or more than a year politicians, journalists and academics
seem to have been very animated about something called 'The
Third Way'. This has been described as a political position
that goes beyond the traditional, and long standing, left
right divide. It has also been presented as a way of renewing
a socialist or social democratic position which had been so
battered by the ignominious collapse of communism in 1989
and, more importantly, the triumph of the neo-liberal free
market ideology in much of the west during the 1980s.
One, not very sympathetic onlooker on New Labour's pursuit
of the Third Way, Michael Rustin, has described it as "a
brand-image in search of a product". If this is true
then we do not need to worry too much about it. The Third
Way becomes the equivalent of the secret formula that protects
our skin from ageing or helps us wash our clothes without
the colours fading. The men with the domed foreheads in the
Tefal advertisement know about the Third Way but for us it
is an exercise in politicians claiming to be about more than
they are. The Third Way has been beamed in from the planet
If only it was this simple. The last twenty years have seen
a transformation of politics across much of the western world.
The Keynesian and welfare state orientated policies, that
dominated for decades, were overthrown and there is, probably,
no reversing many of the changes. Thatcher was cutting with
the grain of social and economic change in the 1980s. Individualism
was in the ascendant and deference to authority was in decline.
In my view the eighteen years between 1979 and 1997 marked
a dramatic change in society and we have no time machine which
allows us to return to the past. Some of the changes were
the deliberate acts of government policy and yet others were
the consequences of processes that would, most likely, have
been irresistible whichever party was in power. As John Gray
has put it, "Thatcherism has permanently changed the
terms of political trade in Britain." There is no way
back to One Nation Toryism on the one hand or to traditional
social democracy on the other. Gray stresses that Thatcherite
free market neo-liberalism is also a spent force because the
economic insecurity it has generated amongst the middle classes,
as well as amongst the aspiring members of the working class,
makes it an unsaleable product.
Traditional Toryism is not viable in modern times, and neither
is free market neo-liberalism. Labour has been forced to abandon
traditional assumptions, not just in the pursuit of votes,
but also because such policies (such as the old Clause IV
of the party constitution) simply did not fit with the circumstances
of the times. Must we, therefore, of necessity, search for
a new way if political parties are to be guided by any values
or ideas at all and not just the naked pursuit of power?
Anthony Giddens, the sociologist, has been one of the most
outspoken proponents of the argument for a Third Way. He is
often seen as a major intellectual influence on Tony Blair
and has attended various meetings and seminars where Tony
Blair, Bill Clinton and advisers have discussed what a Third
Way politics might be like. In his 1994 book, Beyond Left
and Right, Giddens seemed to be looking for a new politics
which would transcend the traditional left right division.
More recently he has envisaged a Third Way which is part of
the left and social democratic tradition but trying to realise
the core values of the left (such as social justice) in a
radically changed world.
Does the notion of left and right make sense any more? Are
the concepts of left and right relevant any longer, or just
the ideological detritus left over from the struggles of the
19th century? The major conflicts of the 20th century have
been the conflicts between fascism/national socialism and
communism/liberalism/social democracy in the Spanish civil
war, and the Second World War, and the antagonism between
liberalism/social democracy and communism during the Cold
War. These have been described, by Marxist historian Eric
Hobsbawm, as the 20th century's "wars of religion".
A recognition, that maybe ideas in peoples' heads are important
after all. Are these divisions in the past and all we have
to worry about are details of administration and management?
This is the approach of End of History merchant Francis Fukuyama
in his various books and articles.
The division between left and right has been around for a
long time. The terms came into use at the time of the French
Revolution, because of the accident of where the deputies
from the different factions sat in the National Assembly.
We can take it further back. In the American Revolution there
was not only a right and a left in terms of supporting the
break with Britain (Whigs) or opposing it (pro-British Tories)
but also a division within the revolution itself. There were
those, like Thomas Jefferson and Tom Paine, who wanted popular
government and those like, Alexander Hamilton, who wanted
power concentrated in the hands of an educated and monied
elite. We can take it even further back to the English Revolution
of the 1640s and the division between Cromwell and Ireton
who represented the 'right' and Lilburne and Winstanley who
represented the 'left'. At the Putney and Reading debates,
where the English revolutionaries tried to shape the future
of the revolution, the disagreements hinged on equality and
inequality and if there is a continuing relevance to the notion
of a left and a right, perhaps, this is where it lies.
The left versus right distinction predated the emergence
of class politics. It may very well outlive class politics
since class is, evidently, a less important factor in determining
political behaviour or identification than used to be the
The Italian writer Norberto Bobbio has put it very simply,
in terms of his concept of the division between left and right.
