United Kingdom - Leadership



Observers have noted in recent years that many parties of the left in Western Europe are becoming more centrist, concerned more with broadening their base of support and winning elections than with maintaining traditional socialist demands and ideological rigor. The Labour Party in Britain has gone through such a process, beginning in the mid-1980s under the leadership of Neil Kinnock (1983–1992). While the Labour Party has gradually become more ideologically pragmatic in the past since the mid-1980s, it has not come about without internal party struggles. Since becoming party leader in 1994, Tony Blair has adroitly held his party together while continuing the process of modernization, under the rubric of "New Labour."

Under Blair's leadership, the Labour Party voted in 1995 to drop the famous Clause Four of its party Constitution, which defines one of Labour's aims as the "collective ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange." This clause has been at the center of debate concerning the future of the Labour Party. Moreover, Blair has been able to reduce the traditionally powerful role of trade unions in the policy formulation and candidate selection processes within the Labour Party. Rather than making specific policy commitments, Blair has attempted to gain support from "middle England" and unify the party factions around the goal of winning the 1997 elections. His iron-hand style of rule has enhanced his reputation for strong leadership.

Blair led the Labour Party to a decisive victory in 1997, with a resounding majority in the House of Commons (419 seats for Labour, 165 seats for Conservatives, 46 seats for Liberal Democrats). This electoral success is more surprising given the economic growth, controlled inflation, increased investment, and decreasing unemployment Britain enjoyed under John Major's government. The electorate is thought to have embraced a "fresh new leader," while at the same time rejecting the divided and scandal-plagued Conservatives. In addition to losing 177 seats from the previous election, the Conservative Party also lost many of its leaders during the 1997 elections. In 2001, Blair's Labour Party won the general elections with a majority almost as large as that of 1997. Labour took 413 seats in the House of Commons to 166 seats for the Conservatives and 52 seats for the Liberal Democrats. This victory, however, was clouded by low voter turnout, with only 59% of the eligible population turning out to vote.

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