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Monday, September 27, 1999 Published at 17:21 GMT 18:21 UK

UK Politics

What is the Third Way?

Tony Blair: Seeking the centre ground

Tony Blair has committed his government to treading the Third Way. Both US President Bill Clinton and German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder espouse the same doctrine. But what does it really mean? BBC Social Affairs Editor Niall Dickson digs behind the rhetoric.

On the face of it I believe we should be suspicious of political ideologies borne of practising democrats - dictators can afford to have coherent if brutal creeds - public opinion is of limited interest to them as it was of no value to the likes of Hegel or Marx or Plato or Mill, none of whom actually ran anything or had to respond to the latest poll or focus group. Their belief systems could afford to be uncontaminated by the need for pragmatism.

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And yet in this age when the great ideological divide which characterised the post war era has evaporated we seem to feel the need to understand our politics as a single story rather than as a set of disjointed initiatives. A government, it seems, must have at least a Big Idea underpinning its policies - simply wanting to make the world a better place will not do.

Of course the Third Way to this extent is not new - not only have there been the familiar tenets of neo liberalism Christian and social democracy and democratic socialism, all of which can claim to have acted as tillers to various administrations but there has also been Butskellism - the cross between the thoughts of Conservative Rab Butler and Labour's Hugh Gaitskell and more recently Thatcherism, which some have argued represented the first clear ideological underpinning the Conservative Party has ever had.

[ image: Clinton, Blair and Schröder are all Third Way disciples]
Clinton, Blair and Schröder are all Third Way disciples
So what is this Third Way embraced by Blair and Clinton and now by a number of European leaders, most notably Gerhart Schröder in Germany? One observer described it as the Loch Ness Monster of British politics - everyone's heard of it , there are occasional sightings but no-one is sure the beast really exists. Or as another remarked the third way is ethereally defined. One supporter writing to The Independent claimed it was a form of benevolent pragmatism - a philosophy that asked of each policy - is it good, does it work? For this reason he argued it was hated by the old left and the new right - the new right because they never did anything that was good and the old left because they never did anything that worked .

Put at its most basic the Third Way is something different and distinct from liberal capitalism with its unswerving belief in the merits of the free market and democratic socialism with its demand management and obsession with the state. The Third Way is in favour of growth, entrepeneurship, enterprise and wealth creation but it is also in favour of greater social justice and it sees the state playing a major role in bringing this about. So in the words of one of its gurus Anthony Giddens of the LSE the Third Way rejects top down socialism as it rejects traditional neo liberalism.

I would not want to disagree with that but there is certainly a tendency among some supporters of the Third Way to define it by parodying what has come before it - to suggest that Thatcherism was only concerned with the market or even that it prescribed free market solutions for all ills is surely an oversimplification - likewise to depict old Labour as if it were some form of Stalinist mantra which favoured snuffing out all forms of private enterprise is equally silly. To reduce alternative approaches to such banalities may throw the Third Way into sharp and flattering relief but it doesn't really illuminate it very much. Indeed if the Third Way were just a compromise between hard economics and social justice it would not merit much discussion.

The other and related criticism of course is that the Third way is no more than a crude attempt (rather a successful one thus far) to construct a bogus coalition between the haves and the have nots - bogus because it entices that haves by assuring them that the economy will be sound and their interests are not threatened, while promising the have nots a world free from poverty and injustice. I don't accept this is entirely fair and I hope I can show it does amount to more than mere opportunism even if that its electoral success both here and in the United states has been dependent on winning over middle class voters to parties that have often been regarded with suspicion by the better off. Seventy-eight of Labour's gains were in suburbia.

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And it is interesting post the European elections that the left in Britain silenced for so long by the spectre of its own disastrous performance in 1983 when it dictated labour party policy, has popped out of the shadows to proclaim that the party's natural support is being alienated by the right wing antics of the government in general and the prime minister in particular. I suspect that argument too does not stand up to close scrutiny.

So if the Third Way is not any of those things or not those things alone, then what is it? Giddens in his analysis begins by pointing to a changing world and suggests that the Third Way is a response to that change - not merely electoral opportunism then but a rational response to a new political social and economic environment.

At the heart of these developments lie globalisation - such is the nature of world trade and the rapid movement of capital that modern governments are no longer in control of their national destinies - electronic money flies around the world and is 60 times the value of goods.

The capacity of government to influence events is thus diminished - Robert Reich Clinton's one time Labour secretary argued that after ensuring that there were the right conditions for maximising trade and encouraging investment governments were left with two crucial variables they could affect - first the skills of their population - making their workforce more competitive through higher levels of education and training and second, building an efficient infrastructure of transport links, utilities and I suppose in the British context hospitals and schools, the social infrastructure.

