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New Labour's Traditional Family Values in Policy

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Politics
Wordcount: 5460 words Published: 19th Oct 2017

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‘In Comparison to the Thatcher Government, in what ways does New Labour try to bring back traditional family values through policy and legislation?’



The objective of this dissertation is to evaluate and compare the way in New Labour is trying to bring back traditional family values through policy and legislation with the ways in which the Thatcher government had tried to do so. As will be explained and analysed there are some similarities and indeed some profound differences between the objectives and the methods of New Labour and the Thatcher governments. As will be analysed in great depth both the Thatcher government and New Labour government came to power with wide-ranging visions of how they wished to transform the politics, the economy, and the society of Britain. The Thatcher government’s attempts to bring back traditional family values through policy and via legislation will be evaluated first, in order to examine the extent to which its objectives succeeded or if those objectives failed. Arguably, the Thatcher government had a massive impact upon the social, economic, and the political make up or infrastructure of Britain, even if not always in the ways that it had intended, or had hoped for. The Thatcher government also discovered that the consequences of their policy decisions could be contradictory, rather than complimentary to the primary objectives of the legislation that they passed.

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The latter parts of the dissertation will concentrate upon the transition of the Labour party away from its traditional economic and social policies into New Labour and how, that transition affected its policies and objectives. New Labour was a reinvention of the Labour party designed to regain power after 18 years in the political wilderness. Traditionally, the Labour party had regarded the promotion of social ownership of the means of production (the infamous clause four of its constitution); and the provision of generous benefits by the welfare state for those in need as sacrosanct policy areas. Labour governments had used progressive taxation and high public sector borrowing to pay for high social policy expenditure if that was needed. Those were the policies mainly used to maintain or bring back traditional family values by all previous Labour governments. New Labour, as will be demonstrated, turned away from the concepts of increasing levels of social ownership, and set limits for the use of progressive taxation and increasing public sector borrowing, whilst promising to reform the welfare state. The combination of these measures was intended to focus help on to those people that needed help the most. It also arguably, gives cause to debate whether New Labour is driven by its ideological principles; or if it is driven by the more selfish desire to obtain and subsequently retain governmental office. After all, as any self-respecting politician will tell anybody willing to hear them, it is no good having a vision of transforming society if there is no political office or power to do anything about enacting that vision.

Certainly before winning the general election of 1997 New Labour emphasised its intention to bring back traditional family values through policy and where it was considered to be necessary through legislation. As a party New Labour committed itself to improving public services, fighting crime, and a host of other measures to make Britain a better place to live in. Also to be discussed is New Labour’s policies and legislation upon human rights and equality for all, that in many respects goes beyond bringing back traditional family values. Whilst politicians are generally in agreement over the need for traditional family values, they differ as to the best policies and if needs be the best legislation to restore, promote, or protect traditional family values. Differences over the best ways to achieve traditional family values are influenced by differing ideological approaches, as well as different understandings of human nature. Governments do not only rely on policy and legislation to achieve or at least aim to achieve their objectives. Governments try to influence the public through official statements, press and television articles, as well as presenting its objectives to the public as frequently as possible. The public of course does not have to be persuaded by the influence, policy, and legislation of any government. Indeed the public can affect the policy and legislation that governments adopt by voting those governments in and out of office at every general election. The media has a great deal of influence in its own right when it comes to the moral attitudes and acceptable standards of behaviour that the British public hold. All are issues and influences upon the restoration or promotion of traditional family values will be evaluated.


