The modernisation of the Labour Party (1979-97) and some early parallels with Keir Starmer’s leadership

Posted by Alice Hoad - Monday, 6 Jul 2020


My new book, The modernisation of the Labour Party, 1979-97, investigates the methods used by the British Labour Party to overhaul its internal structures, policies and image during their 18 years out of office following their 1979 defeat. Labour’s organisational modernisation in the 1980s and 1990s dramatically altered the party’s apparatus, policy-making pathways and rule book. This process led to the formation of ‘New Labour’, a movement in sharp contrast with the party’s left-wing position of the early 1980s. The modernisation of the party took Labour from election defeats in 1979 and 1983, through to slightly improved results in 1987 and 1992, before finally achieving victory in 1997.

Recent changes within the modern day Labour Party have a number of parallels with the 1979-97 period. Labour’s four general election defeats since 2010 have some similarities, but also many differences, with the party’s four consecutive defeats between 1979 and 1997. Yet, Labour’s disastrous performance at the 2019 election puts the party even further away from becoming the next government than their previous modern day low in 1983. Between 1983 and 1997 Labour gradually improved their position at each election, culminating in the 1997 victory. Yet, this process took thirteen years and three different leaders after Michael Foot’s resignation. Neil Kinnock, John Smith and Tony Blair allowed the modernisation of the party to develop as an unbroken thread from 1983 to 1997. However, attempts at renewal by Ed Miliband, Jeremy Corbyn and Keir Starmer since 2010 have pulled Labour into a multitude of different directions, with no central, continuous narrative spanning Labour’s most recent decade in the wilderness.

Labour experienced an ideological shift to the left in both periods. From 1974 to 1982, the Labour left held a firm majority at the party’s ruling National Executive Committee which led to the adoption left-wing policies such as unilateralism, nationalisation and opposition to the European Community in the 1979 and 1983 manifestos. Labour also elected the left-wing Foot as leader in 1980. The left’s position in these years is detailed in Chapter One of my work. Similarly, in the modern era, Jeremy Corbyn’s 2015-20 leadership of the Labour Party, also saw the left capture control of the NEC, with particular strength from 2017, and a decisive shift towards a left-wing policy agenda at the 2017 and 2019 general elections.

The centre-left, ‘moderate’, reaction to the 1979-83 and 2015-20 periods also has many similarities. Chapter Two of my book investigates Kinnock’s journey to establish a majority at the NEC between 1983-86, culminating in the expulsion of the Militant Tendency and the defection of the soft-left from their former allies on the hard-left. This was a journey which took Kinnock three years to complete; Starmer has managed to make a similar impact in less than three months. Since his election in April 2020, Starmer has succeeded in securing control of the party’s Executive through the dismissal of left-wing shadow cabinet members on the Committee alongside the centre-left’s gains at three NEC by-elections.

Control of the party’s NEC is vital for the leader to make key appointments, such as the victory of Starmer’s preferred candidate, David Evans, in the election for the party’s General Secretary in June 2020, and Kinnock’s candidate, Larry Whitty’s victory in 1984. Both Whitty and Evans succeeded General Secretary’s to the left of their own position. In addition, a majority at the NEC allows the leader to pursue policy and internal reform. Whilst Kinnock launched a wide ranging Policy Review from this position between 1987 and 1992, shifting the party to the centre-left, the subject of Chapter Three in my book, Starmer has yet to clearly signal if he is to radically depart from Corbyn’s policy position. One further change instituted during Starmer’s early months as leader was the move to the Single Transferable Vote system for elections to the NEC within the constituency section. This change has further parallels with Smith’s battle for One Member, One Vote covered in Chapter Four of my work.

Whereas Kinnock’s modernisation was extended by Smith and later Blair, particularly through the latter’s change to Clause IV and internal restructures in Partnership in Power (the subjects of chapters 5 and 6 of my book) it is unclear at the time of writing whether Starmer will revise or renew the policies of previous leaders. Labour’s 1980s and 1990s modernisation took the party to a landslide general election victory in 1997. Yet, in the early months of his tenure it appears that, rather than building on the Corbyn project, Starmer has set in place a plan to shift the balance of the party’s internal organisation from left to centre-left, in a similar way to Kinnock between 1983 and 1986. As such, it seems that a new attempt at modernisation is only just beginning in 2020, Labour can only hope that this project does not take over a decade come to fruition.

By Christopher Massey

Christopher Massey is a Lecturer in Politics and History at Teesside University



The modernisation of the Labour Party, 1979–97 by Christopher Massey is available to buy now.




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