Accessibility links

Britain: Blair Looks For Third Way Between Socialism And Capitalism

  • Ben Partridge

London, 12 May 1998 (RFE/RL) -- British Prime Minister Tony Blair has set off a lively debate by claiming that his center-left government intends to choose what he calls the "third way" between traditional free market capitalism and state socialism.

In recent months the phrase "the third way" has run like a refrain through Blair's speeches, suggesting he is trying to formulate a new political philosophy to underpin his Labor Party.

But the term has caused some confusion: Even his own supporters are not quite sure what it means, while critics say it reflects a politician who is stronger on rhetoric than substance.

Skeptics point out that "the third way" has been used over the years to describe everything from Christian doctrine to fascism, and socialism to the "non-aligned" movement of Tito and Nasser.

Blair -- who is said to have discussed his ideas with his friend, President Bill Clinton -- hosted a "third way" seminar in London last week of academics and policy researchers that focused on how to chart a new way between traditional left and right.

Blair broke the political mold in Britain last year when he led his Labor party to a landslide victory over the Conservatives after two decades in political opposition and four general election defeats.

In effect, Blair pulled off a coup by persuading voters that Labor, long seen as a party of left-wing extremists wedded to socialist dogma, could be trusted again with power. He did this by moving Labor to the center, dumping its ideological commitments to public ownership, higher state spending and punitive taxation.

But Blair has come under fire from the left, who say he has betrayed Labor's socialist roots, and also from the right, who jeer that Labor's policies are now little different from those of the Conservatives (Margaret Thatcher is said to be a Blair admirer).

In hitting on a "third way", Blair seems to be trying to distance his party from "old-left" rigid thinking, but also morally from the Conservatives. An aide says he wants to take the traditional values of the left, and "make sure they are modernized for today's world."

What does this mean? One analyst says Blair's "third way" sets out a center-left vision in which social solidarity and cohesion complement rather than confront the market economy. Blair argues that opportunities for the least privileged are best improved not by waging class war against the rich but by maximizing the opportunities for the poor. So the role of the state is to widen opportunity rather than direct the operations of the market.

Commentator Peter Kellner, who took part in Blair's "third way" seminar, claims the approach is not based on ideology, but on values. It accepts that societies can, and should, have different forms of economic structure, including shareholder-owned companies, cooperatives and publicly-owned enterprises.

Kellner says ownership and control still matter but what matters most is not the source of power, but the use of power. Do firms treat and train their staff properly? Do customers receive good value? In public sector firms, are workers consulted on decisions? Thus, it is the role of government to create a framework in which everyone can have real opportunity and access to a decent life.

Critics say politicians have been arguing over issues like these for years; that Blair's approach just consists of age-old arguments dressed in new clothes. As someone once said, "nothing is new in politics". Still, "the third way" is now the official doctrine of the Labor Party, and the future route-map for the center left.