Before evaluating and analysing the ways in which New Labour and the Thatcher governments aimed to bring back bring traditional family values, it would be best to define what is meant by traditional family values. Usually traditional family values are considered to be the promotion of long lasting marriages, bringing up children to be well behaved and law abiding, and educating everybody to respect law and order. Traditional family values are also linked with a religious or moral upbringing, yet it can also encompass people being responsible for providing for their own financial and social welfare through working hard and saving, as well as taking responsibility for their own actions. Traditional family values were linked in public perceptions to Victorian times, the majority of people may now be materially better off yet their sense of morality, and the willingness to accept traditional family values has declined noticeably (Coxall, Robbins, & Leach, 2003, p.42). In the British context the religious influences upon traditional family values had been predominately Christian in their origins. The dominant family values in Britain have been altered by different factors since the 1960s. The belief in Christian values has declined due to the processes of secularisation and liberalisation, changing social attitudes arguably helped by changes in fashion and media coverage. Family values are also different due to the immigration of people into Britain with different religious faiths such as Islam, and Hinduism (Modood, 2005, p.192). Different religious beliefs mean that although non-Christians often have a strong sense of morality and an understanding of how to behave, those moral values are similar yet not necessarily the same as traditional family values as they are perceived (Forman & Baldwin, 1999, pp. 10-11).

British governments, assuming that they have a sufficient Parliamentary majority are generally able to carry out policy objectives and pass legislation as they feel necessary, or, to keep to the pledges they made in their party manifestos during the previous general election campaigns. The power and the authority held by British governments to carry out their policies is great, and the vast majority of the population accepts the legislation passed through Parliament. However, it is under the assumption that the government can be voted out at the next general election if the majority of voters are unhappy with its performance, or achievements. Much harder to define or evaluate can be the influence that governments have upon people’s beliefs and behaviour. Parties win general elections sometimes because they are the least unpopular party, rather than because they are the most popular. Voters can be as pragmatic or as cynical as the politicians that they vote for or against, they vote for the party that makes them better off, as much as the party that wants to influence or potentially change their beliefs and behaviour (Coxall, Robbins, & Leach, 2003, pp 4 –5).

Now attention is turned to the discussion of how differing ideological, or political beliefs have influenced the Thatcher and New Labour governments into making policy and legislation that affects social policy in Britain. The classical liberal approach to traditional family values was that governments should not intervene in social matters just as they should keep economic interventions down to an absolute minimum. The classical liberal approach regarded the role of governments as being strictly limited to providing legislation when required, and limited educational, law and order, and national defence facilities or services. The moral, religious, and social values may have been Christian yet that was just by historical chance. Classical liberal thinkers such as John Locke argued that the government should tolerate diversity and allow its people to act in anyway they wanted that did not contravene national laws (Lacey, 2006, p.7). For classical liberals, governments should have gone no further than regulating workplace safety and regulating the Poor Law administration. The teaching of traditional family values was down to churches (or other religious institutions), schools, and individual family groups themselves (Eatwell & Wright, 2003 p. 36). The ideas of classical liberalism would re-emerge from the 1960s in the guise of neo-liberalism and would have the most influence in Britain upon the government that was led by Margaret Thatcher between May 1979 and her removal from office in November 1990. The Major government that held office from 1990 through to 1997 was regarded as being less dogmatic and more pragmatic than its immediate predecessor was, though conversely placing a greater emphasis on individual morality and standards of behaviour (Eatwell & Wright, 2003, p. 287).

Another strand of liberal political ideology emerged at the beginning of the 20th century that favoured a higher level of government intervention in social and economic matters. This ‘new’ liberalism was responsible for the first moves towards establishing the welfare state in Britain. The new Liberals regarded poverty as being the largest single threat to traditional family values, as well as being socially divisive. Poverty often led families into the dreaded workhouses that separated parents from their children, and then parents from each other. Poverty in other words could stop people from caring for each other, it stopped relatives being cared for, and prevented people looking after themselves. The workhouse was, according to the new liberal ideological perspective, the biggest breaker of families, something that grinding poverty did not always achieve (Moran, 2005, p. 28). The introduction of Labour Exchanges, national insurance, which paid small amounts of unemployment benefit, and limited old age pensions may have done little to reverse poverty, yet it heralded greater levels of government intervention in social and economic affairs, especially after Labour’s landslide election victory in 1945. All those new Liberal reforms were intended to preserve family units, as unemployment, underemployment, and old age were all factors that made people poor, and put them in the workhouse, or drove them towards committing crimes to make money. Had the British economy been stronger during the inter-period then the limited welfare state of the Liberals might have been extended earlier. There were limited extensions such as the development of council houses and some free health care for the poorest families (Eatwell & Wright, 2003 p.38).

