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Do you know your left from your right?

The left versus right distinction predated the emergence of class politics. Taking equality as the axis Pete Smith believes new Labour may well be on the wrong side of the divide.

For 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 Zanussi.

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 case.

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 policies.

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.

July/Aug 2000