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Third Way… Where to?

by By Ken Coates and Michael Barratt Brown

ISBN 0851246508

The first part of this booklet is a re-publication of an article written by UK Prime Minister Tony Blair for Prospect magazine (March 2001). It is a curious article which appeals for an end to attacks on his “third way” on the basis of a bogus left unity: “for the left itself to join in is a curious form of self-mutilation. Constructive criticism is healthy: lazy negativism is not” (p.3). This implies that the “left” is a monolithic whole and that this whole identifies with the Blair project. Of course neither is true. The hurt tone of Blair’s comments does indicate, however, that he has been stung by criticisms of his project…

His counterblast uses NuSpeak about NuLabour. He describes those who work for charities and the voluntary sector as “social entrepreneurs”. Is this the way they see themselves? Isn’t the analogy between society and the market just too stretched here? Blair also makes attempts to equate his “third way” with the term “progressive politics”. The implication is that there is no other way forward. The misuse of language by Blair certainly jarred with me. I was pleased to see that others felt likewise. The two critics of Blair writing in part two of the pamphlet point out a number of his strange language habits including stating contradictions “as if they were combinations” (p19) Can anyone using language in this way ultimately avoid deluding themselves?

Tony Blair highlights six areas where we need “to grapple new issues” (p.6). These are harnessing new technologies; transforming education; inequality and social mobility; overhauling government and public service provision; renewing democracy and international engagement. I found the most amusing in the list “renewing democracy and overcoming the alienation and disconnection from politics that is a marked feature of our lives” (p.7). The last General Election saw one of the poorest turn-outs ever. Most of those questioned as to why they didn’t vote stated they did not believe it would change anything. The constitutional changes brought in by NuLab have not heightened interest in politics significantly or raised the level of debate. More and more people are interested in issues which appear to remain unaddressed by any of the establishment parties. Many regard the rituals of a representative democracy – like the placing of a cross on a ballot paper every few years – as outdated and of little effect. The more intelligent view the establishment parties as simply the enabling mechanisms of big economic interests.

Blair nowhere suggests that a real transfer of power is needed to revitalise our democracy. Power relations are seldom discussed by Blair at all. Blair says that “Democracy needs to respond to people’s demand that they have a right to be listened to even if decisions do not always go the way they want”.(p.7) It seems that people are asking for the right to be listened to before they are ignored. A curious demand.

We in the real Third Way have argued for years that measures that transfer power are needed to build an active and responsible citizenry. We favour Swiss-style direct democracy, reform of the voting system and measures to ensure fair allocation of media time amongst others. Blair does not even consider these options.

In Part Two of the booklet, Ken Coates and Michael Barratt Brown reply to Blair. They are uncompromising in their criticism. They say Blair’s “third way” has simply “afforded a media friendly cover for the extension of neo-liberal politics of de-regulation, the untrammelling of market forces, privitisation and the roll-back of welfare.”(p.10) Elsewhere they say “the Third Way is the takeover of Labour by Capital”(p.14)

These critics are far from lazy. They ask pertinent and sensible questions. Quoting one of Blair’s mantras on dynamic markets combining with strong communities they ask “how is that to be done when the jobs are gone on which the communities depended?”(p.16). They rightly point out that in the list of Blair’s social innovations, the University for Industry, NHS Direct etc “Any transfer of power involved in these initiatives moves away from popular involvement.”(p.18) The ethos of NuLab is really top-down, we know better than you.

Ken Coates and Michael Barratt Brown address the real issue — power. This is something Blair never does. As they say “If fairness means social justice we need not what Blair keeps offering us which is ‘a sense of social justice’, but the reality. That means the actual redistribution of power and income, not only by a fundamental revision of our system of taxation and public spending, but by a genuine shift in the balance of wealth and power.” (p.19).

The critics neatly summarise where we are heading: “Effective markets mean the domination of the largest accumulations of capital and globalisation means that these will be primarily American”.(p.19)

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