British Politics: The Labour Party

Desde su fundación en 1900, el Partido Laborista se estableció como la principal alternativa al Partido Conservador. Si bien ha gozado de pocas legislaturas en el poder, sus políticas y valores ejercen una profunda influencia en la sociedad británica.

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In December 2019, the British Labour Party suffered its biggest defeat in a general election since 1935. The main opposition party to the Conservatives or ‘Tories’, Labour was founded one hundred and twenty years ago, but has spent just thirty years in power. In that time, however, Labour has introduced some fundamental laws, services and constitutional changes to Britain. They include the founding of the National Health Service, which offers free basic healthcare to all residents. The Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson credited the NHS with saving his life when he was hospitalised with coronavirus in April.

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The Labour Party emerged from the trade union movement and the socialist parties and societies of the 19th century. It replaced the Liberal Party as the main opposition to the Conservatives in the 1920s. Infighting among the Liberals and the extension of the vote to all males aged twenty-one or older and to females aged thirty or older helped the Labour Party grow stronger.


In 1924, James Ramsay MacDonald formed the first Labour government. A coalition with the Liberals, it lasted less than a year: accusations of Soviet sympathy and communist influence within Labour marked the first of many times in its history when being ‘too far left’ became an issue. MacDonald, the Scottish illegitimate son of a farm labourer, took this to heart. Labour won again in 1929, but threatened by an economic crisis brought on by the Great Depression, MacDonald decided to form a coalition with both Liberals and Conservatives in his government. For many Labour Party voters this was too much. Labour was decimated in the 1935 election, and only returned in 1940 for a wartime coalition under Conservative leader Winston Churchill. 


In 1945, Clement Atlee led the Labour Party to a shock landslide victory less than two months after V-E Day. His government introduced sweeping social reforms designed to take care of the British people from birth until death, and that collectively came to be known as the ‘welfare state’. They included the founding of the NHS and a system of unemployment benefits and pensions. The full employment promised by Labour was less attainable, however, and the Tories were voted back in in 1951. 


Internal arguments once again plagued Labour, dividing members who wanted a more socialist economic policy and those against the nationalisation of industry, a Labour Party commitment. Labour did not regain power until 1964 under Harold Wilson, an economics don who cultivated a working-class image by smoking a pipe in public. Wilson’s government outlawed capital punishment, decriminalised homosexuality, legalised abortion and founded the Open University for continuing education. Labour returned to power in 1974, but its majority was declining and a series of trade union strikes saw the Tories, under Margaret Thatcher, take power in the next election, in May 1979.


During the Thatcher years, Labour fell under the influence of former journalist Michael Foot, who, in an attempt to win the 1983 election, presented a ‘radical’ manifesto that proposed the complete nationalisation of industry, unilateral nuclear disarmament, and the withdrawal of the UK from the European Community. Called the “longest suicide note in history” by Labour MP Gerald Kaufman, Labour lost the election by a huge margin. The subsequent leader, Neil Kinnock, is credited with carrying out a massive modernisation process, purging the party of its ‘militant’ elements, though Labour still failed to win an election until 1997, when ‘New Labour’, a centrist version of the party that sought to advance socialism by embracing market economics, achieved a convincing victory. 


Just forty-three years of age, the New Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair promoted a youthful, modern image of Britain symbolised by Britpop and Britart. He introduced important constitutional reforms that delivered a measure of self-government to Wales and Scotland. His reliance on private enterprise, however, was controversial, and he is best remembered, though not in a good way, for supporting the war on Iraq, starting in 2003, which is widely considered to have been illegal. 


New Labour struggled to remain in power after the financial crisis of 2008. Voted out of power in 2010, it was defeated again in the 2015 election under new leader Ed Miliband, who then resigned. In the subsequent Labour leadership contest, there was a remarkable turn of events when Jeremy Corbyn, a left-leaning MP that few had heard of before, captured 60 per cent of the votes cast. Although he was a divisive figure within the Party, Corbyn spent five years as leader, during which he gained impressive support among Britain’s youth, but also lost the support of many older lifelong Labour voters. Corbyn stepped down after the 2019 election, and the race began again to find a new party leader. In 2020 Keir Starmer was elected as new leader of the Party.

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