From the 1997 election archive: Centre left at centre stage

The election of Tony Blair's first Labour government promised to usher in a new era for the "centre left". But what would Blarism entail? In this article, published on the 2 May 1997, the British sociologist Anthony Giddens attempted to define the new political philosophy.

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Is there a distinctive position for what Tony Blair has come to call the centre left? The problem arises with some urgency in the wake of the election, particularly since the electoral strategy was dominated by caution. Areas of possible Tory attack were neutralised by shifting ever-further into the centre ground as the Tories continued to veer to the right. But is this all the centre left means: appropriating conservative policies one after the other?

During the run-up to the election, Martin Jacques and Stuart Hall penned an exasperated article, “Tony Blair: the greatest Tory since Margaret Thatcher?”

“With the Tories divided, exhausted and demoralised,” they wrote, “it is still their arguments, their philosophy, their priorities, that are defining the agenda on which new Labour thinks and speaks.”

New Labour has shifted so far to the centre that the party represents merely a warmed-over Thatcherism. “A Blair government”, they say, “promises to be a messy business” – and short-lived, too.

Blair must be as conscious as anyone of the difficulties involved. He has deliberately coupled a successful policy of thoroughgoing reform inside the party with a “don’t rock the boat” philosophy outside. The Labour manifesto says, “We have modernised the Labour Party and we will modernise Britain”. But the first doesn’t supply much guidance for the second. And it is quite easy to say what “modernisation” is when applied to the Labour Party. As applied to an industrial country as a whole, deciding what the word means is much more demanding.

The stakes are high. Twice before in the post-war period this country has pioneered ideas and policies that have influenced political thought and practice across the world. The first was the creation of the Keynesian welfare state, which Labour did so much to shape. The second was Thatcherism or, more broadly, neoliberalism. If new Labour has the vision and the courage, it could be the sparking-point for a new political framework of comparable importance and influence to those that went before. For the old “welfare consensus” is no more, and Blair is right to say there can be no going back to it. Neoliberalism, however, has not only run out of steam, it was a thoroughly inadequate and self-contradictory political philosophy to begin with – as the Tories found to their cost and Labour will also discover if the party does not advance beyond it.

Has Labour got some way towards establishing a third phase in British politics, or is it simply in the unprincipled muddle that critics such as Jacques and Hall assert?

My response is that the party and the bevy of advisers and intellectuals around it have made a good stab at the task, even if the result so far isn’t especially exciting or compelling. The centre-left project as it stands runs as follows. New Labour seeks to think in the long term, both as regards labour markets, industry and the fabric of government itself. Investment in human and social capital, in which the state must play a significant part, must complement capital investment of a more orthodox type. Long-termism will be encouraged in corporations via a culture of stakeholding, however that is conceived. Constitutional reform, a desirable feature of modernisation in any case, will play its part in developing social capital, because it will increase trust in government. The whole thing will be under-pinned morally by an emphasis on the traditional family, moral education and to some extent a substituting of new obligations for rights.

There is some force in all of this and it does attempt to create a break with neoliberalism. Depending on what particular gloss one puts on the project, it implies dragging the UK away from the US model in the direction of something like stakeholder or Rhineland capitalism. I don’t want to dispute the importance of investing in human and social capital, and the stakeholding idea is surely of value, albeit a more limited one than its advocates claim. But new Labour in power needs to give hard thought to whether its overall perspective is compelling enough to provide a sufficient grasp on the challenges it will confront.

What follows are a few suggestions about how the centre-left project might be fleshed out further. At the risk of sounding didactic, I’ll suggest some issues that need to be looked at, but also offer possible answers – mostly these are in the food-for-thought category, for a coherent and persuasive left of centre programme is still in the making.

 1) What is the centre left? As I understand it, it is a political standpoint that speaks to the fundamental changes happening in the world, changes that mean the division between left and right no longer has the purchase on reality it once had. New political allegiances and new forms of consensus-building become possible, many of which concern problems that don’t have clear-cut left or right solutions. The centre left doesn’t preclude radicalism, in fact it seeks to develop the idea of the radical centre. The notion of the radical centre is an oxymoron only is one believes left and right still define all worthwhile ideas and policies in politics. I mean by it that there are political problems which demand radical solutions, but for which wide cross-class support can be mustered.

The centre left continues to draw inspiration from left values, but accepts that socialism is dead as a theory of economic management and as an interpretation of history. The residual difference between left and right is that those on the left attach more value to promoting equality and democracy, and believe he state can still act to further these.

