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New Labour’s love affair with the New Democrats

Gordon Corera


First published in Renewal volume 11, number 1 (2003), pp. 68-73


A key part of the Clinton problem was that there was simply too much politics - too much tactics and process, too little content.


Like any long-distance love affair, the trans-Atlantic romance between New Labour and the New Democrats has had its fair share of ups and downs. From giddy optimism to dejection, the emotions have been well reflected in the pages of Renewal. A decade ago, Labour was languishing after another election defeat, looking enviously over at its American cousins who had just managed to break an equally long spell out of power. From that 1992 Clinton victory started something close to an infatuation, and it was a victory which helped give the New Labour project momentum and led to a short and happy romance between the two sides in the mid-1990s. But soon cracks began to show, as those on this side of the Atlantic began to question the political fidelity of Bill Clinton and the failure to develop a deeper commitment. By 2000, the language of the third way was already fading and the decade ended with the reverse position of New Labour in the ascendant and the Democrats in disarray. Within this circular narrative also lie some hard questions for those who believe in the Anglo-American project to build a new politics.

At the start of 1992, the challenge facing Labour and the Democrats was in many ways similar in the eyes of reformers. Both had been out of power for more than a decade. Both had come to be seen as parties that were run by and represented minority interests rather than the mainstream (whether that mainstream was called Middle America or Middle England). They were seen as tax-raising, soft on defence, and morally ambivalent and looked marginalised by the Thatcher-Reagan right wing populism.

The New Democrats came first – emerging in the 1980s, particularly under the influence of pollster Stan Greenberg, a member of the transatlantic club who have advised both sides. He talked of reaching out to the lost middle class whose core values were ‘work, reward for work, and responsibility’. For the New Democrats and their organisation, the Democratic Leadership Council, Democrats had to neutralise the wedge issues and reaffirm their commitment to the interests of the working people of America, a similar process to that which New Labour had to undergo, reconnecting with the people, disassociating itself from interest groups, and neutralising issues on which they had been vulnerable, like taxation. Economic fairness had to be combined with a clear social message. Some Democrats believed they needed to develop a new rationale for the role of government, getting away from both the Republican anti-statism and the liberal big-government activism of the past, and so the idea of the third way was born.


The lessons from Clinton

In January 1994, in the pages of Renewal, Patricia Hewitt and Philip Gould presented a case that it was the tactical which was most important – where the Clinton team had learnt from Labour’s defeat, Labour could learn from their victory: ‘The lessons which the British left can learn are not so much about content – although there is valuable intellectual exchange already underway – as about process’.

Some of the tactics were borrowed directly – the staged confrontation with left-wing and minority groups to differentiate the new from the old in the public mind. There was also the permanent campaign and its workshop – the war room, rapid response units, the cult of the media cycle. The arrival of Excalibur in Millbank was clearly a product of Phillip Gould’s observations on how the Clinton war room operated – instant rebuttal using facts, rather than just rhetorical rebuttals. It is telling that Gould and Hewitt’s article ends with a long moan against the state of Walworth Road and the lack of space or modern facilities.

But as well as tactics and campaigns, there was a linked concern with identity. ‘Here then are the central lessons for Labour of the Clinton campaign: forge an identity which synthesises values, vision and symbolic policies, which appeals to the majority rather than minorities’.

But what was to be the relationship between identity and substance? In the US, there was a high level of ambiguity over how transformational the new identity was, and whether it was simply a tactical rather than ideological shift. It is open to debate just how far Bill Clinton won in 1992 because he was a ‘New Democrat’. On social issues he was clearly centrist, campaigning on New Democrat themes like ‘ending welfare as we know it’, supporting the death penalty and a middle-class tax cut. But he also ran on a platform which included a massive boost in public investment and the promise of universal health coverage. It was a combination of policies which were designed to put the Democratic Party in touch with working and middle-class America using a combination of quite traditional populism melded with New Democrat ideas. The New Democrat populism associated with Bill Clinton was always a mix of socially conservative and more radical elements, and from the start there was a tension between those who saw the new rhetoric as primarily a means of moving the party to the electorally vital centre ground and those who foresaw something more radical. The core question was whether the transformational rhetoric was simply a cover for moving to the right or whether it was genuinely something new – a populism of the centre rather than the left, as Gould and Hewitt proposed. Was changing a party’s identity and what it stood for in people’s minds something which could be done tactically or did it require changing the deep political culture of a party and the country?

