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Last Updated: Tuesday, 20 July, 2004, 10:11 GMT 11:11 UK
How Blair created a new party
Analysis
By Nick Assinder
BBC News Online political correspondent

Tony Blair did not change the Labour party - he created an entirely new party.

It is a view put forward by veteran left-winger Tony Benn and eagerly shared by those who believe "their party" was hijacked by the Blair-Brown-Mandelson project.

And in many senses it is true. The ditching of Clause IV of the constitution, the ending of the supremacy of the party conference, the huge changes in the way policy is made, the weakening of the links with the trades unions and even the policies themselves effectively killed off old Labour.

Blair transformed Labour into a winner

In its place, Tony Blair determined to create a modern, forward-looking, European-style democratic socialist party which voters could trust not to take Britain down the road of state socialism.

The aim was simple - to ditch all the old left-wing policies like unilateral disarmament, high taxation and nationalisation, reform the party machine and make Labour electable.

The process of changing the party itself had started long before Tony Blair won the leadership in 1994.

Common ownership

Neil Kinnock had certainly wrestled with a revamp of the decision-making processes and attempted to oust the hard-left from the party.

And the reforms were taken further by his successor John Smith who most famously - and with the help of John Prescott - first broke the power of the union block vote.

John Smith
Smith started party reforms
Mr Smith's reforms were turned into a virtual revolution when Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson took over after his untimely death a decade ago.

Most significantly, by tearing up the very core of the party's old constitution - the controversial Clause IV, which talked of securing "common ownership of the means of production" - Mr Blair was symbolically killing off Old Labour.

The clause had long been viewed by many in Labour as outdated and no longer a realistic or even desirable statement of intent.

Others, however, viewed it as a core statement of the party's underlying ideology. Ditching it was, for them, sacrilegious.

Shouting down

But the new leader did not stop there. He instigated a series of changes in the very way the Labour party operated internally, how it related to outside bodies and how it presented itself to voters.

Party conference was completely revamped - some would say neutered - and turned into a consultation exercise with carefully managed debates led by the leadership.

Labour conference
Conference lost power over policy
The old days when conference reigned supreme, making policies, often rejecting the leadership's line and even shouting down its own ministers was brought to a swift end.

There were no more debates where union barons wielding millions of votes decided whether, for example, the party should abandon nuclear weapons.

In its place came the policy forums which sought to open up debate to the wider party and which have regularly been criticised for, in effect, leaving policy-making power firmly in the hands of the leader.

The old system was often misunderstood - the leader always had the final say over what went into or was left out of election manifestos unless two thirds voted for it, for example.

But those conference votes regularly embarrassed and challenged the leadership and handed hostile media a big stick with which to beat the party.

Party hacks

Relations with the unions were also put on an entirely different footing with "fairness not favours" the order of the day.

Millbank Tower
New HQ for the modern party
Union leaders became increasingly frustrated at their lack of influence and the fact, as they saw it, that the party they created now looked for advice from the likes of Roy Jenkins and even Margaret Thatcher instead.

The selection procedures for election candidates were also reformed, allowing the leadership to, in effect, ensure undesirable elements - and that usually meant left-wingers - were kept out and New Labour Blairites were in.

Alongside all this there was the modernisation of the party machine with its move out of what is now known as John Smith House, in London's Walworth Road and into Millbank Tower just down the road from parliament.

Out went many of the old party hacks to be replaced with eager young, and often temporary, party workers often looking to make a career out of it.

The HQ has recently been moved again, a decision seen by some as a symbolic attempt to cast off the image of "spin" which Millbank came to embody.

Leaving policy to one side, the upshot of all this organisational change was to create a different Labour party.

And it was one than many believe is defined by centralisation.

The question on many lips now, however, is whether New Labour - which once looked for ever - will survive recent events or whether old Labour will make a comeback.




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