Change Within the Conservative and Labour Parties

By Chloe Campen
Interstate - Journal of International Affairs
1997, Vol. 1996/1997 No. 1 | pg. 1/1

Much has changed in the past years yet we still have the same two dominant parties as we did in 1922. I do not intend to give a historical or purely ideological account but I intend to develop a greater understanding of the more recent changes (though to understand the future we must understand the past, which is what I shall begin with) and there implications for the party system and the future.


One Nation or Traditional conservatism (pre-Thatcherite) after the war could attach its self to the post war consensus of a Keynesian Social Democracy (we must be very careful with the term PWC as it is highly debated as to whether it actually existed, however, few would neglect a commitment to KSD and for those reasons I use that term). We can break the KSD into three main features which had the most political bearing. Firstly the commitment to keynesian economics meant a commitment to full employment, secondly the progression of the welfare state therefore narrowing inequalities and reducing poverty, and thirdly a mixed economy, some sense of government control with a public and private sector.

We could not see the Conservative Party as it is now connecting to these features, however One Nation Conservatism could.

Within the KSD there is no commitment to egalitarianism or a full public economy, but it was a commitment to pragmatism at that time. We can take this back to Disraeli, generally the understanding that the rich are wise to help the poor to prevent revolution and revolt, in simple terms they should be fearful of social inequalities. This point can be reiterated by the term ‘Noblesse Oblige’, meaning the nobility is obliged. One Nation Conservatism also embraced a traditional commitment to the House of Lords, monarchy and so on, these however thought to be undemocratic were not in contradiction with the KSD.

The New Right, which for ease we shall refer to as Thatcherism has two main strands, Neo-Liberal and Neo-Conservative. Neo-Liberal derives from the classical 19th century Liberal tradition. This is a commitment to market individualism. A belief in the market meant that economic decline was the result of over government, hence Thatcher’s ‘rolling back of the state’. Individualism contains the belief that humans are self-seeking and should be self reliant therefore leading to an anti-welfarest stance and getting rid of the so-called ‘dependency culture’. Neo-Conservatism was formed mainly as a reaction against the social breakdown and permissiveness of the 1960’s. Out of this grew a belief in moral autonomy along with a sense of respect that is demanded by the state to go with the inherent sense of paternalism in conservatism. A slightly different strand in Neo- Conservatism was an emphasis on nationalism.

The 1980’s was the “heroic and abrasive” (A.Heywood) stage of Thatcherism. Thatcher’s personality and ideology were like a crusade, she became the ideological leader of the party and country. Thatcherism had come to destroy the KSD and there were “dragons to slay” (A.Heywood), for example Trade Unions and Welfare. Thatcher rarely let her ideology get in the way, she was almost always tactically wise, for example she did not take on the miners until 1984 and she left the reform of the welfare state until the late 1980’s. More attention was paid to her words rather than her actions and perhaps we should consider whether the 1990’s Conservative Party is better at Thatcherism than Thatcher.

Going into the 1990’s the Conservative Party has shifted little in ideology, however there has been a shift in style. Major is a pragmatist, and as we have seen during his administration, his main concern has been with maintaining unity. The battle has now been won, the dragons are now almost all dead, the other parties have adjusted to Thatcher’s mantle so what is there left for the conservative party to do?

The party has more or less hung the heroic role up and adopted more actions. For a start the market revolution goes on. Thatcher refused to touch some things which Major has, for example the privatisation of the railways were not seen as feasible to Thatcher. Although the market revolution goes on there has been a moral shift, such as the ‘Back to Basics’ campaign supported by the likes of Redwood and Lilly, Law and Order and Euoscepticism have also been forefront issues.

We may well ask why the Conservatives have not escaped Thatcherism when promises have proved unworked. The answer may lie with Parliamentary arithmetic. Major had a small majority which has now diminished to one which means that he has to pander to Eurosceptics and make concessions to the rebels and not crush them, this makes any kind of progress very hard. Secondly Thatcherism can now be taken to be the common sense of the party that is holding it together. The One Nation Conservatives that used to be there have more or less petered out. e.g Alan Howarth’s defection to Labour.