[ image: The blur of global trade patterns lies behind the Third Way]
The blur of global trade patterns lies behind the Third Way
Giddens goes further suggesting that the Third Way sees the nation state as too big for small problems and too small for big ones - hence the enthusiasm for devolution in the UK and the passing of some functions to Europe. And recently with the war in the Balkans there has been the beginning of a debate about the end of the sanctity of the nation state and the emergence of a new moral order which does not accept the old notion that what one does within one's own borders is one's own business. While this takes me beyond my social brief it does illustrate how one can apply these notions to other areas of policy. More pertinent is another massive change without which the Third Way would not have been conceived and certainly would not have had success at the polls. A generation ago half this country was working class - 20% was middle class - today they are the other way round. Mrs Thatcher's property owning democracy is here. The left may lament the fact that Labour's core support is not turning out to vote - the truth is Labour's core support, in that traditional sense, barely exists at all.

It has evaporated along with so many of the certainties that characterised this turbulent century - traditional loyalties and communities have disappeared, along with the moral direction and authority once provided by church and trade unions, the simple division of roles between genders and the deference that characterised the British class system.

In its place a more uncertain world, where what is immoral today may be moral tomorrow and vice versa. A world in which family life and individual expectations have been transformed, where new fears and uncertainties have taken root - where so often nothing is for ever - no job for life or home for life or marriage for life.

So it is this that the Third Way seeks to make sense of and, in Giddens' words, apply left of centre values to the new world. To recognise the need for a moral framework and to adjust public institutions to a very different and demanding environment.

So What are the Values?

According to Julian Le Grand also of the LSE it is possible to discern four key values which underpin the actions of this administration and which de facto make up the Third Way.

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First a belief in the value of community. Unlike Mrs Thatcher who famously claimed there was no such thing as society only individuals proponents of the Third Way still believe there is or there should be more than the nuclear family at one end and the nation state at the other. Hence enthusiasm for devolved powers to Scotland and Wales, for a Greater London Authority and for mayors who will personify communities of various shapes and sizes.

Community is evident too in much of the work of the social exclusion unit - the drive against social exclusion in part at least will come from invigorated and empowered communities. And as we shall see many social policies are based on the premise that institutions and individuals can be encouraged to so-operate with one another in constructive partnerships rather than competing with one another.

One of the difficulties here is that community is ill defined - the very changes the government seeks to confront have eroded traditional communities and new sets of relationships often not based on geographical areas have emerged. Secondly there is a commitment to equality of opportunity - by no means a new rallying cry since both past Conservative and Labour administrations have claimed to have this at the centre of their policies - but there is something distinct here. Right wing governments have generally thought it sufficient to create a level playing field - for example by providing universal services such as health visiting or compulsory schooling but at the same time accepting as inevitable very different outcomes in terms of income, health or educational attainment. The left on the other hand has concluded that these different outcomes were simply the result of exploitation, or lack of funding or poverty - in short nothing or very little to do with the people in the affected communities who were viewed as passive victims. The left also had a degree of commitment not just to equality of opportunity but to equality itself. Or at least a commitment to reducing levels of inequality.

The Third Way differs from these analyses or rather it borrows from them all. First there is a stronger recognition that equality of opportunity is denied to many and that this requires positive discrimination in the form of additional funding or even sotto voce transfers of funds from one part of society to another. Second there is a refusal to accept deprivation as an excuse for failing to provide that opportunity - so whether it is the absence of a GPs surgery on a council estate or rampant crime or poor housing or failing schools the assumption is that the cycle of deprivation can be broken.

Here though the subjects are not seen as victims of an exploitative system or at least that excuse for not fulfilling their responsibilities is to be removed - so their schools will be improved, but woe betide those parents who fail to make sure their children turn up on time, their neighbourhoods will be cleaned up but those who disrupt will be kicked out, those who want to give up smoking will be helped to do so, but it will be made abundantly clear that each individual is at least in part responsible for their own health.

There in a tension here within the Third Way between enforcing the concept of responsibility which can mean excluding those who do not conform and one of the other central tenets which demands that as many as possible are included. It is a problem already evident in some of the reports on the New Deal for the young unemployed where it seems some of the most needy have done least well.

The main thrust though is pretty much agreed and is central to the Blair project. What is less clear is how far the Third Way seeks greater equality per se. Le Grand sees evidence of ambitions of equality of opportunity but not much evidence of wanting to close the income gap - Anthony Giddens on the other hand talks of the Third Way contesting inequality and I think it is a mistake to underestimate this aspect. There is a strong element of redistribution in this government's fiscal policy.

Apart from a quiet but determined assault of remaining middle class tax benefits, the creation of the minimum wage, increases in child benefit and minimum guaranteed income for pensioners there is the working families tax credit - more significant I suspect than the rest put together and with the potential, whatever its downsides, of raising the incomes of very large numbers of low income and low to middle income families.

