The New Statesman Essay - New Labour needs a moral compass

Alan Ryan argues that Blair's guiding light should be the Liberalism of 1906

Ever since he was elected, the Prime Minister has been looking for the Third Way. He has been roundly mocked for it, and the efforts of his intellectual allies haven't always had good reviews either. At the risk of sounding like the man who reckoned to have found the Holy Grail in his back yard, I'd like to suggest that the Third Way is hard to see because it is under our noses. It's what progressive liberals in Britain (no matter what party label they wore) were arguing for throughout the 20th century.

It's not entirely clear where I should begin to demonstrate this, though it's clear where I ought to end up. Let's start with President Clinton's devastating defeat at the hands of the Republicans in the mid-term elections of 1994. One of Clinton's responses to his trouncing by Newt Gingrich and his friends was the appointment of Dick Morris, a Republican political adviser and pollster; and from Morris came the bright idea - and the entirely apt word - of "triangulation". The politics of triangulation are simple, unlovely and effective. You plot your course so as to leave your allies and enemies fighting each other across your wake while you nip up the middle between them.

So you make enough tax cuts to ensure that your enemies lose all but their most tax-obsessed supporters, and you preserve just enough of your party's traditional programmes to head off a full-scale revolt. Your supporters won't make common cause with your enemies, however annoyed with you they become; so you make as many concessions to the enemy as you need in order to split off their wavering allies and undermine their popular support. You don't on any account pick unwinnable fights - so say goodbye to Hillary Clinton's hopes for a national health service for Americans. And you don't get sidetracked by sentimental attachments to folk who don't deliver votes or money - so you don't try to stop Republican governors who want to experiment with workfare schemes that will create appalling misery in an economic downturn.

People who dislike the whole idea of the Third Way commonly think that Clinton-style triangulation defines it. It doesn't; at any rate, it shouldn't. The other starting point is not the rise and fall of Gingrich, but the birth of the Liberal government of Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman in Britain in 1906. This was the election that saw the first arrival in parliament of a substantial Labour bloc. And at that time, the Labour programme was almost indistinguishable from that of the "new" or "advanced" Liberals.

Some traditional Liberal voters were still concerned with issues that had no resonance with the Labour movement; they were enthusiasts for temperance, for the disestablishment of the Welsh Church, and for allowing non-conformists to avoid paying for Church of England schools through the local rates. But these issues had no great resonance with advanced Liberals, either.

What did resonate were the issues that still resonate today: old-age pensions, housing, support for the unemployed - "welfare" issues in general. Other common themes were Home Rule for Ireland, decolonisation, and a taste for federalism as the solution to the problems of diversity in the rest of Britain. Liberal observers from the advanced wing of the movement observed in 1905 that there was little or nothing to separate the demands of Labour from the programme of new Liberalism. This would not have come as news to most members of the Fabian Society.

The argument to which both these starting points lead is this: the Third Way as practised by new Labour is half a mess and half a genuine attempt to recapture the centre ground of progressive politics in this country. It is a mess when the Third Way is merely triangulation - when it is an unprincipled attempt to maintain political support by splitting the difference between your own side and your opponents. It is not a mess when it is a search for the radical centre ground. The most accurate guide to the radical centre is the unfinished agenda of new Liberalism - otherwise known as collectivist Liberalism, Liberal-socialism and much else in the same vein. People have mocked Tony Blair for the innocent way in which he recruits 19th-century Liberal prime ministers to the new Labour cause. Quite wrongly in a way, because what Blair should try to be is a Liberal prime minister; but quite rightly in another way, because whom he ought to emulate is not Gladstone, but two 20th-century Liberal prime ministers - Asquith and Lloyd George - and the intellectuals he ought to take seriously come from the London School of Economics of 1900, rather than the LSE of today.

