History of the Labour Party

Kinnock and the policy review

Neil KinnockWith Labour heavily defeated in the 1979 election, the party began a new period of soul-searching. Internal debates about the party constitution dominated, and led eventually to the forming of a breakaway group, the Social Democratic Party, in 1981. Michael Foot, the veteran left-winger, was elected leader but he was hampered by divisions within the party and proved unable to reverse Labour's decline in support. With Labour moving further to the left, the 1983 election resulted in a crushing defeat. Labour gained 27.6 per cent, its lowest showing since 1918 and not much above the Liberal/SDP Alliance.

Hope for a revival in Labour's fortunes came from Welsh MP Neil Kinnock, who replaced Michael Foot as leader in 1983. Kinnock first sought to sideline the extreme left within the party, such as the group Militant, and then to restore Labour's image with the general public. His speech to the 1985 Party Conference, where he attacked Militant from the platform, was seen as a sign of the new Labour leader's courage and commitment to change. This was followed by changes to Labour's image, headed by a new Campaigns and Communications directorate under Peter Mandelson. A visible sign of the changes afoot was the replacement of the party's emblem - the red flag - by a red rose at the 1986 conference. Even with such changes, Kinnock was unable to recover much ground and Labour still lost the 1987 election heavily. More thorough-going reform was necessary and therefore the party began a process of policy review. The outcome, Meet the Challenge, Make the Change, ended Labour's commitment to unilateral nuclear disarmament, high taxation and old-style nationalisation.

John SmithLabour's fourth successive election defeat was a major shock to the party. Kinnock's successor, Scottish lawyer John Smith, promised to continue the process of reform, including tackling the trade union block. At the 1993 Party Conference Smith won the vote on One Member One Vote (OMOV), removing direct union representation in parliamentary selections, by the smallest of margins, and largely due to the last-minute speech by John Prescott. If he was careful in his dealings with the party, in the Commons Smith was less restrained.

Immediately after the election the Tories were wrong-footed by the crisis in sterling and exit from the Exchange Rate Mechanism. Black Wednesday as 16 September 1992 became known, was a gift to Smith, who used his considerable parliamentary skills to attack the Conservatives. With record-breaking (for the time) local election results in 1994, John Smith was rightly optimistic about the future of the Party. "A chance to serve, that is all we ask", Smith told a gathering of Labour supporters on 11 May 1994. The event was to be his last. Early the next morning he suffered a massive heart attack. Just as with Gaitskell in 1963, Labour had lost a leader on the verge of power.

New Labour

Tony Blair and forming New LabourThe ensuing leadership contest saw the election of Tony Blair, the youngest-ever leader of the Labour Party. Blair was widely known to be a moderniser and his leadership election statement was clear that Labour must be reformed radically if it was to win office again. Yet for any still in doubt, Blair showed his true intentions in his first speech to party conference as leader, when he called for the updating of Clause IV of the party's constitution.

While opposed by some traditionalists, the proposed change won overwhelming support at a special conference in April 1995. This was followed in 1996 by the publication of New Labour, New Life for Britain, the draft manifesto that was discussed and voted upon by party members across the country. Labour's agenda was fully costed, to avoid the arguments over tax that had dogged them in 1992, and centred on five pledges: education; crime; health; jobs and economic stability. Party members gave the proposals clear endorsement - with 95 per cent backing the plans.

Tony BlairThe 1997 election campaign saw the Tories in decline - over sleaze, tax rises and division. Labour's campaign, by way of contrast, was smooth and efficiently run. The party targeted 90 marginal and 216 key seats - the constituencies it had to win if it was to gain a majority. In the event new Labour was shown to have underestimated its popular appeal, winning a landslide total of 418 Labour MPs, including a record 101 Labour women, and a majority of 179.

As a Labour Prime Minister, Tony Blair gave new direction to the country with the introduction of a National Minimum Wage, one million more jobs, smaller class sizes in primary schools, and the biggest ever sustained investment in the NHS.

On 7 June 2001 Tony Blair led Labour to a second successive victory in a General Election, winning by another landslide. Labour won a majority of 167.

Four years later, on 5 May 2005, Labour achieved a first in its history: a third consecutive term in government. Labour had run a positive campaign on investment in public services including the slogan "If you value it, vote for it" in the run up to polling day. The Tories, in contrast, led by Michael Howard had run a negative campaign, largely on immigration and crime.

Labour's majority was 67. On the steps of Downing Street the next day, Tony Blair said: "It's a tremendous honour and privilege to be elected for a third term and I'm acutely conscious of that honour and that privilege.

When I stood here first eight years ago I was a lot younger but also a lot less experienced.

Today as well as having in our minds the priorities that people want, we, I, the government, has the knowledge, as well as the determination and commitment, to deliver them."

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