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The third way - back to the future?

For Tony Blair the tragedy of the left has been the sundering of socialism and liberalism at the beginning of the century.
Whilst we can't undo history, Pete Smith argues that the quest for a third way need not have conservative conclusions.

Tony Blair's Grail Quest for the Third Way has had a poor reception on the left. In some ways this is understandable. By turns Blair has made uncertainty about the concept and its content a virtue (following Tony Giddens' argument that it is all still a work in progress) and then he seems to have convinced himself that the philosopher's stone has indeed been found and it turns out that the Third Way is exactly what the Blair administration has been doing ever since May 1997.

Far too many socialists have seen the pursuit of the Third Way as simply a public relations stunt. Smoke and mirrors to disguise the continuity between the Thatcher/Major years and the present government. Blair is widely seen by some left of centre writers as a man not much interested in history. A Labour leader who is not of his party, in terms of background or political formation, and, therefore, not much interested in the history or origins of the party which he leads. This is a misjudgement of both Blair and the rather grandly named project of New Labour.

Blair's pursuit of the Third Way and his ambitions for New Labour in the 21st century rest on a particular reading of 20th century British political history. Blair leads a party which in his bones he feels should not exist. History took a wrong turn in the early 1900s and as a result we have had the best part of one hundred years of Conservative, or Conservative dominated, governments. Brief interregnums of Liberal or Labour governments cannot disguise the fact that the Conservatives have been the governing party (or dominant party or natural party of government, the terms all have roughly the same import) this century.

On the face of it this seems strange. The Conservative Party is a 19th century institution created to represent the interests of the landed aristocracy and established church. The 20th century has been the century of mass democracy and the rise of the common people. One might have expected not a promising era for a party such as the Conservatives.

Actually the Conservatives had a thin time of it in the 19th century, a time when the electorate was restricted by property and house holding qualifications, the party won few elections and, except at the turn of the century, had few extended periods in office. In contrast the extension of the suffrage and the democratic politics of the present century have seen the Conservatives flourish. They dominated politics in the inter-war years and the post-1945 period has seen two long periods of continuous rule, one for thirteen and one for eighteen years.

By contrast the Labour Party, which is a child of the 20th century (created as the Labour Representation Committee in 1900 and becoming something closer to a party in 1906), has been remarkably unsuccessful in the century of its creation. Labour has never yet managed to govern for two full terms of office. It has won elections but often with no overall majority in the House of Commons (1924, 1929 and February 1974) or very small majorities (1950, 1964 and October 1974). Only on three occasions (1945, 1966 and 1997) has the party managed clear and decisive election victories.

The 20th century has turned out to be, as historian Arthur Seldon describes it, the "Conservative century". For Tony Blair, and those who think like him, this has been an easy victory for the Tories, a victory by default, because of the troubles and divisions of the centre left. For Blair the tragedy of the left has been the sundering of socialism and liberalism in the early part of the century. The split between Labour and the Liberals divided the left against itself and, particularly given the nature of the first-past-the-post electoral system, this made it easy for the Conservatives to dominate the political system.

In a sense this is a hopeless fantasy. We cannot climb on board the Tardis and go back in time to undo the splintering of the relationship between organised labour and the Liberal Party which took place, partly because of dissatisfaction with the way the Liberals were representing the interests of a growing trade union movement and partly because of the cultural gap between the Liberal leaders and increasingly politically aware union leadership. My own guess is that the emergence of a separate Labour Party was highly likely (not inevitable, nothing in politics ever is) and the Liberal grandees did not have the skills to prevent it. This is unlike the leaders of the Democratic Party in the United States who were able to get the unions on board in the 1930s and thus block the creation of an effective and seperate union based party.

There really is no point in crying over spilt milk but can we put Humpty Dumpty together again? Can the Third Way provide the link which can reconnect Labour and Liberals?

In a sense we should go back even further to discover the relationship between the two parties. The English radical tradition has always had its individualist and its collectivist threads. Even in the 1640s, at the time of the English Revolution, the left had two currents, the Levellers and John Lilburne were individualist and radically anti-establishment, whereas the Diggers and Gerrard Winstanley were collectivist and radically anti-establishment. Whatever their differences both trends were militantly egalitarian and this probably explains why, despite their differences, their opponents could not or would not tell them apart. The 1647 Reading and Putney debates about the future of the revolution are more or less the starting point for the English radical and democratic tradition. As much part of the liberal inheritance as the socialist one.