2) What are the changes to which the centre left responds? The dominant influence over our lives is globalisation, a phenomenon that as yet is only poorly understood. The word globalisation has become so commonplace (although it was hardly used even ten years ago) that a reaction has set in, with some arguing that it is more or less a neoliberal myth. This standpoint is quite wrong. However, we should understand by globalisation not just an intensifying of world economic competition, but more a shift in the way we live. We are all learning to adapt to a global cosmopolitan society, with its benefits and changes – a society producing seismic shocks that disrupt familiar institutions, from marriage and the family through to the nation-state and beyond. Contrary to what many observers say, globalisation makes political decisions more urgent and consequential than they used to be, not less.

Radical thinking and policy will be necessary to confront the problems and maximise the opportunities globalisation brings to the fore. The policy issues at the top of Labour’s agenda – including constitutional change, devolution, reform of the welfare state and the future of the European Union – all express globalising influences.

3) What should the project of modernisation be? It is important to recognise that there are now two forms of modernisation in play across the world, and in some part they are in conflict.

What I’ll call “first-phase modernisation” refers to modernising processes that take a society, as it were, in a straight line towards increasing wealth, and where prosperity, security and improvement in overall quality of life tend to go together. “Second-phase modernisation” happens where these conditions no longer hold, and where modernisation means, in addition, coming to terms with some of its own limits, tensions and difficulties.

Issues raised by second-phase modernisation can’t be resolved by means of first-phase strategies. Asian economic development thus far, for example, has been linear or first-phase modernisation – the more mature Asian economies are hitting serious second-phase problems now. Second-phase modernisation does not imply a steady-state or no-growth economy. It is consistent with low-inflation, low-growth targets. It generates increasing prosperity. But it means dealing also with aspects of life either where there is too much rather than too little (e.g. Car traffic) or where economic development has proved damaging. It demands an integration with ecological concerns, broadly conceived. The Labour manifesto has a stronger emphasis on environmentalism than previous policy documents, but there is a long way to go. An ecological outlook can help weld together many concerns in a programme of social and economic renewal. Business and ecological groups are increasingly coming to work in tandem, rather than seeing their interests as inevitably opposed; taxation can be moved further in the direction of consumption and away from production; urban and transport policy, seen in an ecological context, connects with a diversity of other policy areas.

4) New Labour has no overall economic theory. If such a theory can’t be Keynesianism and shouldn’t be neoliberalism, what might it be? No one yet has a clear-cut answer, but there is an emerging paradigm that could be of value in shaping the economic orientation of the party. This is the paradigm of what Michael Mandel, a US economist, has called the high-risk economy.

The high-risk economy, which reflects globalised conditions, is one in which, as noted earlier, wealth-creation, security and quality of life become uncoupled. The positive acceptance of uncertainty, and the ability to make successful “investment” decisions in many areas of life, is increasingly the basis of successful global economic competition. Growth, as Mandel, puts it, is “fed by forces that intensify uncertainty rather than reduce it.” In the high-risk economy, hunting for the sure thing cannot be an effective strategy in the long run. There is too much available information, entry is easy and competitors abound. Government must help to provide the means of security that people rightly require. We can’t and shouldn’t try to insulate people against risk. Acceptance of risk is the condition of prosperity (and necessary to confront the ecological and other problems it brings with it). Security needs to be provided instead through insurance. Since the welfare state is in large part a state-run system for managing risks, this consideration is directly relevant to the restricting of welfare. The possibilities are many. Take, for example income averaging. Income averaging means calculating tax liability on average income over three or four years instead of each individual year. It would provide a benefit for those who lost their jobs, or where income dropped markedly (not for those whose incomes rose substantially), without reducing incentives.

If this model of wealth creation is correct, it compromises some, but not all, of the assumptions of Rhineland-style capitalism. Rather than having the aim of dampening down financial markets, for example, we would have to recognise that most other sections of the economy are coming to resemble them.

5) How should new Labour approach the problem of unemployment, in some ways the most basic social challenge of the moment? The party’s answer couples an active labour-market policy to a traditional goal of full employment. This is also basic in its approach to countering inequality and poverty.

“The best way to tackle poverty”, said the manifesto “is to help people into jobs – real jobs.” This might seem to be Labour at its strongest, but I would agree with the critics who say that here it is weak. Getting people into jobs doesn’t necessarily tackle poverty, as the example of the US shows, and full employment can’t mean the same as it did a generation ago. Labour must as a matter of urgency address the debate about the future of work, and should do so in collaboration with the unions. Only a third of the labour force in the UK, excluding those under 18 and over 65, is working in full-time occupations with stable job security – the basis of old-type “full-employment”. At the same time non-employment (as opposed to unemployment) is achieving a rich diversity of meanings.