It is a gulf between those who believe that equality is possible
and desirable and inequality undesirable and those who believe
that inequality is both inevitable and desirable. Bobbio makes
a formidable case that the left/right division is neither
out-dated nor irrelevant. He makes the point that those political
movements which claim that the left/right divide is dead and
has been superseded (he mentions the Greens, I would mention
the communitarians) tend to break up into left and right versions.
Thus Greens and communitarians come in 'left' and 'right'
varieties, even though they started off arguing that the terms
made no contemporary sense. France has even got two Green
parties; one of the left, one of the right.
For Bobbio the relevance of the left/right distinction has
an "axiological" significance. Things can only be
on the left or on the right, they cannot be both on the left
and on the right at the same time. What is left and what is
right may change but the distinction does not change. The
left defines itself against the right, just as the right defines
itself against the left. If you are beyond left and right
you are in zero gravity. In periods when one side has triumphed
over the other, both sides might have an interest in denying
the distinction. After 1945 the right was humiliated and,
therefore, sought to co-opt much of the left agenda. In the
1980s the boot was on the other foot. The winning side seeks
to argue that there is no other game in town, the losing side
wants to argue that it is not really left or not really right
and, therefore, not really on the losing side.
Labour lost four elections in a row from 1979 to 1992. It
was clearly on the losing side. Has the invention of 'New
Labour' and the quest for the Third Way just been about the
party not wanting to admit that it is 'on the left' in a period
when the left has not been doing very well? Well it is by
their fruits that we shall know them. If Bobbio is right and
it is attitudes to egalitarianism that are litmus paper in
helping us tell left from right then what has New Labour in
office actually told us? We have seen the attack on lone parents
(in December 1997) and the setting of the minimum wage at
the miserly level of £3.60 an hour (less for younger workers).
The abolition of the student grant and the introduction of
tuition fees for university students have not done much for
equity, never mind equality.
New Labour (and its Third Way alter ego) needs to make its
mind up as to whether it is on the left or on the right. Is
Labour in power egalitarian or not? One message is given to
the middle class middle England of taxpayers (as with the
promised 1p cut in the standard rate of Income Tax), another
as the figures on extra welfare spending begin to stack up.
Gordon Brown, in a recent essay, might lead me to conclude
that New Labour is failing the Bobbio test. Whilst writing
on equality Brown manages to come to this conclusion about
New Labour in power, ".it tackles the causes of inequality
at the root - dealing not simply with the consequences of
poverty but addressing the causes - unemployment and low skills.
" Notice the way that he is able to change the subject
within one sentence. With a simple dash the problem becomes
not inequality but poverty and social exclusion. If the poor
can be put to work (at £3.60 an hour) all will be well. No
need to challenge power and privilege in order to create a
more just or equal society. No need to challenge the inequalities
that stunt and taint the lives of the disadvantaged. Just
get those slackers off their arses and into work!
The New Speak of New Labour is no accident. Welfare and work
are seen as being in contradiction to each other. As Michael
Freeden has perceptively seen it, "In the past, the concept
of welfare in socialist thought pertained to human flourishing
and well-being, to the ethical end of optimising human creativity
and eliminating human alienation. It was closely linked to
the egalitarian pooling of both human resources and social
goods. In current jargon, however, it has been reduced to
support services for the marginalised, the handicapped or
the unlucky - those who are unable, rather than merely unwilling,
to provide adequately for themselves. In many senses this
refers to no more than an escape from poverty, a minimal rather
than an optimal view of human happiness, to which a minority
are unequally condemned. That echoes the very social exclusion
New Labour has loudly denounced, notably in the establishment
of a Social Exclusion Unit. Welfare and work are counterpoised,
as if work were not, in mainstream social democratic as well
as socialist views, the epitome of human welfare itself."
Was May 1997 the watershed that so many of us hoped for or
just business as usual? More than two years into the Blair
administration there has been time to draw some conclusions
without any need for a precipitate rush to judgement. Martin
Jacques surely spoke to many of the disappointed when he concluded
that, "New Labour did not usher in a new era but more
properly belongs to the end of the previous one." If
we look to substance and not style and presentation the continuity
with the neo-liberal Thatcher/Major years is considerable,
not just in terms of policies but also when we consider the
ideas and assumptions (often unspoken) which underlie those
New Labour's friendships with the rich and powerful seem
to have ruled out any attempt to redistribute income or wealth
from the have lots to the have nots. Poverty is tackled through
various forms of social engineering; from zero tolerance and
curfews to tax breaks for families and encouraging adoption,
but any attempt to construct a more egalitarian economic and
social order is simply not on the agenda, even as a footnote.
In Bobbio's "axiological" distinction, movements
and parties must be either of the right or of the left, and
the distinction is rooted in attitudes towards equality and
inequality. If this is the case New Labour seems determined
to place itself on the right and not the left. The human heart
is, of course, on the left.