Labour has had far more intense debate over change, especially in recent years. As with the Conservatives we shall go back to the KSD. For Labour we can see the KSD as a compromise between realism and idealism; the realism that capitalism could work and the idealism of social justice. The humanisation of capitalists, getting rid of inequalities by a commitment to the redistribution of wealth – full employment equalling a socially just society.

The KSD abandonment for labour, took place between 1983 -1987 (a debatable topic), with a major rethink of policy and ideology. Not forgetting that Labour after losing the 1979 election swung to the very left but in all honesty fell flat on their faces and then started to rebuild. So why was KSD abandoned from labours point of view, simply because it was no longer electorally or politically viable. Electorally compared to the Conservatives it included a programme of high public expenditure and therefore high taxes. Politically, KSD dealt very much with the internal workings and the trend of economic globalisation throughout the world meant the government could not exert large amounts of control over the economy. Society had also changed. The new 2/3 and 1/3 society meant that it was electorally impossible to win over the old working class and the Labour party had to start appealing to the new Thatcher underclass. So from this abandonment what we now know as New Labour was beginning to be formed. Blair has turned the party around, but how did he manage it and Kinnock and Smith did not. For many reasons: but the beauty of Blair is that he has no personal or political roots in the KSD.

New Labour has embraced Thatcherism, accepting a market driven economic strategy. Blair having abolished the old clause 4 and replacing it with a new one, ripped out the heart of the party but at the same time giving him a clean sheet to write upon. The new clause 4 starts ‘The Labour Party is a democratic socialist party.’ As reported on march 14th 1995 in the Guardian, the day after the new clause 4 was revealed, Blair stated the following which is rather apt, ” I believe this is a defining moment in our history. For too long we have been afraid to admit change. Whenever we have changed, we have told the public we have changed and yet sought to assure the party we have not changed..” Much uneasiness pursued as Labour had a lack of identity, it was not a socialist or a full Thatcherite party and something was needed to fill the void. The answer – Stakeholding.

Stakeholding for new labour has been intrinsically linked to Will Hutton’s book ‘The State We Are In’, however there has been many misconceptions about New Labours stakeholding as there are many forms of stakeholding. The KSD and Thatcherism both have their own form. For KSD it is a social and economic form and for Thatcherism the emphasis is on property and property ownership by the individual, however new labour stakeholding is different. It incorporates moral responsibility; people are considered to be part of a community and not self-seeking as Thatcherism dictates. The beauty of this form of stake-holding is that the emphasis is on duty. There is no economic cost therefore it is electorally viable. This ‘duty’ is in the form of the restructuring of society and culture. For example, parents have the duty to be interested in what there children are doing at school. But what is the ideological substance of stakeholding. This whole understanding can be described as ‘communatarianism’ which is now replacing socialist ideals within the party. It is clear that New Labour’s stakeholding is not rooted in socialist boundaries but that it is beginning to look very much like One Nation Conservatism and Blair has in fact used the term Nation Socialism. Just to be clear on this point, socialism is a very broad word and Blair can easily call himself a socialist simply because he is a Christian and believes in helping others.


Party actions and ideology have direct influence on who we vote for and which party is in government. The party system the shows us the type of parties that are currently in the system.

Up until the 1980s there was a clear two party system – simple competition between the Labour and Conservative parties with no real room for a third party. For example the 1955 election results were as follows Con 49.7%, Lab 46.4% and Lib 2.7%. However with the 1979 general election the results changed. Between 1983-1987 the rise of the fated Alliance took place and Kavangha termed this “the turning point in British politics that never happened.” This was mainly due to the electoral system, for example, had the electoral system been one of PR then parliamentary arithmetic would have stopped the poll tax, sale of council houses and more.

