Academic journal article Public Administration Review

New Labour and the Public Sector in Britain(1)

Academic journal article Public Administration Review

New Labour and the Public Sector in Britain(1)

Article excerpt

"The Third Way" has become a familiar slogan in modern politics: Former president Bill Clinton even hosted a symposium under that heading, attended by the new generation of socialist leaders in Europe including Tony Blair from Britain and Gerhard Schroeder from Germany. The slogan often remains unacceptably vague, however, notably with respect to its implications for the public sector (Abrams 1999; Corera 1998; Finlayson 1999; White 1999). In May 1997, Tony Blair led the British Labour Party to a general election victory for the first time in over 20 years. The victory represented a triumphant conclusion to a long process of transforming the ideas, policies, organization, and image of the party--the transformation from Old to New Labour. However, the victory also represented the beginning of a process of applying the ideas behind New Labour to the public sector--the forging of a Third Way, the making of a New Britain.

What does the British example tell us about the Third Way as a vision of public-sector reform? We focus on New Labour's political vision of the public sector, indicating how it differs from that of Old Labour and the New Right. We argue that New Labour's public philosophy is a development of the socialist tradition in response to specific dilemmas conceived largely in terms associated with the New Right. The Third Way constitutes a distinct set of ideas that informs the government's approach to both the delivery of public services and the welfare state. We should remember, of course, that Old Labour, New Labour, and the New Right are abstractions that simplify complex sets of political ideas, practices, and loyalties. There are debates within each group, and there are also individuals who straddle any two groups. The New Right has exhibited various, sometimes competing traits, including not only individualism and a faith in markets, but also a commitment to traditional authority and strong leadership (Bevir and Rhodes 1998). Issues vital to the rise of New Labour and the New Right have received attention from theorists associated with Old Labour, as in Sydney and Beatrice Webb's attempt to respond to the guild socialists' critique of bureaucratic inefficiency in their vision of a socialist commonwealth (Webb and Weber 1975). Nonetheless, we believe these abstractions still capture broad and identifiable movements in British politics--movements that help us to understand many of the key ideas informing the policies of the Labour government.

In exploring New Labour's public philosophy, we focus primarily on Tony Blair's own pronouncements: We portray his vision of the Third Way as an attempt to rework the socialist tradition in response to the New Right. Thereafter, we show how this ideal informs aspects of government thinking and policy on the welfare state and the delivery of public services. To do so, we examine both government documents and the policy proposals of some of the relevant ministers and former ministers of state. Undoubtedly, it is too early to consider how successful the Labour government has been in reforming the public sector. We can explore, however, the rationale and content of New Labour's vision of the public sector, indicating how government policies reflect this vision.

Socialism and the Third Way

New Labour's public philosophy echoes a traditional socialist ethic. Peter Mandelson, one of the principal architects of New Labour, and Roger Liddle, one of Blair's policy advisors, tell us that Blair's heritage "is an ethical socialism which draws on the ideas of Tawney and Ruskin" (Mandelson and Liddle 1996, 32). Tony Wright, a New Labour member of parliament and biographer of R.H. Tawney, argues similarly that "ethical socialism ... represents our most fertile political tradition" (1997, 9). Blair himself frequently appeals to the ideas of ethical socialists (including Tawney), arguing, for example, that "the ethical basis of socialism is the only one that has stood the test of time" (1995a, 12). …

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