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Sunday, 4 March, 2001, 16:41 GMT
The Labour Party

By BBC News Online correspondent Peter Gould

The Labour Party was born in 1900 with the aim of protecting the rights of trade unions and giving a political voice to the working class.

2001 election pledge card
Mortgages as low as possible, low inflation and sound public finances
10,000 extra teachers and higher standards in secondary schools
20,000 extra nurses and 10,000 extra doctors in a reformed NHS
6,000 extra recruits to raise police numbers to their highest ever level
Pensioners' winter fuel payment retained, minimum wage rising to 4.20
The creation of a national government during the First World War gave the party its first ministers and a taste of political power.

After the war, the decline of the Liberal Party saw Labour becoming the main opposition party, but although twice in power, Labour governments were short lived.

It was the Second World War that changed the party's fortunes.

Social changes

In the coalition government that took over in 1940, the Labour leader Clement Attlee became deputy to Winston Churchill. The Beveridge Report, prepared during the war years, created the vision of a better society, and heralded the social changes that would follow in peacetime.

But the scale of the Labour landslide at the 1945 election came as a shock even to the party's own supporters.

Post-war Britain saw the creation of the welfare state and the nationalisation of key industries like coal, steel and the railways. But disappointment followed; the Tories won the 1951 election, and an era of prosperity helped to keep Labour out of power for 13 years.

In the 1960s, under the leadership of Harold Wilson, a rejuvenated Labour Party clawed its way back to power, first with a tiny majority in 1964, and then a convincing victory in 1966.

Former Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson
Former Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson
But the new administration was bedevilled by economic problems, leading to the devaluation of the pound and in 1970, the Conservatives returned to power.

By 1974 Labour was back, winning two elections in the same year, but facing new problems.

After the surprise resignation of Harold Wilson as party leader, Jim Callaghan became prime minister. He quickly found himself presiding over an economic crisis, requiring a hefty international loan and cuts in public spending.

But the final straw for many voters was the sight of the country being paralysed by union disputes during the "winter of discontent."

Wilderness years

At the 1979 election, Labour was voted out and Margaret Thatcher moved into Downing Street. It marked the start of 18 years in opposition for Labour, and one of the bleakest periods in the party's history.

The Conservatives were to win four elections in a row, three under Mrs Thatcher and another under John Major.

During Labour's wilderness years, the party leadership passed first to the left-winger Michael Foot.

Labour leftwinger Michael Foot
Labour leftwinger Michael Foot
A group of former ministers on the right of the party, the "gang of four", left Labour to found the Social Democratic Party.

Labour's manifesto for the 1983 election was later described as "the longest suicide note in history". Mr Foot was followed by Neil Kinnock, who faced the challenge of the Militant Tendency as he set about modernising the party.

But while Labour was slowly edging back towards power, Mr Kinnock was unable to steer the party to the ultimate victory.

He was succeeded by John Smith, a highly respected figure in Parliament, widely seen as the prime minister in waiting. His sudden death in 1994, after a heart attack, was a shattering blow for the party.


In the contest that followed, Tony Blair was elected leader and the progress of modernisation begun by Neil Kinnock continued with a vengeance.

The architects of "New Labour" were pitted against the forces of tradition, with their attachment to socialism - regarded by the leadership as an electoral liability.

Prime Minister Tony Blair
Prime Minister Tony Blair
In a symbolic break with the past, the Clause 4 commitment to nationalisation was torn up.

Re-positioned as a party of the centre-left, Labour approached the 1997 election at a time when the Conservative government appeared to be running out of ideas. Individual Tory MPs were also tainted by allegations of "sleaze".

Labour's election manifesto presented the party as one offering a "new politics" that would mean an end to old divisions between Left and Right. The result was a landslide victory that made Tony Blair Prime Minister.

New Labour

Labour had committed itself to modernise Britain and build a fairer society, but Mr Blair knew the electorate needed reassuring that past mistakes would not be repeated.

Old "tax and spend" policies were out. The unions would be treated fairly but without any favours. And Labour would welcome business as a partner. In government, the party clearly intended to hold the middle ground.

The ambition was to be the first Labour government to win a second full term.

But after the honeymoon, rows began to surface within the government. Embittered party members spoke out over the "control freak" tendencies at the top of the party, and the penalties for being "off message".

The activities of spin doctors at the heart of government also led to resentment.

Within months of the 1997 election triumph, Labour found itself at the centre of a row over a 1m donation from Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone.

There were further controversies over other seven-figure gifts for party funds, but the Conservative Party's wealthy benefactors also came under close scrutiny.

Losing touch

Leading members of the Labour administration found themselves in the headlines for all the wrong reasons.

The Paymaster General, Geoffrey Robinson, was criticised for not declaring an offshore trust. The Welsh Secretary, Ron Davies, resigned after a "moment of madness" on Clapham Common.

Peter Mandelson, one of those credited with re-inventing the Labour Party, resigned not once but twice.

He first left the government in 1998, when he was Trade Secretary, after a row about a home loan. Earlier this year, he quit as Northern Ireland Secretary following allegations over his role in the Hinduja passport affair.

There was also embarrassment over the appointment of an official Labour Party candidate for the contest to be Mayor of London.

Former cabinet minister Frank Dobson was Downing Street's choice, but Ken Livingstone continued to campaign as an independent, and was voted into office.

Even Mr Blair's populist touch seemed to have deserted him last year when he was slow-handclapped by members of the Women's Institute, unhappy at being subjected to a party political speech.

And the petrol crisis of 2000 worried party leaders as the polls for a time showed people deserting Labour.

'Radical centre'

Throughout it all, the tension between Labour's modernisers and the old guard has continued. When he resigned his post as a defence minister, Peter Kilfoyle confessed that he didn't really understand New Labour.

"I believe we need some ideological glue to hold the thing together," he said. "If you talk to the middle ground too much, you start to lose sight of all those other people out there."

But with the election campaign approaching, Tony Blair promised that if re-elected, Labour would move in new directions and pursue radical policies.

"It is time for a second phase of New Labour, defined less by reference to the old Labour Party, than by an agenda for the country, radical but firmly in the centre ground", he said.

"How far we are from a society of true equal opportunity is a measure of how far a radical New Labour government has to go."


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