These two traditions have always been integral to the British left. Sometimes in tension but more often intertwined and intermeshed. The individualist and collectivist elements have often been incarnated in a single person. George Orwell, Nye Bevan and Tony Crosland owed as much to the individualist tradition as to the collectivist one.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s the division between socialism and liberalism was not a very clear one. New or advanced liberals such as J. A. Hobson, T. H. Green and L. T. Hobhouse expounded views not all that different from those of many Fabians and even leaders of the Independent Labour Party. Keir Hardie famously wrote an open letter to Lloyd George asking him to consider taking up the leadership of Labour. Even much later the two party's were intertwined. The 1945 Atlee government had its foundations in Keynes' work on demand management and full employment and the welfare state as conceived by Beveridge, both of them Liberals.

The rise of class politics in Britain after 1900 meant that in a contest between Labour and the Liberals for the leadership of the centre left Labour was bound to win but class politics has been on the decline as an influence on voting behaviour and political identification. This is particularly true amongst women and younger voters. This is one of the perceptions which has prompted Tony Giddens to seek out the Third Way in order to go "beyond left and right" and try to assist in the "Renewal of Social Democracy". The decline of traditional working class communities and the shrinking of the organised manual working class has led to a weakening of collectivism.

Blair may have been premature, in January, in asserting that most of us are middle class, or soon will be, or at least want to be, but his comments do express the reality of late 20th century Britain. People do have more individualistic aspirations, more middle class ones if you like. We live in a more diverse society, racially, morally, ethnically, religiously and sexually. There is no way back from that and there should not be. A left which celebrates difference and diversity can find itself coming home to its liberal and individualistic roots as well as retaining its commitment to solidarity and a range of collective solutions to society's problems. Liberty, equality and fraternity always seemed a pretty good mission statement to me.

In a way the argonauts of the Third Way are asking the right questions. How do we make the left relevant in a more individualistic society which is more fragmented than in the past? Can social democracy recognise both the changed circumstances of the times and the changed values and aspirations of ordinary people? The problem with some of the conclusions which are being produced is that they are conservative not radical ones. Egalitarian and anti-establishment themes were with us from the very beginning of the left. We should not retreat into a fundamentalism which refuses to recognise the changed times that we live in. We need to value our traditions but also consider what we can draw from them.

The discussion around the Third Way has the potential for great radicalism. Fresh thinking but not on the basis of a blank slate. Year zero only ends with zero. If we are serious about a Third Way then old assumptions, tribalisms and party boundaries will not work. The blunt truth is that I agree with some Liberal Democrats more than I agree with many Labour Party members (both to my right and to my left). Do we really want to maintain the pretence that we agree with 100% of what our party stands for and that the other lot have nothing to say worth listening to? If so we should go to grow up classes. A Third Way (not a middle way) needs to find room for the liberal and the socialist insights and traditions, I would even find some room for a few conservative themes on law and order and education.

We cannot undo the history of the 20th century but we can address what went wrong. In the long run Labour and the Liberal Democrats must work together if the 21st century is to become the social democratic century. To do that everyone who is serious about where we go from here needs to look at the traditions and history of the centre left and be clear about both what divides us as well as what unites us. We cannot get back the past but maybe, just maybe, we can go back to the future.

C. R. Attlee, The Labour Party in Perspective, Victor Gollancz Ltd 1937
Peter Clarke, Keynes and Keynesianism, The Political Quarterly, July - September 1998
Anthony Giddens, Beyond Left and Right, Polity Press, 1994
Anthony Giddens, The Third Way, Polity Press, 1998
Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down, Penguin 1974
Ralph Miliband, Parliamentary Socialism, Merlin Press 1964
Anthony Seldon, Conservative Century in Anthony Seldon and Stuart Bell (eds) Conservative Century, Oxford University Press, 1994
Andrew Vincent, New Ideologies for Old?, The Political Quarterly, January - March 1998
A. S. P. Woodhouse, Puritanism and Liberty, J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd 1974

 

1999