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14 January 2002

The search for the vision thing

You can stay on the straight and narrow Third Way; you can have two Third Ways; or you reach for the

By Jackie Ashley

Victory comes with its own problems. Six months after its historic second general election triumph, new Labour seems utterly confused about what it is and where its future lies. We have the resurgence of a modernised, more confident traditional Labourism around Gordon Brown, and on the back benches – a kind of new old Labour. And there’s the rethinking going on around Tony Blair and the modernisers who have followed him loyally so far – what you might call old new Labour. But there is no second flush of success, no certainty.

After declaring the death of ideology, the party hierarchy is finding in 2002 that ideological argument is back in fashion. Authoritarian centralisers, liberal marketeers, social democrats struggling for definition – even the odd socialist – are trying to grab the tiller, and for a very good reason. Tony Blair, famously, is for anything that “works”. But, given the state of the NHS and the rail system, that leaves him more open to argument than ever before. When pragmatism fails to deliver, ideology elbows its way back into politics.

The rethinking is not unique to Labour. Under Iain Duncan Smith, the Tories are ripping up many of their old prejudices, on crime, civil liberties, taxation – though not yet Europe. The Liberal Democrats are still struggling between being high-tax statists and libertarian rebels.

But, for the most obvious of reasons, it is the Labour ideological battle that matters just now.

In its starkest terms, the question is simply this: is new Labour with all its compromises as good as it gets – or can social democrats hope for more? There is nothing woolly or ivory-towered about that question because it leads straight to others. Such as: should there be a rethinking of the relationship between the state and the private sector? (See Stephen Byers’s agonies over the London Underground, and the belated recognition of the damage done by the “fat-cat” supporters of Blair in his first incarnation.)

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Or: should Labour openly raise taxes while pleading for more time to get the NHS right? Or: should ministers come clean and admit that there are real democratic problems with the current structure of the EU, and say that joining the euro will be conditional on democratic reform across the Union? Or: when it comes to a conflict between popular anger about street crime and Labour’s traditional interest in civil liberties, where does the modern party stand?

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These and a host of other pressing policy questions, from the replacement of student loans to single-faith schools, seem particularly knotty because the party today has no coherent ideology to answer them.

Among those responding to this intellectual crisis there is, first, the original author of Third Way-ism, Anthony Giddens. He sees his creation under assault from all sides and quite naturally sets out to defend it. In his latest pamphlet, Where Now for New Labour? (published jointly by the Fabian Society and Polity Press), he defines the Third Way as the new social democracy, which is both competent and caring, and which defends and restores the public sphere. While admitting that higher taxes cannot be ruled out for ever, he does not favour them, stressing the need for “an energetic and competitive economy”.

Giddens suggests the idea of “the good society”, where the state, the economy and civil society rule together. The main driver of the state shall be “the public interest”, and within this good society, the private sector and the public sector coexist happily. It all sounds very plausible, but in practice, what does it mean? The danger is that, because of the sheer power of the private sector, the public sector gets drowned out.

If there is little new ideology in Giddens’s latest pamphlet, that is because, according to the man himself, there really is no alternative to the Third Way. Giddens has toured Europe – Holland, Sweden and France, among other countries – and concluded that despite their slightly different models, each country has had to adopt the Third Way. It is inevitable, he believes, because of the pattern of modern economies and workforces, not forgetting public opinion. Giddens concludes magisterially: “We can say with some confidence that no feasible alternative model to the Third Way exists, at least for now.”

He marshals a number of arguments in defence of his proposition, but his strongest – and the one that Tony Blair uses most often – is “remember history”. Accusing critics of the Third Way of “blanking out” the past, Giddens reminds us that Labour lost three elections in a row and warns against going back to the very policies that kept the party out of power for so long. He believes that the fusion of social justice with the competitive economy is essential for electoral success – far better to address voters’ real concerns, he maintains, than opt for “impotent ideological purity”.