Triangulation is a mess because it has no moral compass. When Jack Straw sets out to preserve the government's credibility with the fans of Ann Widdecombe, the results are morally repulsive. "Zero tolerance" is a notion that should have no place in the lexicon of progressives. Pandering to suburban xenophobia is no way to handle policy towards refugees. Allowing the public only as many peeps into government policy as neurotic civil servants will tolerate is no way to approach freedom of information. But these are triangulation. They concede a little to the demands of progressives for humane policies on crime and refugees - more treatment for drug-users, say, or quietly allowing a few more asylum-seekers to stay here - and a little to Labour's long-standing commitments to freedom of information. At the same time, they head off the assaults of Conservatives in parliament, while they placate Middle England outside by mimicking the rhetorical savagery of the right, and by adopting its authoritarianism.

The same goes for many other areas of policy. Educational policy is advertised as punishing teachers and students who won't manifest the compliance towards authority that a Conservative government would want to see. Labour supporters are not going to vote Conservative in order to have still more of that sort of thing, so you can safely let down your own supporters in much the same way that Clinton has let down his. Benefits policy is presented in a way that defuses Conservative disapproval of single mothers and "scroungers". And so it goes on. It is not that nothing gets done that a progressive would want done; you still get the working families tax credit, for example, or better provision for parental leave. It is rather that, as with Clinton, the impression is given that the government will lean over backwards to absorb its enemies' views in order to preserve its electoral position.

Defenders of Clinton could decently say that he had no alternative. From 1994, he was facing a large Republican majority in Congress, and had precious few weapons with which to fight. Unlike the French president, the American president cannot force a dissolution and go to the country to try to secure a majority for his own party. Essentially, he has to get along with the majority in Congress, to take advantage of whatever mistakes it makes - such as the folly of the Republicans in shutting down government by failing to pass a budget - and get what he can. In Britain, where Labour has a majority of 174, no such argument applies. The affection in which new Labour holds President Clinton and triangulation is therefore mysterious.

It is possible that what new Labour really holds in affection is the organisation that first brought Clinton to prominence a decade ago. The Democratic Leadership Council, an association of centrist Democrats desperate to get back the White House, espoused the idea, if not the vocabulary, of joined-up government, and provided the (un)ideological backing for Clinton's campaign for the Democratic nomination in 1991-92. But that was a decade ago, and in a very different political system. To start triangulating with a majority of more than 170 at one's back is an odd way to carry on. If Clinton had had that sort of support in 1993, the US would have a national healthcare system (of some sort) by now.

Yet the contrast between Britain and the US may be more apparent than real. Clinton had a large and ideologically fanatical Republican majority against him in Congress, but public opinion in the country was not overwhelmingly hostile - Clinton's job-approval rating stayed at 60 per cent during the impeachment process, though his personal-approval rating was half that. Fanatics were thinner on the ground outside the Beltway; and issue by issue, Clinton was often more popular than the Republicans. Labour's position is slightly different. It has a huge majority in parliament, and a vast lead in the opinion polls. But its popularity in the country, though a mile wide, may be a mere inch deep. If asked to choose between a Labour and a Conservative government, the public is two to one in favour of Labour. But issue by issue, Labour has less of an advantage than that suggests.

Still, even if triangulation is wicked rather than silly, triangulation is not what the Third Way ought to be. First, the label of the Third Way ought to be junked; it defines new Labour as not Margaret Thatcher's conservatism, and not Michael Foot's Labour Party. If we are to steal anything from the Americans, let us steal the idea that defined New Deal Liberalism - the idea of "the vital centre". Suppose we ask what constitutes the vital centre, and see our task as capturing the ground where the advanced liberals of 80 years ago voted Labour to realise their liberal aims. The answer comes in two layers; one is a matter of theory, or world-view, or ideology, or whatever term people find sufficiently unpretentious to live with. The other is a matter of how we construct and implement policy.

As a matter of philosophy, the Labour Party has always been a liberal party - always opposed to capital and corporal punishment, the party of abortion law reform and the party that decriminalised homosexuality. It is a universalist party: it has never been attached to the proletarian millenarianism of Marxist politics. It has been individualist, welfarist and utilitarian in the way Liberalism was. It certainly saw itself as promoting the interests of working people; but it was always (to the disgust of many of its supporters) a national rather than a sectional party. Even Clause Four aimed to promote the interests of workers by brain as well as by hand.

