In 2005, the then leader of the UK Labour party Tony Blair delivered a speech to that year’s party conference in Brighton after his third election win. In it, he would sum up where social democracy in Europe stood at this peak of the Third Way in Europe. It’s message was clear:
“The character of this changing world is indifferent to tradition. Unforgiving of frailty. No respecter of past reputations. It has no custom and practice. It is replete with opportunities, but they only go to those swift to adapt, slow to complain, open, willing and able to change”, he said
That doesn’t sound very inspiring. “Embrace change, or else”. Human beings are creatures of habit. They have roots and relationships. They have a belonging to a plot of land. The Mondeo man was an atomic individual, a rootless being without attachments to anything or anyone else. A blank slate who was wiped clean regularly of her past and her connections, without ill effects, if the Mondeo man only embraced change.
To describe this new thing in European politics, in a 1999 a working paper co-written by Tony Blair and Germany’s version of Blair, Gerhard Schroeder, described this as the goal of the Third Way
“The politics of the New Centre and Third Way is about addressing the concerns of people who live and cope with societies undergoing rapid change – both winners and losers. In this newly emerging world people want politicians who approach issues without ideological preconceptions and who, applying their values and principles, search for practical solutions to their problems through honest well-constructed and pragmatic policies. Voters who in their daily lives have to display initiative and adaptability in the face of economic and social change expect the same from their governments and their politicians.”
Change, change, forever change for the modern human. Humans must cope, lest they be left behind. In his speech in 2005, Blair elaborated, and stated indirectly that if you didn’t want that change, you would be left behind, because then you didn’t want to “own the future”.
Like many things, the Third Way is an import from America. Dick Morris coined the term in 1996, when he worked on the re-election campaign of President Bill Clinton. The reshaping of the Democratic Party to the “New Democrats” had been the model to other centre-left parties who were struggling to win. In an interview later, when he introduced the concept of ‘triangulation’, he used the term. His definition of triangulation, expressed in a PBS interview, was this.
“Take the best from each party’s agenda, and come to a solution somewhere above the positions of each party. So from the left, take the idea that we need day care and food supplements for people on welfare. From the right, take the idea that they have to work for a living, and that there are time limits. But discard the nonsense of the left, which is that there shouldn’t be work requirements; and the nonsense of the right, which is you should punish single mothers. Get rid of the garbage of each position, that the people didn’t believe in; take the best from each position; and move up to a third way. And that became a triangle, which was triangulation.”
“And move up to a Third Way”. The successful election of Bill Clinton under the name “New Democrats” sent that idea, that triangulation, that Third Way across the Atlantic to us here in Europe, and it was eagerly picked up by Social Democratic parties who were faltering and thrashing about for a new credibility after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
In Germany, in Sweden, and in the UK, this Third Way would find its champions, and those champions were initially successful. Göran Persson in Sweden. Gerhard Schroeder in Germany. Tony Blair in Britain. That’s how the Third Way came to dominate, and it pushed out the old style social democrats and democratic socialists like Jeremy Corbyn to the fringes of politics.
The essence of what Third Way centrism offered was a Faustian deal where change meant precarious conditions and insecure work, where all human roots and social entanglements dissolved into the atomic individual. For their parties, they offered an equally tempting deal: become a shell that you can fill with anything, and you too can have electoral success. Ditch all that you stand for, test everything against public opinion, and chose that which is successful. It was the age of the atomic individual and the shell of political parties they ushered in. This would cope with the changes they saw as necessary.
Curiously enough though, there was one thing that was immutably set in stone. The path itself, the direction of travel. Deviation from that path was wrong. There was no alternative to change, to the rat race, to the atomic human without a place or without relationships. Since then, this double message has been repeated again and again. Echoes of it has resonated from the mouths of all the politicians who failed so badly in 2016.
During the first leadership election of Jeremy Corbyn, the Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee wrote an article begging the newspaper’s readers not to vote for Corbyn, because dreams are foolish. In her article she wrote:
“He has opened a floodgate of dreams, making people feel good about themselves. He is right about welfare, austerity, tax avoidance, renationalising rail and mail, Trident, housing and myriad other touchstones. He’s authentic to the tip of his beard, reassuringly no grand orator in the grandstanding George Galloway or Michael Foot tradition. At hustings he shines by offering virtue, while the rest wrestle with the wretched realities of British politics.”
