Battle in Print: Post Ideology: New Labour and the politics of behaviour

Emily Turnbull and Michael Blomfield,

In Britain as much as in America, morality is replacing ideology as the compass with which we [stay on course], with important implications for the kind of politics voters expect and politicians supply. Political debates are increasingly framed, not as contests between left and right, but between right and wrong. Some of the old dogmas that defined our politics have been swept away, and new coalitions constructed not on the foundations of traditional class or geographical affiliations but on new, values-based identities.
- David Lammy, Tony Blair’s Impact and the
Moral Challenge to Progressives


The political debates of the 20th century - the massive ideological battleground between left and right - are over. Echoes remain, but they mislead as much as they illuminate.
- Tony Blair, Doctrine of the International Community

The increasing use of moral rhetoric in modern political debate can in part be attributed to a reworking, begun in the mid-80s but taken to new heights by Blair and his allies, of the way in which the Labour party develops and delineates public policy. Old Labour had structured the latter in accordance with its ideological tenets, themselves stemming from a specific set of moral values - of moral ideas such as equality of outcome. The belief that all working people should take a reasonable share from the fruits of their labour, for example, underpinned the political objectives of the party; while spoken of infrequently, moral values such as these were nevertheless very much present, seen as quite substantial, and as such could be cited when staking out the political terrain of the Left as distinct from that of the Right. New Labour, in an effort to distance itself from such ‘hard’ and antagonistic values, long ago ceased to elaborate on any ideological dimension to its policy-making. Instead, we have been presented time and again with public policies born directly of moralities, as moral values, far from referenced as underpinning any comprehensive ideology, are increasingly depicted as ideas the pursuit of which can be expressed as an objective in itself.

This is nowhere clearer than with regard to New Labour’s stance on equality. Whereas Old Labour used equality as a developed ideal which was strongly outcome-orientated, New Labour appeals to a much more basic, less comprehensive value - equality of opportunity. It is difficult for anyone in our society to dispute this softer, less divisive value; while many might take issue with a wide-scale redistribution of resources, or with national ownership of the means of production, few can reasonably claim to disagree with the idea of a just society in which each is provided with the tools he or she needs to develop their full potential. The failure of this government’s moral values to develop into ideologies makes it impossible for meaningful dispute and debate to occur; how can a person feel that, while equality is important to them as a moral proposition, they disagree with the equality of opportunity as proposed by New Labour, when that equality is never advanced beyond mere intuitive posturing? Dissent, being dissent to a certain moral position rather than to a clearly defined ideology, can only come to be seen as irresponsible, or even wicked, rather than as a political view to be engaged with; policy is not open to question in the same way as before, precisely because the question is being phased in an entirely different way, if at all.

This government’s rejection of ideology, and its preference for looser ‘values-talk’, has had a detrimental effect on our communal life. As far as most of us are concerned, persons qua persons merit equality and justice; everyone is deserving of the opportunity to make the best of themselves and partake in a form of meaningful social interaction. But New Labour, by appealing to this basic aspect of a less tangible notion of equality, as opposed to a richer, more developed and comprehensive ideal such as equality of outcome, encourages us to view ourselves as being in competition with others rather than as in community with them. Arguably, all that comes to matter is that each individual has equal personal opportunities, rather than that they value themselves as equals in a more holistic sense. The tools by which this government has worked to create equality of opportunity, such as the free market, have had a dehumanising effect insofar as they have fostered individualism and materialism, which promote ‘I want’ attitudes. This encourages citizens to see themselves as being in competition with others who become obstacles in the path of the pursuit of their goals.