The Liberal party itself appeared to be in a virtually terminal decline after the First World War with its former supporters either switching their votes to the Conservatives or the Labour party. Conversely it would be variations of liberal ideology that have arguably had the most political, social, and economic influence upon post-war Britain and the values that British government aimed to promote through policy and legislation. New Liberalism had a pronounced influence upon the welfare state and Keynesian economic policies pursued from 1945 through to the late 1970s, particularly under the auspices of the Beveridge Report and the wish to avoid mass unemployment on the scale of the 1930s. New Liberalism also influenced the decision of British governments to accept changing social attitudes by changing policy and passing legislation to recognise the slackening hold of traditional family values. The use of Keynesian economics was lessened during the Callaghan government as it was forced into accepting a loan from the International Monetary Fund, and had to reduce public spending before that loan was made available. Of course, it was the revival of neo-liberal ideology that strongly influenced the Thatcher government and meant that the New Labour government had to take power in radically different social and economic circumstances than the Labour governments of the 1970s had faced (Coxall, Robbins, & Leach, 2003, p. 54).

In contrast, the Conservative ideological perspective often placed a greater emphasis upon the promotion and the respecting of traditional family values, either to protect property or to maintain social stability. Conservative politicians in Britain regarded themselves as being the party that maintained law and order better than any other political party, to protect social stability, and strengthen national unity (Eatwell & Wright, 2003, p. 51). The Conservative party was the party that usually claimed to be the guardian of traditional family values. The Conservative party had strong links with the Church of England. Indeed, sometimes people referred to the Church of England as being the Conservative party at prayer. As such the Conservative party took a negative view about human nature that helps to explain its tougher stance on law and order issues (Jones et al, 2004, p. 155). Unlike the classical Liberals, the Conservatives were prepared and remain prepared to actively change government policy, and enact legislation if that was needed to protect traditional family values. Previous Conservative governments in Britain have passed both restrictive and liberalising legislation when they have considered such actions to be justified by present circumstances. Conservatives have been repressive, regressive, or liberal in character at different times (Eatwell & Wright, 2003, p. 54). There was a strong paternalistic streak in the British Conservative party, which has sometimes dominated the party, and at other times has had very little influence over the party’s policies when in government. The paternalistic streak has not always gone well with other ideological influences within the party that have been opposed to intervening in society or the economy. For instance, compare the ideological beliefs of Harold MacMillan, or Anthony Eden with Margaret Thatcher. Thatcher did not like the paternalistic ‘One Nation Tories’, and instead attempted to transform British society (Moran, 2005, p. 28).

The Labour party was created specifically to further the interests of the working classes, as such the only traditional family values it wished to protect, promote, or bring back were those that it believed would benefit the working classes. The Labour party was committed to the social ownership of the means of production, and the introduction of extensive welfare, and social security provision. Not only would these measures improve social equality, they would reduce poverty, and make British society better by making it fairer for all. The Labour party was also a political party that was moderate and gradualist in its approach to achieving social, economic, and political reforms. The decline of the Liberal party allowed Labour to become the second main political party in Britain and even form a government in 1924. The first Labour government was only a minority administration, and was therefore unable to achieve much (Wilson, 2005, p. 252). The second Labour government elected in 1929 had a parliamentary majority, yet its time in office was blighted by the onset of the Great Depression. The party was divided by Ramsey Mac Donald’s decision to cut unemployment benefits, and the introduction of other austerity measures that made the affects of unemployment worse for many of the people that Labour was supposed to help (Wilson, 2005, p. 285). Labour got its big chance to profoundly alter British social and economic policies as a result of the wartime feeling that something should be done to make Britain a fairer and less poverty stricken place to live in. Labour fully backed the proposals of the Beveridge Report and introduced a comprehensive welfare state and reaped its sensational electoral benefits in 1945 (Lacey, 2006, p. 260).