The message of that last line is clear. The realities is that change is relentless when it comes to people’s security, and they must accept that change, but change is impossible when it comes to diverging from the set path. “British political reality”, and indeed European political reality as seen in the treatment of Greece, is that there is only one direction of travel, to the right. Ever to the right. Don’t dare to dream, because dreams are foolish. But embrace change… or be left behind. There is no alternative.
This was also the message hammered home by Hillary Clinton during the Democratic primaries in the United States against her opponent Bernie Sanders. Sanders policies were painted as unrealistic and silly, and the only change that could take place was incremental and minor. Like with Toynbee’s offering, there was only only alternative – hard graft and minimal incrementalism on the immutable path rightward.
Tony Blair’s speech in 2005 was the absolute peak of Third Way centrism in the west, and even then its problems were apparent if you looked hard enough. Voter participation in western democracies were going down. Institutional respect was slipping. Democracy itself was coming under increasing pressure.
In the 2013 study “Catch-all or Catch and Release? The Electoral Consequences of Social Democratic Parties’ March to the Middle in Western Europe”, the University of Colorado’s Johannes Karreth, Jonathan T. Polk, and Christopher S. Allen described how the Third Way with “the move to the centre of many European Social Democratic parties in the 1990s was first rewarded with victories” but that they later “have since faced a remarkable electoral drought.”
When Peter Mandelson said that left-wing voters “had nowhere else to go”, he was wrong, and the evidence was there at the time although it wasn’t recognised as such. Left-wing voters went to the sofa. That’s why voter participation between 1997 and 2007 when Blair resigned plunged from 71 per cent in 1997 to 59 per cent in 2001. It’s steadily climbed back since then, but still haven’t returned to pre-Blair levels.
It wasn’t only voters who were affected. What became glaringly obvious during the Labour leadership elections in both 2015 and 2016 was that the quality of leadership of the Labour party hierarchy had been gutted. During Blair and Brown, only managerial mediocrity had been awarded. If there was only one path, one direction, then you didn’t need strong leaders and visionaries. You only needed people who could manage the incrementalism on that path, and so you were left with Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper, Liz Kendall, and Owen Smith.
Third Way social democracy has scattered its voters, and have decimated its own talent, and the only idea it has left is still that when everything is changing, nothing can change.
The hardest truth of politics is, and has always been, that politics abhor a vacuum, and something will fill it. Third Way social democracy has been a vacuum since Tony Blair’s speech in 2005, and only now has reality caught up with it. What is filling that vaccum is terrifying in some parts of Europe and the West, and hopeful in other parts.
In the UK, UKIP has benefited from the vacuum, and of course Donald Trump was just sworn in as President of the United States. A hard-right Conservative government sits in London, having quashed the previous incarnation of what I would call Third Way Conservatives, championed by the likes of David Cameron and George Osborne. In Spain there is Podemos, and in Greece Syriza has taken over.
Brexit, Donald Trump, Le Pen, AfD, Podemos, Syriza, and the Scottish National Party in Scotland are all symptoms of a deeper malaise, and at the centre of the cause of that malaise sits Third Way social democracy. Unlike the modern social democrats, these groups and parties say “Do dare to dream! There is an alternative! The path is not set in stone.” And people are responding with exuberance and engagement.
In Scotland, nearly half of the country voted to split the United Kingdom and take the plunge to pursue a dream. That dream has proved remarkably resilient, and has led to an SNP hegemony in the politics of Scotland. No matter what calamity has been aimed against that dream, it has held, and the polls are no different now than on the day after the independence referendum in 2014.
In the UK, the most powerful message of the Brexit-campaign was “take back control”. And it shows that Mondeo man is not such an atomic individual after all, and by fair means or foul, he’s desperately wanting a bit of control back. Arrayed against him, using increasingly desperate language, stands the Third Way centrists who have spent the last twenty years telling those people “Don’t dare to dream. Dreams are foolish. Dreams are impossible.”