What differentiates this from previous attempts at creating a more equal society is that it is based on work as the principal root out of poverty - work will be made worthwhile because work is seen as the source of dignity and worth - work for the young, for the long term unemployed, for lone parents, for the disabled. And while the state has a responsibility to help train and provide skills to enable people to acquire jobs, they have a duty take them. Which leads me to Le Grand's third value - responsibility.

It is striking how dominant this theme appears in just about ever government initiative - the Third Way has a strong moral vein. And it goes much further than saying to 19 year olds that staying in bed is not an option - the criminal work is predictable, but even here there is more evidence than ever - reparations for victims, parenting orders, and curfew orders on the under 10s. But it is wider than that - asking parents to ensure time is put into homework, cracking down on teenage fathers, ensuring teenage mothers are prepared for their responsibilities, and requiring jobseekers to attend interviews under the single gateway to welfare, all these underline and are intended to underline individual's responsibility to the state and the wider community.

The traditional left's view of the exploited masses has been abandoned - in fact in so far as the social excluded - the third way term of have nots - are exploited it is by the very systems that were designed to help them - by a welfare system that fostered dependence, an education system that bred failure and a child support agency that miscalculated and a health system that did little to tackle the underlying causes of their high rates of morbidity.

Hence value four - accountability. For just as individuals are responsible to society, organisations especially public bodies will be held to account like never before. Part of this involves the creation of new democratic mechanisms here and in Scotland Wales and London and through attempts to revitalise local government.

And part amounts to little more than extending the last government's work on performance indicators - finding measures that reveal whether a public body is doing its job efficiently and effectively. What is new is the focus on outcome measures - so it will no longer be just the speed with which patients are seen in hospital, or the number of moves a child makes in foster care - it will be how many patients died under the surgeon's knife, how many GCSEs the child in care passes.

Alongside this is the apparent commitment to embrace those who use these services - to make consultation more than the period of time between announcing a policy and implementing it. Often pretty ill defined, this approach is evident in the white papers on mental health social services and to some extent in the primary care reforms planned for England. I want to return to this shortly in discussing the delivery of the third Way - suffice it to say here that there is growing suspicion among many that government action has thus far not matched government rhetoric - as one leader in the voluntary sector put it we fear we are being asked for what we can deliver not what we can shape.

The Third Way relies on the public sector but its view of it complex - it shares many of its values - commitments to access and equity and service. Yet like the Conservatives there is an assumption that on the whole these institutions are currently not well run and are failing to deliver.

No Ideological Commitment to Public Services

The result is two key devices for changing that - first new measures of performance, new regulations and new controls across the public sector - from the Youth Justice Board who will crack down when delays in the criminal justice system are not addressed or offending behaviour not tackled early enough, to the reinforced social services inspectorate, from the regional commissions for care standards to the Commission for Health Improvement. A whole new array institutions to drive up standards.

Secondly there is no ideological commitment to public sector provision - there is a willingness to contemplate private and not for profit alternatives, something manifestly different from more traditional Labour policy which at times was indifferent to the voluntary sector and often hostile to private involvement in welfare. Now though private prisons are encouraged, private companies are invited to come in when education authorities have failed, the private sector is seen as the saviour of the NHS capital build programme - PFI survives and of course Best Value implies shopping around.

Indeed it is the social services white paper that is the most explicit on this, stating quite clearly that 'who provides' is not important. The one exception to this indifference so far is with the health service where a combination of Labour Party history, public regard and powerful professions have ensured that mainstream clinical services at least will stay public in every way - the quiet privatisation of sections of mental health care, nursing home care and non clinical services will stay quiet.

So there we have it - CORA not Mrs Thatcher's TINA. And at its heart is social policy - shaping a new set of relationships within society and drawing together the successful businessman and entrepreneur with the lone parent - above all delivering not just a fairer society at ease with itself but a more effective one which uses the talents of all.

So will it work?

The Third Way is nothing if not ambitious - it believes in the power and effectiveness of government and the capacity of the public sector to deliver social goals - it believes the public sector with the right alliances can not only deliver better services it can transform society reducing social exclusion, academic failure, family breakdown.

And among those at and around the top of this administration there is no doubt about the coherence or the righteousness of this strategy - they know perfectly well that they are not closet Conservatives but they are much less confident about their capacity, your capacity to deliver what they demand. The mantra education education education has been replaced with delivery delivery delivery. A nightmare for them is their election theme song 'Things Can Only Get Better' being played over pictures of hospitals filled with trolley waits and protests over closing old people's homes, and surveys which show concerns over education as high as in 1997.

My own view is that they are right to be worried about delivery.