Fair enough, but no one is seriously suggesting we return to the days of donkey jackets and securing for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry. It is just that many in the Labour Party would love its leading lights to sound just a little more urgent about poverty and inequality and a little more self-confident, even aggressive, about the value of public action.

But Giddens’s analysis fails to resolve that nagging feeling disconcerting so many in Labour’s ranks, that this government is not quite what the party thought it was getting.

Given that we are not entirely happy with Giddens’s reassurance that all is for the best in this best of all possible social democracies, what is the alternative to the Third Way? Roy Hattersley has his own: to some extent a return to Labour’s old ways, though his promised “coup” to take back the party he joined has so far failed to materialise. Plenty of other socialists agree, but their power in the party is tiny.

Peter Kellner, writing in this week’s New Statesman (page 25), offers a different alternative – indeed two of them, one stressing equality, the other liberty. He wants “competing Third Ways” in order to give the electorate a choice. In this, he denies the core of the Giddens proposal and the Blair practice, which is that the Third Way embraces everything – a sensible, weatherproofed big tent. Kellner has a point, none the less. He suggests that Labour defines its mission as being the party of fairness, openly acknowledging that market freedom must often take second place to social justice and environmental well-being. The Lib Dems, he argues, should take on the liberty agenda, making the best use of their traditional liberal inheritance.

In effect, this breaks apart two competing, quarrelling instincts in the current government and puts them in clear, alternative parties. It would give voters a far more understandable choice, which would be good for democracy. But it would force hard choices on Labour ministers, which they have avoided up until now – so whether it is practical politics remains to be seen.

Another approach comes from a group of intellectuals who were present, along with Tony Giddens, at the birth of new Labour. An organisation first called “The Hub”, now more likely to be “Compass”, is struggling to articulate a new, loyal but progressive critique of new Labour. Its leading lights are Neal Lawson (of the new Labour magazine, Renewal), Michael Jacobs (the Fabian Society), Matthew Taylor (the Institute for Public Policy Research), along with thinkers such as David Marquand and Will Hutton.

Typically, as with all left groups, the main protagonists do not entirely agree. So the launch, already delayed by 11 September and the events that followed, is still not fixed. What unites the group is a desire to hear more about equality, pluralism, democratic reform and pro-Europeanism.

I am not bold enough to put words into such eagerly self-confident mouths. But it seems to me that the Compass will be pointing towards a more confident new Labour, proud to explain what it is doing, with a heavy dose of Gordon Brown’s “Treasury socialism” (covert redistribution through credits and allowances) thrown in. Compass hopes to engage some of the cabinet’s rising stars such as Charles Clarke, Patricia Hewitt and Peter Hain, and be a real force for change at best; at worst, it wants to provide ordinary party members with a forum in which to debate policy directions. At present, many in the party feel completely disconnected from the opaque policy-making process that new Labour has devised; this new group may help them feel they belong to something more than a supporters’ club.

If you were to ask Labour MPs and ministers whether they think more of the same is good enough, the vast majority would answer no. Most of them, privately, want more honesty about Labour’s redistributive programme, more democracy inside and outside the party, and more open debate. There is a genuine division over the use of the private sector in public services. That apart, the moves on Railtrack, health spending, student grants and vouchers for asylum-seekers all seem to be steps in the right direction. What is needed now is a theory to articulate the gradual change – and that is what Blair himself may not really be interested in.

After his initial endorsement of the Third Way, he never showed much appetite for big ideas, political philosophies and intellectuals. Sure, he’s good at the “big vision” stuff abroad. He can paint the broad canvas, conjure up the new world order, even if the role he sees for Britain is unrealistically large.

It is much harder to formulate a big vision at home. Yet if the government is to overcome this sense of drift, of unease and of an undermining lack of principles, it is going to have to find that big vision. The Third Way is not enough. Blair has recently summoned some of the brightest of his junior ministers for a brainstorming session about the way ahead: he needs to stimulate more of the thinkers in his own party, who for years have learnt the wrong lesson: “Keep your heads down, stop bothering with ideas and get on with the job.” In government, there are no jobs that don’t start with ideas. And yes, there is always an alternative.