Third Way, Old Hat

Ross McKibbin

The departure of Frank Field, the enthusiastic reception by the Parliamentary Labour Party of Gordon Brown’s spending plans, together with the increasingly desperate attempts by the Government’s leading members, particularly the Prime Minister himself, to discover a Third Way, represent an important moment in the history of New Labour. The hunt for the Third Way, which has been going on more or less since Blair announced the birth of New Labour, is in many respects paradoxical. It is not obvious why a government which prides itself on its pragmatism and freedom from ideological baggage should spend so much of its time trying to acquire a new ideological encumbrance. Furthermore, the Government is at the moment under no electoral pressure: on the contrary, its lead in the opinion polls remains formidable – without precedent in our modern history. The Prime Minister continues to be enormously popular. In these circumstances, it seems surprising that he should wish to tamper with a winning formula. The departing Field and the spending Brown are, as we shall see, two of the reasons why.

What is most curious about the search for the Third Way and the debate about the policies which are supposed to constitute it is how unhistorical they are. Few of the participants seem to have much sense of the history either of the Labour Party or of the country it now governs. The rhetoric of the Third Way is, in fact, very misleading in its assumptions. It seems to suggest that the Third Way is a via media between two polar opposites – an uninhibited free market at one pole and ‘socialism’ at the other – and that these opposites themselves are complete entities which occupy all the space at each pole. But this has never been the case, at one pole or the other. In Britain there have this century been few defenders of the uninhibited free market as a basis of social policy and there has certainly been no such thing as ‘Old Labour’, if by that we mean a political party whose ideology was set in stone and therefore unquestionable. The history of the Labour Party has been one of almost constant ideological and political adaptation. In this sense there are many ‘Old Labours’. The Old Labour Party which Mr Blair inherited, which we might call the Kinnock-Smith Party, was one variety, and it differed from Tony Benn’s variety as it did from the Wilson-Callaghan variety. That Party in turn differed significantly from Attlee’s, which differed even more from Ramsay MacDonald’s. And so on. We could argue, indeed, that Tony Crosland’s The Future of Socialism presented as much of a challenge to the ideological status quo within the Labour Party as the proponents of New Labour have done; yet Crosland never imagined that he was re-creating the Labour Party. We should, therefore, at least in part, see New Labour – both as practice, what it does in government, and as ideology, what it says it stands for – as one strand in the Labour Party’s traditions.

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