Which Way? the Third Way and the Puzzle of New Labour

By White, Stuart | Harvard International Review, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

Which Way? the Third Way and the Puzzle of New Labour


White, Stuart, Harvard International Review


STUART WHITE is Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and author of the forthcoming book, The Civic Minimum: An Essay on the Rights and Obligations of Economic Citizenship.

The author wishes to thank David Halpern, Steven Lukes, and Stewart Wood for comments on the topic which assisted in the writing of this article.

"New Labour, New Britain." It was with this simple and evocative slogan that Tony Blair launched New Labour in 1994 and under which the Labour party won the general election of 1997. But what is this "New Britain" that "New Labour" wishes to create? What is New Labour's ambition for British society? To ask this is to ask what vision of the good society underpins New Labour. These questions also pose a puzzle, for there is much disagreement amongst commentators as to the philosophy of New Labour. The Labour Party is a self-described "democratic socialist" party, and some argue that New Labour is indeed offering the national democratic socialist government in an appropriately modernized form. Others, pointing to the continuities in policy between New Labour and the previous Conservative governments, claim that New Labour has abandoned socialism and is merely offering warmed-over Thatcherism. A third camp argues that New Labour is neither socialist nor conservative, but heralds a return to progressive liberalism of the kind which inspired the Liberal Party governments in the first decades of the century, representing the "strange rebirth of Liberal England." Still others maintain that New Labour has no coherent philosophy at all, and that it is pure populism or electoral opportunism. Does New Labour have a distinctive public philosophy? If so, what is it? And how might it evolve?

Active Government

New Labour is a puzzle not only to those outside the government; it is also something of a puzzle to those within. Leading New Labour politicians have a clear sense that they are engaged in a new and distinctive political project that goes beyond merely winning elections, but it is probably fair to say that they are not sure as to how to characterize this project. Prior to the 1997 election, New Labour made one brief effort to make sense of this project; its declared aim was to create a "stakeholder society." Since the election, however, New Labour politicians have resorted to a quite different concept when challenged to articulate the grand vision behind the welter of individual policy initiatives: the so-called "Third Way."

The content of the Third Way remains somewhat ambiguous, but at its center there seems to lie a new conception of active government, a "new progressivism." In contrast to theorists of the "New Right," who exerted so much influence over the Conservative governments of the previous 18 years, new progressives believe in a strong and active role for government in the pursuit of the common good. But they also believe in rethinking how government should promote this objective, leading to some degree of policy divergence with the methods of traditional social democracy (at least as conceived and practiced in post-war Britain). Three basic ideas underpin the new progressive conception of active government:

1. Rethinking the state's role as a direct provider of opportunity goods. New progressives believe that in order to guarantee the citizen's positive freedom of agency and self-development, the state must secure high-level universal access to vital goods and services, including basic levels of income, education, and health care. Post-war social democrats in the Labour Party tended to think that if the state has a responsibility to secure access to any such good then it should typically finance and directly provide the good itself. New Progressives challenge this assumption. In some cases, it may indeed be appropriate for the state both to finance and directly provide a given good. In other cases, such as training, it may be more appropriate for the state to help finance a good's provision without directly providing it.

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