Political legacies and their ‘side-effects’ for political parties

A political legacy, either a politician’s or a project’s, can have significant side-effects for years to come, including for the political party that gave rise to the person or programme. In his new book, Getting Over New Labour, Karl Pike shows how the near-past affected Labour’s politicians after the New Labour period ended

Hirschman’s ‘centrality of side effects’

Albert O. Hirschman once noted that he had ‘made much of the “centrality of side-effects”’ in some of his work. It is an apt observation for what I discovered as I researched and wrote my recent book, Getting Over New Labour.

I set out to explain why the British Labour Party changed in the way it did after losing the 2010 general election, which marked the end of the New Labour project. Tony Blair had stepped down as prime minister three years earlier, and Gordon Brown – who succeeded him – departed Downing Street after the 2010 defeat. The New Labour project had begun in earnest in 1994, in opposition, and ended after 13 years in office following its first landslide victory in 1997.

While Blair and Brown had worked together, side-by-side for the vast majority of the New Labour years, the two soon had diverging reputations within the British Labour Party: in short, Blair emerged a divisive figure, while Brown became mostly popular.

The generation of politicians who followed Blair and Brown moved emphatically away from New Labour, in terms of ideology and political practice

Meanwhile, the generation of politicians who followed Blair and Brown had to make sense both of Labour’s defeat and of the New Labour project. The overall move within the party became clear soon enough: away from New Labour, in terms of ideology and political practice, which I document in the book. These were some of the ‘side-effects’ of the Blair and Brown years, and the many political choices they made.

Legacy construction

One of the key arguments of Getting Over New Labour is that we can understand this move away from the New Labour project – most emphatically demonstrated by the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader in 2015 – as a consequence of how people in and around the Labour Party interpreted New Labour’s legacy.

Everyone seemed to agree on a list of achievements during New Labour’s governing years – a ‘greatest hits’ that privileged New Labour’s early work – but it was New Labour’s mistakes which proved the more politically consequential within the Labour Party after 2010.

The Iraq War – and the UK’s decision to join the US in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which Blair continued to defend after leaving office, despite its disastrous impact – was a central focus. So too was New Labour’s political economy, particularly the project’s acquiescence within a highly unequal economic model.

It was New Labour’s mistakes – including its decision to join the US in the 2003 invasion of Iraq – which proved the more politically consequential within the Labour Party after 2010

Policies and political judgements – domestic and foreign – have many direct effects. They also contribute to the political legacies of individual politicians and of political projects. These legacies are constructed by all of us, in a way, through our opinions and our choices.

They are also constructed by those in and around a political party or movement, where partisans judge what was good and bad, and what that should mean for their politics in the future. How these legacies are judged change too, over time and relative to the politics of the moment.

Typologies of party change

There are a number of ‘causes’ and ‘factors’ in what we might call typologies of party change – well summarised in Tim Bale’s 2012 book The Conservatives since 1945. The lists of things leading to party change can get rather long, but many are well-known: losing elections and needing to win them; a change of internal power relations, e.g. a party-right, or party-left faction; leadership personalities and, of course, contingency. Big things happen and parties need to react, sometimes changing what they are for and what they prioritise.

In Getting Over New Labour, I adopt an interpretive approach, seeking to understand the motivations of those actively trying to change their political party.

On that basis, much of the above – how to respond to defeat, etc – matter, but they matter through important interpretative frames. In Labour’s case, how did the New Labour project contribute to defeat? What did New Labour’s mistakes mean for its ideology? And how could the party react to events while also showing it was moving on from the previous project?

Understanding how people in and around a political party interpret both past and present is key to analysing why things change in the way they do

My study noted too that many ‘moving on’ themes were not specific to Labour or to the UK. Politicians and parties around the world, still facing up to the consequences of the global financial crisis, austerity politics and challenges from the populist right, were pushing back against political projects from the 1990s and 2000s.

For parties within the social democratic family, this was the period that Eunice Goes has recently called social democracy’s ‘third act’: the third in a series of revisionist moments, and one that appeared to have lost its way.

Understanding how people in and around a political party interpret both past and present is key to analysing why things change in the way they do.

Parties and legacies

Parties wrestling with parts of their past, and the role that plays in legacy construction, is – I suspect – rather commonplace. The German Social Democratic Party’s struggles over ‘Hartz reforms’ is perhaps a case in point.

We should all be attuned to the interpretations of past political practice, and how those interpretations appear to be driving a political party’s direction today.

Indeed, when we see the regular controversy and consequences of political decision-making playing out in real time, we may wish to note the potential effect a decade or more later, as politicians seek to interpret the near-past and adjust their political trajectories: the ‘side effects’ of a previous political generation.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Karl Pike
Karl Pike
Lecturer in Public Policy, School of Politics and International Relations, Queen Mary University of London

Karl completed his PhD at Queen Mary University of London, and was awarded the Political Studies Association Walter Bagehot Prize for best dissertation in the field of government and public administration.

He has been a lecturer at QMUL since January 2021, following completion of a postdoctoral fellowship.

Karl’s research interests include political ideologies, political parties, public policy and political judgement, and interpretive approaches to political science.


Getting Over New Labour by Karl Pike

Getting Over New Labour
Agenda Publishing, 2024

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