The Labour party managed to achieve its social and economic aims during the Atlee governments of 1945 through to 1951. Its objectives were achieved with the introduction of a comprehensive welfare state, the National Health Service (NHS), and increased educational opportunities. To banish the possibility of mass unemployment on the scale of the 1930s, industries were nationalised and Keynesian demand side economic policies were pursued. From the Labour party’s perspective Britain’s traditional family values should have been protected or even promoted by declining levels of poverty, better health care provision, and higher levels of educational achievement. The welfare state and the NHS seemed to be safe as the Conservatives accepted the vast majority of Labour’s reforms (Fisher, Denver, & Benyon, 2003, p. 11). In fact, the Conservative Party enjoyed considerable success in the 1950s as the British electorate trusted them to leave the welfare state and public services untouched, whilst successfully managing Keynesian economics to make people financially better off (Sandbrook, 2005 p. 51).

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Until the late 1960s it seemed that British governments had managed to achieve strong economic growth, an effective welfare system, and a high degree of social harmony. The period also introduced legislation that liberalised British society, for instance the legalisation of homosexuality, abortion, and the abolition of the death penalty. Legislation was also passed that made it easier to get divorced. However, there were to be social, economic, and political developments that loosened the post-war political consensus. The loosening of that post-war consensus began with deteriorating economic growth and social changes, developments that would eventually lead to the emergence of Margaret Thatcher as a politician that was determined to radically alter the political, social, and economic fabric of Britain (Forman & Baldwin, 1999, p. 11). It was not just Britain’s relatively poor economic performance that Margaret Thatcher wished to tackle; she wanted to tackle the political, social, and economic decline of Britain. Margaret Thatcher wished to reverse what she considered to be the harmful social and economic consequences of decline fostered by the liberalisation of moral values caused by the legislation of the 1960s and the changes in social attitudes that occurred during the same period (Coxall, Robbins, & Leach, 2003, p. 42).

On the other hand, New Labour wished to regain power by gaining the votes of people that had previously voted for the Thatcher and Major governments, whilst retaining the support of their loyal Labour supporters. Traditional Labour party supporters had not supported the party because it claimed to protect or restore traditional family values; instead they believed that a Labour government would make them better off, and British society fairer. However, traditional Labour voters had been reduced in numbers by the reduction in the size of heavy industries and the Thatcher government’s economic policies such as the sell off of council housing and privatisation (Fisher, Denver, & Benyon, 2003 p. 12). The combination of changing social and economic trends, the privatisation policies of the Thatcher government, as well as party in-fighting had condemned the Labour party to four consecutive general election defeats. The Labour Party had expected to win the 1992 general election, although the Major government managed to get re-elected by scrapping the poll tax (Jones, 1999 p.1). New Labour might not have emerged at all if John Smith had not died leading to Tony Blair becoming the party leader, and going on to reorganise the Labour Party, reshaping its policies, and its image in order to gain power (Seldon & Kavanagh, 2005 p. 5).

Whilst New Labour emphasised that it would no longer pursue traditional Labour party economic policies, it would stress that it was keen to make British society fairer than it had been during the Thatcher and the Major governments. New Labour stressed that it stood for fairer social values, for instance actively trying to encourage the acceptance of cultural diversity, or promoting gay and lesbian rights (Coxall, Robbins, & Leach, 2003, p. 397). New Labour shifted its economic policies to the right first, then moved its social policies in a similar direction (Moran, 2005, p. 28). Tony Blair and New Labour stressed that once in power it would help to bring back traditional family values by being tough on crime by tackling its social and economic causes (Seldon & Kavanagh, 2005, p. 6). New Labour has also pledged to reform welfare provision, the NHS, and the education system to improve performance and reduce social exclusion. New Labour wanted to restore what it considered to be traditional family values through policy and legislation, yet with the emphasis being different from the emphasis of the Thatcher government in rhetoric if not in substance (Jones, 1999, p. 2).