When it came to policy construction, the argument for putting the interests of working people first, and taking those interests most seriously, was familiar to progressive Liberals. First, in a market economy, there is no guarantee that ordinary working people will be able to earn enough to sustain a decent existence. Or, as the new Liberals put it, we want competition above the line of a decent existence for the sake of efficiency and economic progress, but we don't want competition to drive working people below that line. Second, there is no guarantee that, out of working-class wages, it will be possible to provide for emergencies - unemployment, ill-health, the loss of the wage-earner. Those two thoughts alone will generate the minimum wage, encourage collective bargaining and sustain the welfare state.

Even on nationalisation - the point where one might expect Labour and the new Liberals to be in opposite camps - they were on common ground. It was taken for granted by writers such as L T Hobhouse - the country's first professor of sociology, and a luminary of the LSE from 1907 to 1929 - property rights, especially rights to capital and land, can be sustained only if they are used for the benefit of society. Whether assets are better owned publicly or privately is a pragmatic question - what good will they do in which sorts of ownership? The new Liberals did not flinch at the idea of nationalising the railways; they had absorbed Joseph Chamberlain's municipal socialism, and were well in advance of us in advocating swingeing taxes on the development gains that would otherwise accrue to landowners by sheer accident.

What makes the new Liberals a model for new Labour is what underlay these agreements on policy issues. They thought that the point of politics was to allow all individuals the chance to live interesting, fulfilled and chosen lives; the aim was individual freedom, and the point of social justice was to distribute resources so that everyone could lead such lives. It was a thoroughly anti-authoritarian ideal; it was not the government's job to tell people how to live, nor to make them perfect. It was the government's job to ensure that circumstances did not deprive too many of the population of the possibility of choosing in the first place. The term "social exclusion" is perhaps a recent invention; but the wish to abolish it is at least 120 years old.

Like new Labour, the new Liberals were eager to distinguish between the bad sorts of individualism that might pull society apart, and the good sorts that might hold it together. They thought that individuals would be genuinely happy only if they felt that they lived in a society that demonstrated concern for the welfare of all its members. It wasn't to be devil-take-the-hindmost individualism, nor the self-centred silliness of the "me generation". What ought to unite new Labour and its new Liberal ancestors is the depth of their conviction that we are social creatures through and through.

Cashing this in policy terms is a delicate matter. But the desiderata are not hard to insist on. In education, for instance, the idea of a learning society can make sense; but it needs to take learning seriously as something individuals do for themselves, with the help of the people we call "teachers". Lose that and you don't set up a learning society but a bureaucratically disfigured instructional delivery system. By the same token, though part of the point of learning is vocational and instrumental, part must also be to achieve individual growth for its own sake. New Labour cannot speak quite coherently about either, not only because of a perfectly understandable impatience after 18 years out of power, but also because of the absence of a moral compass. On the one side, new Labour lurches into treating the young as cannon fodder for whatever the economy demands of them, while on the other, it makes grudging concessions to the cultural legacy of the human race under the philistine heading of "art'n'sport".

But the balancing of communal and individual concerns should permeate all social policy. It is reasonable to expect most people to contribute a good deal towards their own healthcare, unemployment insurance, pensions and the like - but wicked to stigmatise those who for good reason cannot. Teaching everyone the connection between their contributions to private and public welfare and what everyone receives is the only basis of a sensible discussion of taxation. But unless we remember that we make collective provision to ensure the welfare of everyone, we get obsessed with whether we get back exactly what we put in.

The point of becoming articulate about the progressive tradition in which we are trying to operate is not that philosophers and political theorists can make social policy in the classroom and expect grateful politicians and civil servants to go off and implement it. But without more moral and intellectual backbone than it currently possesses, new Labour will find that the triangulation that serves it well in the short term will undermine it in the longer term. Anyone wanting the 21st century to be the progressives' century ought to be anxious about exactly that danger.

The author is professor of politics at Oxford University and the Warden of New College

This article first appeared in the 07 February 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The Prime Minister loses control