the point. It is the enforcement of this new moralism that has created such disillusionment with the government from layers of old Labour and trade union activists and opened up an ideological struggle on the left over the politics, goals and strategies of socialist politics and the possibility of creating a better world.


1. Blair Bounces Back But Should Tone Down The Moral Talk, The Guardian, 6 September 1999.

2. Tearaways Banned From The Streets, The Guardian, 2 September 1999.

3. Tony Blair, quoted in the Independent on Sunday, 28 July 1996.

4. T. Blair, New Britain: My Vision of a Younger Country (London, 1996), p. 59.

5. T. Blair, Ethics, Marxism and True Socialism, Fabian Pamphlet 565 (London, 1994), p. 3.

6. Ibid., p. 5.

7. Tony Blair’s speech to the 1996 Labour Party conference.

8. Quoted in The Guardian, 29 January 1996.

9. A. Etzioni, The Spirit of Community (London 1995), p. ix.

10. Quoted in A. Callinicos, Betrayal and Discontent: Labour under Blair, International Socialism 72 (1996), p. 16.

11. M. Rutter, H. Giller and A. Hagell, Anti-Social Behavior by Young People (Cambridge 1998), p. 66.

12. Ibid., p. 1.

13. Quoted in C. Jones and T. Novak, Poverty, Welfare and the Disciplinary State (London 1999), p. 5.

14. See report on the Hamilton curfew in Socialist Worker, 29 August 1998.

15. Blair’s Moral Crusade, The Observer, 5 September 1999.

16. Jack Straw, quoted in The Guardian, 15 October 1996, p. 2.

17. Secretary of State for Social Security and Minister for Welfare Reform, New Ambitions for Our Country: A New Contract for Welfare (London 1988), pp. 13, 57, 59.

18. Labour Targets Lazy Parents, The Guardian, 16 January 1998.

19. Nationwide Network Planned For Lessons In Parenting, The Guardian, 24 July 1998.

20. C. Harman, Globalisation: a Critique of a New Orthodoxy, International Socialism 73 (Winter 1996).

21. A. Giddens, Beyond Left and Right, The Observer, 13 September 1998, p. 27.

22. T. Blair, New Britain ..., op. cit., p. 121.

23. A. Giddens, After The Left’s Paralysis, New Statesman, 1 May 1998, p. 18.

24. In the language of the green paper on public health (Our Healthier Nation), ‘individual victim blaming’ and ‘nanny state engineering’.

25. R. Cook, A Radical Agenda for a New Millennium, Renewal, vol. 5, no. 1 (1997), p. 10.

26. See C. Harman, Globalisation: a Critique of a New Orthodoxy, op. cit., and A. Rogers, Is There A New “Underclass”?, International Socialism 40 (Autumn 1988) for a critique of many of the ideas behind such claims.

27. T. Blair, Foreword and Introduction, in Secretary of State for Social Security and Minister for Welfare Reform, op. cit..

28. Commission on Social Justice, Social Justice: Strategies for National Renewal (London, 1994), pp. 1, 224.

29. H. Glennerster and J. Hills (eds.), The State of Welfare, 2nd edn. (Oxford 1998). See also summary report by authors in The Guardian, 22 April 1998.

30. When he was not preaching to the poor and condemning ‘welfare cheats’ and ‘Jack the lads’, to use his terms, he was busy witch hunting socialists from Birkenhead Labour Party during the 1980s.

31. Field’s publications for the IEA include: Stakeholder Welfare (London 1996); (with L.M. Mead) From Welfare to Work (London 1997); and a contribution to Charles Murray and the Underclass: The Developing Debate (London 1996).

32. See C. Murray, The Emerging British Underclass (London 1990), and Underclass: The Crisis Deepens (London 1994); and IEA, Charles Murray and the Underclass, op. cit..

33. F. Field, Losing Out: The Emergence of Britain’s Underclass (London 1989).

34. F. Field, The Underclass Of 97, New Statesman, 17 January 1997, p. 30.

35. C. Murray, In Pursuit of Happiness and Good Government (New York 1988), p. 130.

36. F. Field, Stakeholder Welfare, op. cit., p. 111.

37. C. Jones and T. Novak, op. cit., p. 15.

38. Quoted in The Observer, 11 May 1997.

39. Go To Work Or I’ll Freeze Your Giro, Warns Brown, The Observer, 5 September 1999.

40. Ibid.

41. R. Link, Beware Echoes Of Disraeli: Welfare Policies Tell The World That In The USA It Is A Sin To Be Poor, Poverty, no. 97 (Summer 1997), p. 12.

42. Ibid., p. 14.

43. Secretary of State for Social Security and Minister for Welfare Reform, op. cit., p. 31.

44. If we adopt the Council of Europe’s Decency Threshold, which classifies all workers earning below two thirds of the average wage as poor, 48 percent of workers in Britain are poor.

45. Brown Takes On The Jobless, The Herald, 6 September 1999.

46. G. Mulgan, Think Well-being, Not Welfare, New Statesman, 17 January 1997, p. 28.

47. P. Mandelson, Labour’s Next Steps: Tackling Social Exclusion (London 1997), p. 1.

48. Ibid., p. 7.

49. J. Lloyd, quoted in the New Statesman, 29 August 1997.

50. C. Smith, New Questions for Socialism (London 1996), p. 5.

51. D. Marquand, The Blair Paradox, Prospect, May 1998, p. 18.

52. F. Field, Stakeholder Welfare, op. cit., p. 42.

53. We’ll Get Rid Of The Poor, The Observer, 22 August 1999.

54. P. Mandelson and R. Liddle, The Blair Revolution (London 1996), p. 20.

55. See The Guardian, 26 July, 6 August and 21 August 1997

56. During its 1997 conference week Labour was also criticised by 54 of Britain’s leading social policy academics who, in a letter to the Financial Times, called for redistribution, a move which cut little ice with Blair and Brown.

57. D. Piachaud, The Prospects for Poverty, New Economy, March 1988, p. 12.

58. Shock For Blair Over “Two-Nation Britain”, The Independent, 8 September 1999.

59. Ibid.

60. Public Spending Lowest For 40 Years, The Guardian, 25 August 1999.

61. Labour Heads For £12bn War Chest, The Guardian, 17 September 1999.

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