The relationship was of necessity one-sided in this period since Labour were not yet in power, but even before New Labour’s 1997 victory it became clear that maybe Clinton was not quite as good as he seemed. Roderick Nye (Renewal May 1996) noted that in his first two years, Clinton seemed to forget the rhetoric and move on a traditional liberal agenda – especially with his failed health care reform plan, a concentration on liberal lifestyle issues and the abandonment of the middle-class tax cut – all despite controlling Congress. This early phase of Clintonism was then decisively rejected by the American public in the 1994 Congressional elections which gave Republicans control of both House and Senate for the first time in decades. As has often been the case, by going second, New Labour could watch and learn. The experience of Clinton’s disastrous first hundred days and problematic first two years were closely studied by New Labour, who realised the importance of setting the agenda and not merely responding to events, as well as establishing a clear break from previous Labour governments and showing that New Labour really was different.



After that Clinton moved into a new phase – more centrist, more New Democrat, but this was ultimately more about political and tactical calculation than anything else, and was summed up by the phrase of Clinton’s adviser Dick Morris, ‘triangulation’. Clinton took the centre ground by positioning himself standing above squabbling Republicans and Democrats. Where Clinton did take credit for supposedly radical centrist policies like welfare reform, they were as much the product of being forced by a Republican Congress, and through triangulation, as through a plotted strategy (Corera, Renewal 1998).

Bill Grantham in Renewal February 1997 (‘Clinton’s Second Term Blues’) presciently foresaw some of the pitfalls, arguing that: ‘If New Labour seeks to find what is of real value in the comparison, then it will have to move beyond the superficial similarities pretended by the spin doctors and allow the distinctive elements of the Blair project to come through’. He rightly pointed out that: ‘There is a real prospect of the second Clinton term being marked as one of an isolated and embattled president, serving out his time but contributing little’. As many now perceive it (and especially after 9.11), the Clinton years were largely wasted, ones where rhetoric came before action. ‘After four years we now know that Clinton is a man who says all the right things and doesn’t do any of them’, Grantham observed. The love affair was already souring badly.

The key question all along was the depth of the Clinton presidency’s commitment to genuinely transformational ideas rather than to tactical political moves and rhetoric. Much of the bobbing and weaving of the Clinton years was due to political factors outside the President’s control, but they also came to be seen as reflecting a deeper failure to develop a clear ideology and commensurate strategy, which could institutionalise the new values and shape political culture - in the way that the vision of the right shaped the language, attitudes and actions of a previous generation. There seems to have not been the kind of reshaping of the political culture in the US by Clinton that we saw under Reagan, or that was hoped for. The US population never really fell for the New Democrats, there was no great public attachment to the party or vision –perhaps a reflection of the general decline in party attachment in the US, but this is also mirrored in the UK, with few in the general public really holding much affection for New Labour even though they vote for it and prefer it to the alternatives.

The differences between the US and UK are a key part of understanding the emerging dynamics of the relationship. In power, there are undoubtedly less structural constraints for a Labour Prime Minister than for a Democratic President in pushing through their agenda – a massive majority in the House of Commons gives a freedom that even your own party’s control of both houses of Congress does not give to a US President. But in campaigning things are easier for a US presidential candidate, as Gould and Hewitt pointed out; for instance, because of the personalised nature of campaigning, it is easier for a US presidential candidate or President to change his party’s identity – he does not have to win over a shadow cabinet, PLP or NEC. But precisely because of that the transformation can be superficial.

And so as well as the policy legacy, even the political legacy of Clinton now looks ropey. Robert Philpot (‘The US primaries’, Renewal winter 2000) quotes Clinton as saying at the start of 2000 that ‘the real test of our ideas is whether they outlive this presidency; whether they are bigger than any candidate, any speech, any campaign, any debate’. Implicit in this, as Philpot points out, is the fear that the success of the 1990s was an aberration which will soon be corrected.