What concerns political analysts now is that even thought there was common ground between the parties there were also clear differences that facilitated a choice. Labour’s recent shift to the right has great implications for the party system as it is now, as there is so little choice. The shift shows the two party system failing to operate in its traditional form as there is such little difference between the two parties. We are at the moment in a zone of transition, we have to ask ourselves, what is the party system beginning to look like. Is it perhaps one of a two party system but of multi-party government. For example in Major’s government there are those on the right, Lilly, Portillo and Howard, and those on the left, Clark and Waldergrave, with Major, Bottomly and Hurd in the middle. We shall have to wait for the election to see how events pan out. One thought to bear in mind is that criticism of the political system is almost always down to the party system, so perhaps it should be considered more often.


According to Heywood if the Conservatives had lost the 1992 general election there may have been an argument over Thatcherism and a possible divide between the pragmatists and ideologues in the party. However there are different concerns for the coming election. It is feared that the argument shall be between the pragmatist and the nationalists. The nationalist force in the Conservative Party has risen during the past 5 years. This kind of divide could not only cause problems for the Conservative Party, but, for an example, we can look to the UUP in Northern Ireland as a party that would fear this as they would not want to get dragged into this kind of squabble. This highlights the wider implications of possible party change.

Oxford Professor, A. Adavis, has highlighted four strands currently within the Conservative Party. Firstly the Majorites which are generally the pragmatists and secondly the English nationalists, such as Portillo. These two make up the majority of the party. Along with these are the few Whigs, the left over ONC and fourthly the group who perhaps are best described as Christian Democrats, for example Clark. From this it can be established that no more than a third can be considered to be tending to the left and who are more likely to have common ground with Labour and the Lib Dems. If the Conservative Party were to lose the next general election the Christian Democrats are likely to argue economically for more welfare. If they win, as the nationalist side to the party grows, they are likely to continue to be eurosceptic and push ahead with reforms, eg. the Post Office privatisation. However, there are those that feel the party shall become torn and implode at some time and the party would then be forced to change itself.

Issues such as law and order along with constitutional reform (note recent debate on a Scottish parliament, House of Lords, Northern Ireland) are likely to be high on the agenda for the forthcoming years. This may well become a source of divide for the parties and may lead to an increased prominence for the Liberal Democrats, where they have been so badly supported before, due to the electoral system and Labour having taken the middle ground.

Labour is presently expected to win the next general election, but determining how they would fare in government is difficult to assess since they have not been in government for as long. Problems they might face are, for example, the civil service – especially those secretaries who are now in their mid 40s and who have worked in more senior positions under a Conservative administration.

The recent debates over the past years of revolt amongst the old Labour faithful are not going to take over at least until after the general election. Michael’s (Italian sociologist) ‘iron law of oligarchy’ says that in any organisation you shall have a small elite at the top who shall make all the decisions and then everyone else follows – the Labour party at conference level realised that Blair is their only hope presently and we see Michael’s view in place. However, R.McKenzie has highlighted a danger zone for Labour known as ‘the revolt of the Proletarian’. Blair’s changes may have been too much for the party faithful to take and due to the powers of conference which have been overridden on occasions, revenge may be sought later. Kavannagh uses Wilson as an example of conferences being overridden: the Party did not forget and punished Callaghan and Foot for it. If Labour loses this is something to be aware of.

One final point to make about Labour is that the change to the centre ground and the style of Blair’s leadership makes the new Labour Party very similar to the Christian Democrat politics of Europe. Sean French of the ‘New Statesman’ has drawn out similarities between Blair and those surrounding him to the German Kohl administration.

Finally, some general comments on ideology. Once you embrace an ideology you are intellectually beholden to it . The danger of adopting a new ideology as Blair has found out is a process of adapting someone else’s. Thatcharism may be beginning to fail but at present there is an absence of any other alternative, meaning that all the parties have little power to manoeuvre.

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