Accessibility links

World: Clinton, Blair Plan 'Third Way' Conference

  • Ben Partridge

London, 31 August 1998 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President Bill Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair plan to convene a special conference of world leaders next month to discuss how to chart a new way between traditional left and right ideologies.

The one-day conference, tentatively scheduled for September 21, is expected to explore the principles behind what Blair calls the "third way" between free market capitalism and state socialism.

Among leaders expected to attend are Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi and Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso.

A spokesman for New York University, which is expected to host the gathering, told the London Financial Times that an event would take place but could not provide details of the agenda.

However, U.S. officials said that Clinton, Blair and Prodi, all of whom are planning to be in New York for the U.N. General Assembly session, were expected to speak at the conference on the broad theme of "Democracy in the Global Economy."

Over the past year there have been several meetings between supporters of Clinton and Blair aimed at formulating a new political philosophy to guide center-left parties into the 21st Century.

The initiative has been pressed by Blair who broke the political mold in Britain last year when he led his Labour Party to a landslide election victory over the Conservatives after 20 years in opposition. Traditionally, Labour is a socialist party born out of the struggle early this century between trade unions and employers.

Blair has moved Labour to the center, jettisoning its commitments to public ownership, higher state spending and punitive taxation, and pursuing conservative economic policies.

But Blair has come under fire from the left, who say he has betrayed Labor's socialist roots, and also from the right, who say his policies are little different from the Conservatives.

In response, Blair has been casting around for a new route-map to inspire his party, and to bolster its support in the country at large -- something he calls "the third way." He and Clinton, who are ideologically close, discussed their ideas earlier this year.

Broadly speaking, the 20th century has been dominated by the struggle between two ideologies: state socialism and laissez-faire capitalism. Now, Blair and Clinton are expected to argue for a new ideological model at the New York conference that balances economic growth and social justice.

What exactly is implied by the Third Way? The phrase has caused some confusion because no-one is quite sure what it what it means. Part of the problem is that the working principles are still under debate by center-left policy makers and academics.

Commentator Philip Stephens (Financial Times) says one of Blair's starting points is that opportunities for the least privileged in society are best improved not by waging class war against the rich, or directing the operations of the market, but by maximizing the opportunities of the poor. Blair is famously on the record for saying that the three priorities for doing this are: education, education, education. (His government has stepped up spending on schools).

Part of the Blair approach is to build social solidarity and cohesion by, for instance, raising training standards so that the unemployed can get back to work. Work, in his philosophy, is an instrument of social liberation, a precondition of greater equality.

Analysts say the Third Way also implies a common approach that relies on private-public partnerships to tackle difficult issues like welfare reform rather looking to the state for solutions.

David Halpern, a Cambridge University academic who organized a recent "Third Way" seminar at 10 Downing Street, said the objective of the new policy model is "to create a society that combines dynamism and equity." But he himself admitted there was a real danger that discussions will become "too vague to follow or too bogged down for a political vision to shine through."

Are the politicians just dressing up age-old arguments in new clothes? Does the talk of a Third Way amount to much? For the moment, the center-left must await the New York conference when Clinton and Blair have a chance to explain themselves.