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Third Way or road to nowhere?

Five years into new Labour Pete Smith assesses the Third Way and finds it is not the way to social justice and good governance.

The reinvention of the Labour Party after 1994 when Tony Blair became party leader has been associated with the notion of a Third Way. The term got invented benefit of Bill Clinton's speech writers and the so-called New Democrats grouped around the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), who wanted to find a formula that would get a Democrat into the Oval Office after a long string of defeats. The logic was simple: to defeat the Republicans the Democrats had to become more like them. Al From of the DLC argued that the social and political structure and geography in the United States had changed in a way which fundamentally disadvantaged the Democrats.

The bedrock of the Democratic vote from the early 1930s had been blue-collar workers and the union vote, but economic change had weakened the unions which were in decline as a proportion of the workforce and the electorate. Democratic city machines, often based around ethnic neighbourhoods, had been able to deliver the giant cities such as New York, Chicago and Detroit, but by the early 1990s ethic loyalties were weaker and the big cities only contained a minority of ethnic voters. Black voters were overwhelmingly Democratic but a small minority outside a few areas and with low registration and turnout rates.

The conclusions were simple: in order to win elections the Democrats needed to reach out beyond their core constituencies. White middle class voters in the suburbs were the key to electoral success. In particular the Democrats wanted to attract support from middle class suburban women, often thought to be natural Republican voter, but alienated from the Republicans over issues such as abortion and gun control. These became known as the 'soccer moms'. Policies which stressed help to the poor, minorities or union members, particularly if they might involve taxes on the swing voters of the suburbs and small towns would spell disaster in the ballot booth.

Research by Stan Greenberg, a Clinton adviser and close associate of the Labour Party's focus group guru Philip Gould, in Macom County, Michigan seemed to confirm the analysis. White blue-collar workers who had decanted themselves from the inner city deprivation of Detroit, many of them union members and Democratic identifiers, had simply drifted away from the party. These voters were often described as 'Reagan Democrats'; they saw themselves as Democrats but voted for Ronald Reagan in1980 and 1984 and for George Bush in 1988. The Democrats needed to reconnect with these voters in order to win. They did and Bill Clinton won the White House in November 1992.

The lesson for 'new' Labour was clear: win back the prosperous working class traditional Labour supporters who had forsaken the party in the 1970s and 1980s - Basildon man, Essex man or Mondeo man, whatever you want to call him - and also reach out to the lower middle classes who were not normally Labour voters - Middle England, Worcester woman, or whoever it is in the seat of the people carrier on the school run, the equivalent of Clinton's 1992 soccer moms.

'New' Labour was built around a marketing exercise - how to win elections and be in power, rather than lose elections and be in opposition. Herbert Morrison, Peter Mandelson's grandfather, once famously said "socialism is what Labour governments do". The logic is compelling - no Labour government, no socialism in any form. Labour had to change.

One of the explanations for why the opinion polls got it wrong in 1992 predicting a Labour victory, when the Tories actually won, is sampling error. This just means that the polling organisations assumed that Britain was a more working class and less middle class country than it turned out to be. Social structure has changed since the Labour Party was formed in 1900. It is a much more middle class society and the working class communities which once underpinned the Labour vote are either much weaker than they were, or non-existent. Any realistic political strategy has to take account of that.

However, Labour did not need to reinvent itself as 'Not Labour', the party of business and wealth, rather than the one of ordinary working people whether middle class or working class.

We had not fully prepared ourselves for the political re-run of those 1950s sci-fi films where people became possessed by aliens - the body snatchers really had come to town. George Orwell in his classic tale, Shooting an Elephant, says that if you wear a mask long enough your face grows to fit it. That is what has happened to the collection of former left wingers who make up a substantial proportion of the government, some of whom were too left wing to be in the Labour Party in the 1970s and 1980s.

Now privatisation, market forces, low taxes, forcing the scroungers into work and flexible labour markets have become articles of faith, not because they are routes to electoral success, but because these people really believe this stuff.

However many times ministers or their advisors tell us that X or Y amount of extra money is going to public services, most people know that the situation on the ground does not match the tale that is being told. Targets are set, new initiatives multiply, but does it make life better for ordinary people?

Is the education system delivering to a greater extent than five years ago? The figures say yes, but in terms of literacy, numeracy and general education things are worse than they were under the Tories. More children and young people pass examinations, but most people involved in education know this is because government pressure and market forces mean the examinations are easier than they were. No real improvement in education has taken place.

The number of students in higher education has increased, but the proportion from less advantaged backgrounds has not and the number of mature students is falling. Problems with funding mean that there has been a dramatic increase in the number of 'semi-detached' students, too committed to paid employment to give proper attention to their studies, and they are disproportionately from poorer backgrounds.

Several higher education institutions qualify as universities in name only, providing second or third rate education to students from working class or ethnic minority backgrounds and awarding them qualifications which are the Confederate money of the post-graduate world.

The sorry tale of failure to deliver on public services is repeated across the board. The unwillingness to bite the bullet on rail privatisation has meant five wasted years, delays, disruption and a mounting death toll.

The Blair project was about winning elections. The Labour Party in Britain is protected by the hopeless character of the Conservatives, a party which is anyway in long term decline as its vote is ageing and increasingly unrepresentative of the general population and the electorate. The fact is that the first-past-the-post system is very biased against the Tories. One estimate from Bob Worcester, of polling organisation MORI, is that the Tories need to get a 7% lead in the popular vote in order to get a majority of one in the House of Commons. In that sense the UK is insulated from the right wing trend which has enveloped Western Europe and most of North America.

Recently Blair called together a meeting, at a Buckinghamshire hotel, at which leaders of the European centre left and Bill Clinton discussed why the left is in retreat across most of the West. Al Gore is not President of the United States, winning and keeping the White House was pretty much the whole origin of the Third Way. The approach dreamt up by the New Democrats has failed. Austria, Holland, Italy, France have all fallen to the forces of the right and Germany is likely to follow shortly.

As an electoral strategy the Third Way does not deliver because, of course, it does not deliver in real terms. All the spin doctors and focus groups in the world cannot put one extra teacher in front of a class, or take one patient off a trolley in a hospital corridor. The Third Way cannot even make the trains run on time.

The Third Way alienates core working class supporters and does not attract those middle class voters, particularly in the public sector, who have found themselves the victims of policies which put the bottom line above job security or service delivery. Traditional socialist voters in France have just walked away from the party, not voting, voting for fringe candidates or even the National Front. The same or similar will happen to the German SPD later this year.

At Blair's summit on what went wrong, Anthony Giddens, the Director of the London School of Economics, who has tried to give the Third Way some intellectual credibility amongst people who are not intellectuals, argued that failures in terms of attracting and keeping voters were about an "inability to modernise enough". This is, of course, just a euphemism for arguing that the Third Way has failed at the ballot box because it has been insufficiently right wing and in continuity with the neo-liberalism of the Thatcher-Bush years.

Centre left parties excluded from power for years on end lost faith in the voters and ended up losing faith in themselves. All that remained was carrying out the policies of the right, sometimes more humanely, but sometimes more ruthlessly. Now the excuse for failure is that they have been insufficiently reactionary. Blair's Third Way is no way to electoral success, good government or social justice.

July/August 2002