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A Third Way to where?

As Tony Blair meets Bill Clinton for another conference on the Third Way, it is time to face up to the novelty of the New Labour project, says Linda Ryan

'I am the Third Way, the truth and the light', proclaims Harry Enfield in his new role as the Reverend Tony Blair, preaching from the New Britain Bible in the forthcoming BBC satire, Service from St Albion's. No doubt New Labour's sanctimoniousness richly deserves such lampooning. But Blair's attempt to characterise the New Labour project as an alternative to rampant free market capitalism on the one hand, and bureaucratic state socialism on the other, has been dismissed by historians and political pundits as well as being ridiculed by satirists. 'There is a Third Way', insisted the prime minister before the summer recess, in a response to critics of the 'neither New Right nor Old Left' theme that has recurred in his speeches since he became leader of the Labour Party (Times, 25 July 1998).

Some commentators see little new in Blair's approach, regarding it as a return to 'real old Labour' - not to the 'hard left' of the 1970s, but to the ethical socialism of Keir Hardie and the pragmatic social democracy of Clement Attlee. Indeed, in some of Blair's statements he explicitly declares his aspiration to revive the early traditions of Labourism. Other critics acknowledge that New Labour has changed, but regard the Third Way as a cover for the adoption, on an unprecedented scale, of policies - such as privatisation, cutting welfare and squeezing public sector pay levels - formerly associated with the Conservative Party. Still others dismiss the Third Way as typical New Labour PR froth, projecting a middle course between alternatives which no longer exist (if they ever did).

There is, of course, some truth in these characterisations. But the very comparison of New Labour with Old Labour - or with the Tories - tends to exaggerate elements of continuity. It inevitably underestimates the dramatic change in the nature of politics and government over the past decade, resulting from the end of the Cold War, the demise of class politics and the collapse of the old polarities of left and right. It is in this context that Blair's New Labour has tried to define a distinctive approach.

Perhaps the most important feature of the Third Way is its self-conscious repudiation of the past. Blair became leader of the Labour Party in 1994 at a moment when both the major political traditions of the postwar period, if not the twentieth century, had reached the point of exhaustion. Labour had lost four consecutive general elections and socialism was discredited, at home and abroad. Despite their successes in the 1980s, the Tories had lost the initiative, dumped Margaret Thatcher and, under John Major, appeared feeble, incompetent and sleazy.

In proclaiming New Labour and the doctrine of the Third Way, Blair sought to avoid taking any responsibility for all the failures of the Labour Party, in government and in opposition, over the past half century. Standing aloof from old party allegiances and rivalries, Blair could justify pragmatically adopting policies formerly identified as left wing or right wing.

In the period leading up to the general election the main function of the Third Way was to symbolise New Labour's distance from Old Labour. The showdown over Clause Four marked the final humiliation of the left (though, as recent controversies confirm, Blair still has to deal with minor irritations such as Ken Livingstone's campaign for mayor, the left slate for the national executive, not to mention Roy Hattersley sniping from the Guardian). Before the election, however, the politics of the Third Way meant that Blair heaped scorn on the left while expressing qualified approval of Margaret Thatcher.

Since New Labour took office the Third Way has come to assume a wider significance in the way the government is conducted. The quest for historical parallels is of little value here because of the unprecedented contraction of the political sphere over the past decade. The disappearance of class and ideological conflict from parliamentary politics means that the political process is reduced to technical and administrative measures and media manipulation - hence the enhanced role of think tanks and spindoctors.

Nor will a focus on the traditionally central features of government policy - in the spheres of finance, industry or international relations, for example - yield many insights into the distinctive character of the Third Way. New Labour seeks to define a new role for government at a time when politics has given up on any concern about the nature or direction of society. As Blair argues, the Third Way is 'based on values, not on outdated ideology'. Its starting point is the conviction that we should all adjust to the diminished possibilities offered by a society in which far-reaching change for the better is no longer considered feasible. This is how Anthony Giddens, director of the London School of Economics and a key intellectual influence on New Labour, puts it:

'In a situation where change has long ceased to be all progress, if it ever was, and where progress has become eminently disputable, the preservation and renewal of tradition, as well as of environmental resources, take on a particular urgency.' (Beyond Left and Right: the future of radical politics, p49)

What are the values of the Third Way? In a characteristic posture, Blair appeals over the heads of the 'political cognoscenti' to the mass of 'non-political people', into whose hearts and minds Peter Mandelson's focus group techniques have given New Labour privileged insight. According to Blair the people of Middle England 'distrust heavy ideology', but want 'security and stability'; they 'want to refashion the bonds of community life' and, 'although they believe in the market economy, they do not believe that the only values that matter are those of the market place' (Times, 25 July 1998).

