New Labour and British social attitudes

This chapter begins by considering whether public attitudes had become more social democratic in New Labour’s wake. The benchmark for government’s ability to alter the preferences of citizens were the 1945-51 Attlee administrations. There are historians who believe the post-war governments transformed Britain into a socialist society.3 Meanwhile, Margaret Thatcher, it was argued, sought to reconstruct the political and moral character of the nation after 1979. Thatcher declared of her political mission: ‘Economics are the method; the object is to change the soul’. Yet in post-war Britain, politicians more often accepted the constraints imposed by ‘the existing patterns of values, beliefs and interests of the electorate’.4 The evidence indicates attitudes barely shifted in a more social democratic direction under Blair and Brown.5 Committed to ‘big tent’ politics, New Labour subtly constructed its extraordinary cross-class coalition. The party’s identity meant representing all classes, refusing to take a side in the perennial struggle between labour and capital. It was accepted that Britain was a society marked by greater individualism, a situation Labour could not reverse easily. That meant a strategy of compromise with privileged interests.

The paradox of Labour’s record is that on the main valence indicators of governing competence, the administrations performed well: as the previous chapter demonstrated, economic growth and stability were strong; the crime rate fell; major public services, particularly the NHS, improved. Yet voters became increasingly disenchanted. On departing office, Blair and Brown were perceived as mediocre, even incompetent prime ministers. There was loathing of Blair: the mood of sullen discontent went beyond Iraq. The quality of life apparently got no better. Public services, despite record spending, were not advancing quickly enough. Disadvantaged communities failed to prosper economically. There was disconnection between New Labour and voters.

This dismal situation was ironic since Labour’s efforts to understand the attitudes of the electorate since the 1980s, pioneered by the polling strategist Philip Gould, bordered on the obsessive. Gould began his career in advertising. He came from an aspirational working-class family in Surrey, South-East England.6 Gould started advising the Labour Party on political strategy in the mid-1980s, establishing the Shadow Communications Agency (SCA) at Peter Mandelson’s behest. Labour’s efforts to understand voters’ attitudes had historically been ineffectual. Since the 1940s, the party was ‘reluctant to focus much attention on understanding the views of the electorate, as opposed to developing policy positions and believing that the electorate could be persuaded to support those policies’.7

Throughout the post-war era, Labour stubbornly refused to commission opinion surveys. It believed the public would be persuaded to support its policies by the force of moral argument. Nye Bevan insisted that Labour ‘having decided what our policy should be’, must, ‘put it as attractively as possible to the population; not to adjust our policy opportunely to the contemporary mood, but cling to our policy’.8 Following the 1983 catastrophe, Labour gradually came to understand social change, drawing on polling and qualitative ‘focus groups’. These moves proved to be controversial. Gould did not only reveal trends in public opinion. Through his work, he constructed a political ‘image’ of the electorate, centred on the idea of the ‘aspirational’ middle class as the critical electoral constituency. Mark Abrams gave similar advice to Hugh Gaitskell in the late 1950s. Yet Abrams relied on quantitative polling. Gould pioneered the use of qualitative research, using data to dictate the shape of Labour’s policy agenda.

Critics lamented that Gould’s research bolstered the innate conservatism of the New Labour leadership. Electoral politics meant primarily appealing to the self-interest and materialism of voters. Even in the aftermath of the financial crash, Blair insisted the party had to make a ‘personal aspiration offer’ focused on ‘why [Labour] are good for you as an individual . . . showing we could make people make off’.9 Tony Benn acidly remarked that the period after 1997 was the first time in history where British voters were recognisably to the Left of the government.10

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