All governments have to be aware of the public scrutiny that they may have to endure, through Parliament, through media coverage and speculation, as well as been observed by the general public. The government of the day can have its policy and legislation objectives overturned and jeopardised by adverse publicity or media revelations. The media is very useful for the government to sell its policies and pieces of legislation to the electorate yet no government can expect favourable media coverage all of the time and sensible governments will try to manage media coverage to get the best results. The Thatcher and New Labour governments took media management techniques seriously for their periods in office although that has not guaranteed that they will succeed in making all their policy and legislation succeed, whether or not it was meant to restore traditional family values (Jones, 1999, p. 52).

Chapter One –

The Thatcher government and returning back to traditional family values

This chapter will deal with the subject of the Thatcher government and its attempts of returning to traditional family values through policy and legislation. Margaret Thatcher broke the mould of the average Conservative party leader, and it was not simply because she was the first woman to gain that position. Although the Conservatives had been stung by the size of their election defeat in 1945, they had soon recovered to regain power by 1951 (Wilson, 2005, p.484). Successive Conservative leaders from Winston Churchill, Anthony Eden, Harold MacMillan, and Alec Douglas Hume had accepted the post-war political, economic and social consensus established after 1945 (Sandbrook, 2005, p.51). It had been Margaret Thatcher’s immediate predecessor as Conservative leader, Edward Heath that had first attempted to overturn the post-war consensus through the adoption of the Selsdon programme. As Education secretary, Margaret Thatcher was part of the Heath government that eventually returned to Keynesian economic policies, due to trade union opposition, and the desire to increase economic growth to prevent unemployment levels going past one million (Fisher, Denver & Benyon, 2003, p.11). The Heath government would fall victim to increasing trade union opposition that led to the three day week, whilst Heath’s defeat in both general elections of 1974 meant that leading Conservatives were looking for alternative policies and a new leader with a different approach to the discredited Heath. Margaret Thatcher decided to stand for the party leadership and succeeded in displacing Heath. After she became Conservative leader, her differing ideological outlook from her post-war predecessors started to emerge. Thatcher’s right wing rhetoric, no nonsense leadership style, her forthright messages, and obvious sense of nationalism struck the right chords with the British electorate during the late 1970s (Eatwell & Wright, 2003, p. 160).

Margaret Thatcher was determined to restore the electoral fortunes of the Conservative and then went on to revive the ailing British economy by fundamentally altering social, economic, and political attitudes within the country. Thatcher believed that Britain needed to radically overhaul its social and economic policies to reverse economic decline and social decadence. The medicine that Thatcher prescribed to cure Britain of its social and economic woes was the adoption of neo-liberal economic policies and a return to traditional family values. According to neo-liberal economists such as Hayek and Friedman, Keynesian economics and extensive welfare states like Britain’s after 1945 were socially and economically detrimental. Thatcher had been introduced to these concepts by one of her closest advisors, Sir Keith Joseph, and she saw them as the solution to Britain economic decline and social degradation (Coxall, Robbins, & Leach, 2003, p. 54). The welfare state removed the incentive to work, or the incentives to reduce the size of families, whilst providing adequate standards of living for those that were work shy or content to have children outside of marriage and long term relationships. The pursuit of Keynesian economic policies had increased the power of trade unions whilst restricting the efficiency of both public and private sector enterprises. Thatcher argued that excessively high rates of taxation reduced the incentives for people to work harder and meant that some people were financially better off by being unemployed. Thatcher’s solution to these problems was to end Keynesian economic policies, lower taxes, sell off public assets, and attempt to reduce the size of the welfare state. The inability of the Callaghan government to solve Britain’s economic ills and the Winter of Discontent of industrial action and public sector strikes allowed Thatcher to take power after winning the general election of May 1979 (Fisher, Denver, & Benyon, 2003, p.11).