This destabilisation of the community has been coupled, wholly hypocritically, with an increasing emphasis on the community itself and the responsibility of the individual towards it. In a 1995 Spectator lecture, Tony Blair claimed that ‘respect for others - responsibility towards them - is an essential prerequisite of a strong and active community’. Policy followed upon preaching: the New Deal managed to combine the creation of jobs with the assertion of a moral agenda, as it moved to refashion attitudes to work, instil a work ethic in the unemployed and stress the importance of labour discipline. Work was spoken of as a matter of self-respect, obligations and responsibilities; as such, it signalled not only the way in which New Labour’s adoption of the language of the new right had been twisted to fit a centrist-left cause, but, more pertinently, the arrival of the ‘politics of behaviour’ - the idea that instead of implementing policy to help the underprivileged and asocial, all the government needed to do was change the behaviour of its citizens.

Indeed, whereas Old Labour tended to emphasise the social responsibilities of businesses as opposed to individuals, New Labour has consistently stressed the social responsibilities of the latter. It has exhorted citizens to be hard-working, productive and responsible in the sense of not behaving asocially, informing families, for example, that they will be held responsible for any crimes or misdemeanours undertaken by their children. School children are encouraged to pressurise their parents into behavioural change; the London Borough of Barnet has created ‘The Schools Recycling Challenge’, the successful completion of which requires that 60 per cent of pupils recycle from home. It is surely partly the case, as Councillor Stephen Knight, deputy leader of Richmond Council, has argued, that the government sees it as important to get young citizens into good habits early, and indeed, teaching pupils to recycle and persuade their parents to do likewise is, for obvious reasons, preferable to coercing citizens into achieving ‘green targets’ by tax or other means. Yet calling upon the individual to act for the better is part of a wider trend of emphasis upon the responsibility and personal integrity of the citizen.

Such top-down micro-management of the individual is representative of a fullscale failure on the part of New Labour to recognise just what it is that makes communities tick. Responsibilities and obligations are the commitments which we, as members of a community, take on to certain tasks and ways of behaving in the relationships that constitute our social lives; they are primarily moral commitments and it is only secondarily that they may or may not be enshrined in law. The network of responsibilities particular to a healthy community is generated and sustained by social bonds particular to that community, which will have its own ways of monitoring the behaviour of its members. As Amitai Etzioni (20.2.1995) remarks, ‘communities draw on interpersonal bonds to encourage members to abide by shared values, such as “Do not throw rubbish out of your window” and “Mind the children when you drive”. Communities gently chastise those who violate shared moral norms and express approbation for those who abide by them. They turn to the state when all else fails’. New Labour’s managerial approach to government thus represents, not a realisation of community, as it would have us believe, but rather a breakdown of it. New Labour tries to use ‘responsibilities to the community’ as a reason to force people to act in accordance with certain social norms, when in actuality government intervention is concomitant with a failure of the community to persuade people that it is right to act in accordance with its values.

In this way the moral rhetoric of New Labour is philosophically incomplete; the government talks of responsibilities, seemingly ignorant of the fact that such talk will have purchase only with those who accept these responsibilities in the first place. Talk of responsibilities fails to be meaningful to those who do not share in the social process by which said responsibilities were generated; while such talk may effect behavioural change, this change will come solely as a result of coercion, rather than as from a true realisation of responsibilities, since communitarian responsibilities can only be generated from the bottom up, fostered by social relationships and shared experiences, and not imposed from the top down. Far from nurturing the shared values of the community, New Labour’s ‘politics of behaviour’ is an authoritarian resort, introduced to counter the consequences of the fragmentation of the community which it has itself achieved, aimed at coercing non-members of a community to act in ways the community deems acceptable.


Emily Turnbull is a final year Classicist at New College, Oxford. Michael Blomfield graduated from New College, Oxford in 2007 with a BA in Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE).


Blair, T. (24.4.1999). ‘Doctrine of the International Community’. Speech at the Economic Club, Chicago.

Etzioni, A. (20.2.1995). ‘Nation in need of community values’. The Times.

Lammy, D. (16.9.2005). ‘Tony Blair’s Impact and The Moral Challenge to Progressives’. Speech at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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