From crisis to crisis: Studies on the political work of the British Labour Party between 1983 and 1997

The research project entitled “From crisis to crisis:  Studies on the political work of the British Labour Party between 1983 and 1997” investigates the Labour Party’s changed strategies of gaining and maintaining power during the long period in opposition, specifically throughout the “Wilderness Years”.

The 1970s presented various structural dislocations caused by several crises and their manifestations (from Bretton Woods to the oil crises and the cultural characteristics of the No-Future discourses) and they brought with them a deindustrializing structural change as a variable with a long-term effect, which was initially perceived as radical. Thus, the previous economic production regimes and social protection systems of the Western European nations which were based on a general, and, above all, a non-party consent were destabilized. The change of the economic basis, rapidly emerging with the quantitative decline of the traditional working class and the establishment of a large service class, shaped the political superstructure in a way that made the social democratic parties in Western Europe, including the British Labour Party, lose elections throughout the 1980s and 1990s. The period in opposition they experienced almost seemed to be a product of the system. Not only economic factors changed. There were also many new discourses along with their real-world effects that manifested themselves during these “years after the boom” (Lutz Raphael) in the public and private space. Issues of gender equity, migration, new social ways of life, the handling of rapidly developing new technologies or the manifold diversities of sexual development, which all overlapped, complemented and contrasted each other in the context of an individualization and desolidarization of units in the social space, were put on the political agenda or at least became more and more explosive.

During the 1980s and 1990s, two decades characterized by structural-economic problems on the one hand and new political topics on the other hand, the Labour Party had to carefully examine their established policy and, since political capital (Pierre Bourdieu) primarily results from electoral success, they had to counteract  their decline into political insignificance in the political field by reconstructing what social democracy stands for. Although there had been continuous improvements from election to election since 1987, it was only thanks to Tony Blair that the party re-experienced an overwhelming electoral success in 1997.

The research project investigates the relationship between the Labour Party and different (potential) groups of voters during that specific period. For this purpose, a microhistorical focus is put on a particularly problematic area of the British capital: The London East End is a place where different social groups like the traditional working class, the new middle class and immigrants live together and mainly compete for public goods. The Labour Party itself, increasingly under the pressure of national and local political failure, had to mediate between these different interests and loyalties, which they mastered with varying success in view of the subsequent election results.

The research project primarily builds on the Capital and Field Theory by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. His reflections on the political field constitute the basis of an independently developed theory of political work aimed at accumulating trust / political capital which influences the behavior of both individual (e.g. candidates) and collective (e.g. parties) actors.