he 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
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
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
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.