This observation is more closely related to problems of inequality than one might imagine. Existing welfare institutions can no longer cope, and in any case need to be reshaped, while further direct income transfers from rich to poor through income tax are not an option. We should look instead for means of redistributing employment, and more generally redistributing work. Government can and should act to do so, on a diversity of fronts. Some of Labour’s current policies on reducing long-term unemployment make a contribution to work redistribution, but they are a small bite out of a much larger cherry. The redistribution of work could encompass, among other things: tax incentives for corporations that gear recruitment and job stability to wider social needs; the further expansion of higher education which, besides its civilising role, defers entry into or takes people out of the labour market; career-break and career re-entry schemes for a range of age groups; the breakdown of the division between “men’s” and “women’s” jobs; any provisions that encourage men to define themselves more fully in terms of family responsibilities, and that make it easier for women with children to sustain a career.

The party’s proposed labour market reforms won’t arrest the drift towards the formulation of an underclass. Yet if the “left” in centre left is to mean anything, this is one point where Labour must make its policies count, and where the party should make a clean break with neoliberalism. How? There is a lot of thinking to do. There seems good evidence to show that inequality is dysfunctional to economic success in the global market-place. On the whole, more unequal societies seem less prosperous (and less healthy) than less unequal societies. Why not build a concerted attack on poverty into a strategy for enhancing overall economic competitiveness? Of course, the fundamental problem to be faced up to is: can anything be done for the have-nots without exerting more control over the prerogatives of the haves?

6) What moral stance should Labour have? It has a disturbing one now. Christianity, strong families and acting tough on crime – the mix has made many Labour supporters uneasy. In this area in particular, new Labour appears not only to have become Tory but even to have moved close to its right wing.

Labour strategists will say talking tough on moral issues has got them where they are. Blair’s rise to the top began when he persuaded the public that Labour was no longer soft on crime. Talk of teaching the differences between right and wrong and of strong families is popular. Why drop these things now?

They shouldn’t so m much be dropped as looked at in a different way, as well as freed from their authoritarian overtones. The Tories try to mix chalk and cheese when simultaneously advocating economic individualism and moral authoritarianism. Blair shouldn’t persist with this category mistake. Why speak of modernisation in all other contexts save this one? The only feasible project for the centre left is in fact a cosmopolitan one – the recognition that cultural diversity is an inherent part of a globalising order. There can’t be one morality, imposed by any one group; moral issues must be publically debated and on this basis built in to a sustaining framework of law, including international law. There is no point advocating a return to traditional moral canons or in proposing a return to the traditional family. It is right to say a new balance between individualism and social obligation must be struck, but existing policy isn’t the way to do it.

Maybe pandering to the prejudices of Little England was necessary to defeat a Conservative Party that had built a populist platform on this basis. A Labour leadership worth its salt must at some point take on these prejudices rather than produce a watered-down form of them. Changes affecting marriage, the family, sexuality and personal life are as profound as those happening in other institutions. They are occurring throughout the industrialised countries and an effective policy platform must be developed to respond positively to them.

7) Finally, what attitude should labour take towards the European Union? I shall offer only a short coda. As a political leader, Blair has a great opportunity to make his mark in Europe – it should be one of his prime concerns over the next few years. The older generation of European leaders is fading and Blair is the most interesting and successful politician of the upcoming generation. To make his presence felt, however, Blair will need to do more than reoccupy the Tory “empty chair”. The EU should be understood as itself a product of, and a response to, globalisation.

From such a perspective, devolution and constitutional reform in the UK, including Scottish home rule, can be seen as part of a broader pattern. Globalisation pulls upwards and outwards, but simultaneously exerts downward pressure. Local nationalism, and demands for local autonomy more generally, are part and parcel of the processes that create supranational institutions and associations. “Subsidiarity” in this sense is not primarily a “policy” of the EU, but a structural condition of its very existence.

Tony Blair now has the chance to lead in Europe in a double sense. He can ensure that being at the heart of Europe means something real and he can lead the way to an influential new programme. New Labour in power might collapse into squabbling and disillusion. But the centre left can work towards a political standpoint of some ambition. If this is indeed achieved, history beckons.

This article is part of the New Statesman's 1997 election archive, New Dawn. Click here for the full collection.