Fortuitously, in their quest for order and tranquillity in a chaotic world, the decent people have been rewarded with a government which takes a 'cautious' view of the prospects for the national economy and is also committed to 'prudent' public expenditure limits. It must also be reassuring for them to discover that this is a government ready to make 'hard choices' (especially against soft targets) and which takes a robust view of the responsibilities of the individual in relation to health and welfare. The values of the Third Way reflect and shape a pessimistic and conservative response to the dynamic and unpredictable world of the late 1990s.

According to Michael Jacobs, another key New Labour figure and leading light in the revived Fabian Society, 'we live in a strongly individualised society which is falling apart'. For him, 'the fundamental principle' of the Third Way is 'to balance the autonomous demands of the individual with the need for social cohesion or "community"'. One issue which New Labour has kept to the fore of public attention - drugs - illustrates how the government's preoccupation with social disintegration results in the forceful promotion of the values of the Third Way.

The early appointment of former police chief Keith Hellawell as the government's 'drugs tsar' signalled New Labour's determination to make drugs a major issue. This was followed rapidly by the announcement of plans to extend drugs education in schools, down to infant level. Last month the government announced an extra £217 million to fund the largest ever expansion of drug prevention and treatment programmes, focussing in particular on women and teenagers.

Just as the drugs issue is an apt symbol of New Labour preoccu-pations, its anti-drug policy is symbolic of the moralistic and coercive dynamic behind the Third Way. The apparently widespread use of drugs by young people encompasses the hedonism of the rave/club scene and the self-destructiveness of the heroin subcultures. New Labour strongly disapproves of both as manifestations of a menacingly antisocial outlook. Underlying the drug debate, the widening scope of the concept of addiction expresses the sense of individual loss of control, which in turn reflects the apparent powerlessness of society in face of the criminal infrastructure of drug trafficking. (For New Labour's spindoctors the drugs problem has the added advantage of being unquantifiable: it thus offers great scope for the production and manipulation of dodgy statistics.)

Dramatising the issue of drugs - a service dutifully provided by the media in line with government policy - encourages public approval for an interventionist policy to deter demand and to curtail supply. More than a quarter of the recent government grant to the anti-drugs crusade is ear-marked for compulsory testing and treatment programmes to be imposed by the courts on drug users and alcoholics. Further funds have been allocated for 'voluntary' testing and treatment in prisons. In this climate we can expect pressures to extend drug testing to schools and workplaces, measures already widely in use in the USA.

The trend towards moralistic, intrusive and authoritarian policies, justified by (exaggerated) concerns about social cohesion, is evident in other important areas of government policy. It is particularly notable in relation to children (the Sure Start programme, David Blunkett's bedtime/homework guidelines) and in the new public health plans (which seek to regulate behaviour in schools, the workplace and the neighbourhood).

These policies illustrate an additional feature of the Third Way. The very novelty of New Labour initiatives necessitates the appointment of new personnel and the creation of new institutions to overcome the inertia of the established structures of central and local government. To emphasise the importance of its drugs policy, the government has created the new office filled by Keith Hellawell and prefers to implement the policy through a plethora of voluntary organisations, rather than through traditional channels. Health action zones, education action zones and employment action zones are the chosen vehicles for policy innovation in their respective areas. At higher levels of government, semi-detached special policy units, think tanks and quangos play an increasingly important role. Foreign minister Robin Cook's recent proposal to hive off some of the functions of the Foreign Office to a private think tank is yet another indication of this trend.

Accusations of 'cronyism' against Blair over the recent appointment of television executive Gus Macdonald as a Scottish minister miss the key point: the government needs to bring in loyal outsiders in the process of forging a new political class and a new machine to push through its Third Way programme. New Labour is happy to include within its top ranks former left wingers such as Macdonald, former industrialists such as Lord Simon or former patron of the Aids establishment Baroness Jay. It is also delighted to parade its list of glittering celebrity sponsors - Mick Hucknall, Lisa Stansfield, Melvyn Bragg - to underline New Labour's independence of the unions. New Labour is not only a new party, but a new type of party with a new type of programme and a new team to promote and implement it.

One of the most dangerous trends in society today is the way that the policies and practices associated with the Third Way compound New Labour's anti-democratic tendencies. Blair's contempt for both his own party and for parliament was strikingly exposed in the way he recalled the house for 24 hours in September to railroad through the anti-terrorism bill. Not surprisingly, this action provoked only muted protests from elder statesmen of all parties. The role of the vast ranks of Labour MPs is merely to vote through the legislation drawn up by a leadership over which they have virtually no influence - and to deal with the complaints of their constituents.

Commentators who are still stuck in the mindset of traditional party politics are still anticipating that the New Labour government is likely to run into difficulties as a result of a new recession or because of a crisis in its welfare reforms. The experience of the first 18 months of New Labour suggests that both are unlikely. The biggest reverse so far experienced by this government was over hunting, a question of 'values' rather than 'ideology'. Fortunately, such issues provide fertile terrain on which to challenge the authoritarian imperatives of the Third Way.

Keeping the faith - in caution and prudence

Reproduced from LM issue 114, October 1998

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