The New Democrat vision has been shown to have relatively shallow roots within the Democratic Party as a whole. The strategy of triangulation which was so successful tactically alienated much of the Democratic Party, especially that part in Congress, and created a reservoir of bitterness. The strategy of appearing non-partisan was a tactic which proved useful politically but has done little to help change the Democratic Party and forge the kind of fundamental transformation needed to cement the New Democrat ideas. Blair is faced by similar dilemmas – for example there is the need not only to win over public opinion by distancing himself from his party at certain times, but also to effect change and modernise the party, to ensure that the vision has real roots and can outlast its present leadership. A party base and a new core national constituency needs to be developed as a near permanent feature, not just as a shifting alliance; institutionalising new values, not playing to old ideas. A key part of the Clinton problem was that there was simply too much politics – too much tactics and process, too little content.


A sustainable coalition?

The Clinton coalition that won the 1992 and 1996 elections, built up using both New and Old Democrat appeals, was, like the New Labour coalition of 1997, ultimately unsustainable if real changes were to be made. Clinton’s habit of wooing all factions has made him one of the finest campaigners in American history, but it has on occasion made him a weaker president, by preventing him from making ‘hard choices’.

The 2000 Presidential election illustrated the weakness of the US coalition: ‘A victory for Al Gore would help institutionalise the New Democrat ideology and electoral coalition that Clinton has built and affirm it is a fundamental political realignment rather than an example of one man’s skilful artifice. It would also mark the final transition of the Democrats from a party representing the poor, minorities, unions and special interests into a truly middle-class party standing in the centre ground of American politics’ (Corera, Renewal 2000). But the failure of this hope did not come with the Supreme Court’s decision to hand the presidency to George W. Bush but well before that, when Gore abandoned ‘third way’, New Democrat ideals and reverted to an old Democrat economic populism, attacking big business. And so, despite what was still then unprecedented prosperity, an incumbent vice-president went down to an untried and tongue-tied Texan Governor – hardly a positive sign for the state of the Democratic Party. The debate continues to rage as to whether Al Gore lost the election due to his appalling campaign or whether it was the Clinton factor and the legacy of Lewinsky which prevented him from associating himself with the successes of the previous years. Either way it was a failure for the New Democrats which has left the party in disarray. Following the withdrawal of Gore in December 2002, the battle for the party’s nomination is likely to be a free for all, with no one having much of a message or identity or clear direction for the party, hardly the legacy that Bill Clinton would have wanted for the party. Even his legacy of changing the identity of his party now looks more limited than hoped, and certainly not one capable of transforming the political culture of the country or its attitude to the state. Gore’s withdrawal may give the party a much needed chance to reassess its situation and think more deeply about its direction. However which path this will eventually lead down is hard to know.

As Robert Philpot reminds us, ‘However phoney George Bush Jnr’s compassionate conservatism may seem, the party should not underestimate the resilience of conservatism’. In the US and perhaps in the UK also, the conservatives only looked dead, and they have a habit of surviving and reinventing themselves.

In the US also, the economic downturn has destabilised the New Democrat coalition. There is a fear that the optimism of the third way was based on a specific socio-economic context, and the unbridled prosperity that allowed social justice to be pursued without alienating the middle class. Retooling this vision for a new era of limited resources is a tough task ahead for the Democratic Party in the US.

So where now for the relationship? 11 September – and the actions of the Bush presidency – seems to have driven large swathes of the British and American left apart (Michael Allen, Renewal 2001). In the European left and the Labour Party there is a dangerous and growing anti-Americanism, based around attacks on US foreign policy as world-views are pulled apart. The rise of a populist right in Europe and an anti-globalisation left could undercut the New Democrat-New Labour territory.

In January 1994, Patricia Hewitt and Philip Gould could write that their ‘welcome for Bill Clinton’s victory in America was tinged with envy. They won; but we lost’. Now the boot is on the other foot – it is the New Democrats in the US who are fighting for their legacy and continuing role in the Democratic Party, whilst it is the British New Labour project which looks far more successful and established. When Bill Clinton appeared at Blackpool at the Labour conference in 2002, for a few short moments the Party (or at least some of it) remembered what they had fallen for in the first place – the glamour, the ease, the political skill and professionalism – everything that New Labour had wanted to be a decade ago. But what Bill Clinton failed to do was to use those skills to reshape the party or the US. The lesson of the New Democrats is perhaps then that the solidity and endurance of the ‘New’ agenda can’t be taken for granted. The jury is still out on the question that has always been there: whether it represents a useful, tactical shift of identity at a specific moment in time or whether it can become something more transformational and fundamental, a new politics.

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