The return of the Conservative party to government heralds the return of ideology (for now, the coalition will be considered a mainly Conservative enterprise as there has been only minimal Liberal Democrat influence thus far) to mainstream British politics. The Big Society will redefine individual responsibility and the role of the state, further cementing neoliberal ideology at the heart of British society.
But return may not be an accurate appraisal of the situation; to label New Labour as lacking in ideology is perhaps a little disingenuous. To understand where we are now we must first understand the discourse that led us here.
The story of British Politics today began in the 1970s (in so much as history can really ‘begin’ anywhere). The election of Margaret Thatcher in the 1979 election brought Milton Friedman and the Chicago school’s economic policies into the British mainstream, following their disastrous implementation in Chile. The election of Ronald Reagan a year later represents the beginning of a Neoliberal paradigm.
The key elements of this were the primacy of the individual, the rejection of the state as a means of affecting economic or social change and embracing unfettered capitalism that was free of regulation. Crucially, the adoption of market principles into everyday life and the belief that all things can be commodified, (broken down into a monetary value and traded) would be its most pervasive characteristics.
The 1980s saw the disintegration and subsequent rebirth of the Labour Party, heralding a significant shift in Labour Party policy to the centre, or as some argue, to centre-right. New Labour tried to combine the best elements of both Thatcherism and social democracy. The fate of the NHS provides an excellent example; huge investment - aimed at providing a 21st century health care system to be proud of – shaped by the market principles of consumer choice and built by Private Finance Initiatives . Started by the Conservatives Private Finance Initiatives involve paying astronomical sums of money to private companies to construct infrastructure projects such as hospitals). It is this straddling of both Left and Right, the attempt to cherry pick and combine the best of both into a vote winning, centre ground occupying win-win strategy that gives New Labour its post-ideological appearance.
Despite the best efforts of Anthony Giddens to furnish New Labour with an ideological narrative (the much maligned Third Way) many have come to regard this approach as blatantly Thatcherite. The reason is simple, though its ends were socially democratic, the means were predominately neoliberal. The issue here is that this is a contradiction, embracing neoliberal means immediately precludes the social democratic objectives. Placing a profit motive at the heart of its methodology could only result in a neoliberal product.
This false dichotomy between objectives and methodology has resulted in two troubling results for the Left in British Politics. For example, social mobility and wealth inequality have both increased, their negative effects rippling out into public health, education policy and beyond. Secondly and more disconcertingly neoliberal frameworks and methodologies have been embedded throughout the public sphere. Put simply, the tools are all in place for a government to accelerate the process of neoliberalisation, privatising and commodifying nearly every aspects of public life. Were this to happen the small gains that New Labour achieved in creating a more fair and equal society would rapidly disappear.
And this is exactly what is beginning to happen. The Conservatives return to power has heralded a much more relaxed approach to ideology. Areas where New Labour introduced market principles, the NHS, Higher Education and Academy Schools will soon undergo much more rapid transformations as market principles become entrenched.
From this perspective New Labour was an ideological project that sits comfortably within the Neoliberal paradigm. Though it may have made some gains toward its socially democratic agenda, these have been undermined by its furnishing of a more right wing administration with the tools to continue significant marketisation of the public sphere. In this regard the Conservative led coalition is following New Labour policy through to its logical, Thatcherite conclusion.