Once in office the Thatcher government undertook a radical reshaping of economic policy that had a major impact upon British society and influenced the success of policy and legislation to bring back traditional family values. The pursuit of economic liberalisation was the government’s policy given priority over all other policies and initiatives. Thatcher believed that economic liberalisation would be the catalyst that would modernise and revive Britain’s economic performance, with the anticipated consequence that it would revive at least some of the traditional family values. That was the underlying belief that people should work to make their lives better rather than relying upon the welfare state to give them handouts. The problem with adopting monetarist economic policies was that it resulted in the highest levels of unemployment witnessed in Britain since the Great Depression of the 1930s. With more than three million people unemployed, expenditure on the social security budget increased rather than decreased. Economic policy in this instance actually made the return to traditional family values less likely to be achieved. High unemployment levels instead meant a return to inter-period levels of poverty, and the closure of unprofitable coal mines and steel mills devastated whole communities (Coxall, Robbins, & Leach, 2003, p. 54).

High unemployment levels also helped the Thatcher government to break the power of the trade unions more effectively than legislation on its own. That legislation was restrictive of trade union powers in its own right, more so than the failed efforts of the Heath government a decade earlier. The Thatcher government regarded employment legislation as vital in making its efforts to erode trade union power effective. The Employment Act of 1980 took away the rights of trade unions to operate closed shops (allowing workers the right not to join trade unions), take secondary industrial action, or, use flying pickets to force employers to give into their demands. The Employment Act also laid down certain conditions that trade unions had to follow exactly before they could take industrial action. For instance, trade unions had to hold postal ballots to vote for or against strike action. Any trade union that did not hold official ballots was going on strike illegally, and therefore faced legal action from employers. For the Thatcher government the Employment Act of 1980 proved invaluable with its conflicts with the militant trade unions, especially the coal miners (Forman, & Baldwin, 1999, p.450).

For the Thatcher government its conflict with the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) led by Arthur Scargil proved the ultimate test of whether it could change the social and economic structure of Britain to fit in with its ideological outlook. The NUM had been regarded as being largely responsible for the defeat of the Heath government during the 1970s, so the Thatcher government wanted to defeat it as a symbol of Britain being transformed economically, socially, and politically. Although the Thatcher government did give way over pay disputes in 1981 as it did not believe it could defeat the NUM, it was biding its time. However, by 1984 the Thatcher government was certain that the situation had changed in its favour through its new legislation that reduced secondary strike action, and because coal had been stockpiled at power stations to prevent the NUM from forcing the government to give in. The bitter miners strike of 1984-85 effectively broke the power of the NUM forever, and showed that the trade unions could no longer bring down any government that they wanted to (Forman & Baldwin, 1999, p. 196).

As part of its policy objectives to bring back traditional family values the Thatcher government tried to improve the law and order situation without much apparent success. Once again the economic policies of the Thatcher government had consequences for the successful conduct of its social policies. The chief consequence of Thatcherite economic policies was as already mentioned high unemployment. High unemployment made it harder to reduce the level of crime; in fact crime rates rose as sharply as unemployment rates did throughout much of the 1980s (Fisher, Denver, & Benyon, 2003, p. 12). Unemployment increased peoples’ sense of desperation as well as putting many of them into poverty. Crime increased as people tried to make ends meet, and it also increased as a result of a rise in the number of people taking illegal drugs. High unemployment and the illegal drug trade meant that respect for law and order was reduced in the majority of inner city areas rather than improved. A combination of high unemployment, heavy handed policing, and increased levels of racial tension lead to the outbreak of inner city riots in 1981 that alarmed the Thatcher government (Jones et al, 2004, p. 628). To prevent a repeat of those riots the Thatcher government introduced urban redevelopment areas, and attempted to change the policing methods used in areas that contained ethnic minority communities. The Thatcher government tried to reduce crime by allowing courts to set tougher sentences and the introduction of youth detention centres, yet nothing seemed to work (Jones et al, 2004, p. 628). The failure of the Thatcher government to reverse the rising crime figures is a clear demonstration that the social policy, and legislation of governments can have little or virtually no influence over people’s behaviour if they did not want that behaviour to be altered. Although there was a strong link between rising crime and rising unemployment during the Thatcher government the levels of crime have not decreased, despite unemployment falling since its peak in the late 1980s (Jones et al, 2004, p. 629).

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