The most important foundation IS in place - social reform can only ever succeed on the back of a successful economy and the crystal apparition that is the third Way will melt into a messy blob without a thriving economy - it needs the tax revenue to fund revitalised services, it needs jobs for those going through its New Deal programmes. And jobs, for the exponents of the Third Way, are the way out of poverty.

Were the economy to hit the buffers the entire social policy programme would fall apart. But as there is no evidence that it will, let us assume that that modest growth can be achieved with relatively low unemployment.

The first observation has to be that the new funding not just in social services but in health, education and criminal justice does not match the hype - and those who greeted the CSR settlements with phrases like 'beyond our wildest dreams' are already eating their words. The realities in your own areas you know better than me - in education there is more but it is the one area where demand is not shooting way ahead of supply and where the link between the quality of service and the quantity of money is rather uncertain - meeting literacy and numeracy targets will not be achieved by throwing money at schools.

Parts of the health service meanwhile are in debt - the warnings are already coming out that in places the government will have to choose between the great modernisation projects and keeping the service running. The police mutter they cannot recruit more black officers because they are not recruiting at all.

So on its own the extra money will make a difference - class sizes will fall, waiting lists too but there is not enough money and certainly not enough skilled people to bring about a metamorphosis.

The second area is the sheer complexity of what is being attempted- Andrew Foster the controller of the Audit Commission produces an remarkable flow diagram which illustrates how fiendishly complicated even the most basic of Whitehall functions can be when translated on to the ground - the funding of social housing streams out of a few Whitehall departments into a multitude of quangos and local agencies and ends up as a bowl of spaghetti.

I do not suggest that partnership and joint working will fail but there are signs already that in places rhetoric may be moving ahead of reality and that with massive organisational change underway in health, local government and youth justice the danger is that operational demands suffer at the expense of structural reform. Co-operation is fine, but it can be time wasting as well as time consuming - how many hours will be devoted to local drug action plans, youth offender plans, health improvement plans, education action zone plans, corporate social care plans, local mental health plans_

Allied to this are the grumbles already apparent that too much is being expected too soon. The NHS and social services in England have been deluged with circulars - at the NHS confederation conference this year minister after minister acknowledged the size of the agenda and promised fewer initiatives - the NHS chief executive went further saying he did not expect managers to act on everything in every circular.

Those who support the Third Way believe in the capacity of government and of planning. Yet however ingenious their methods ultimately they can only make a difference in two ways - they can create conditions in which staff either do things better or do better things. Given the current patchwork of provision delivered by an array of different professions in agencies with widely different cultures there must a chance that good words will run ahead of good deeds.

What is more the tension between the need for central control and the desire to foster local autonomy has not be resolved. Already some are warning that local creativity is being snuffed out by centrally prescribed initiatives. Ministers of course make no apology for setting standards and setting directions for organisations that rely wholly or in part on government funds but with ever more outcome related measures the degree of Whitehall control in England appears greater than ever.

And it will seem even greater when the new regulatory and inspection bodies are up and running. Nor is it just a concern for mangers. For a whole variety of reasons the professions are in turmoil - public sector morale, never good, has fallen back after the euphoria many felt at Labour's election victory. Yet above all others it is these groups, the doctors, nurses, social workers, OTs and police officers who are expected to deliver the Third Way. Holding them to account may be overdue but it is bound to be painful and not just for those deemed to be underperforming.

And the implicit assumption that it will be possible to deliver reform while continuing to embrace all stakeholders is also coming under strain. Disability groups at national level have already marched out of their forum with the government in protest against aspects of welfare reform, some mental health user groups have quit their consultative committee because they object to the government's emphasis on public safety and compulsory treatment in the community. Some police authorities have indicated that they will not co-operate by diverting funds into drug rehabilitation from their already overstretched budgets.

And there perhaps lies one of the main underlying weaknesses of the Third Way - it conjures up the prospect of cost free reform, where everyone is a winner- John Galbraith was no doubt overstating it when he claimed politics was the art of choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable, but it certainly does often involve trading the interests of one group against another - to that extent John Major was right when he said there could be no gain without pain.

More than this though, like so many ideologies the Third Way runs the risk of overstating the capacity of government to deliver, to change the way people are, the ways they choose to live their lives. Many of today's social problems have deep roots; the physical illnesses of tomorrow are already predetermined by lifestyles of yesterday, some of the pressures that lead to mental problems are beyond government influence others may be exacerbated by the understandable drive for success.

This is not a counsel of despair but it may be good reason for greater humility and a call for both politicians and public to have lower expectations of what the Third Way can reasonably achieve within a reasonable time.

This article was originally used as a speech delivered by the BBC's social affairs editor to the Institute of Directors of Social Affairs.

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