Is ‘Third Way’ Social Democracy still a form of social democracy?

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The Conversation

Not to be Reach the audience you really want to apply for your teaching vacancy by posting directly to our website and related social media audiences. Cart Account Log in Sign up. Politics Explore Politics Search Go. Politics Reference library. Subscribe to email updates from tutor2u Politics Join s of fellow Politics teachers and students all getting the tutor2u Politics team's latest resources and support delivered fresh in their inbox every morning. You're now subscribed to receive email updates!

Print page. You might also like. Karl Marx — Study notes. Beatrice Webb Study notes. Keynesian Economics Socialism Study notes. Dialectic Socialism Study notes. Historical Materialism Socialism Study notes. Class Consciousness Socialism Study notes. Social Democracy Socialism Study notes. Revolutionary Socialism Socialism Study notes. This bears a staunch resemblance to the ways in which the Third Way manifested itself in Britain; the Labour Party, after 18 years in the wilderness due to election defeats, gave birth to New Labour.

At the same time, however, it is also important to understand that this was not purely a pragmatic move, but one rooted in ideology. It is founded on the values which have guided progressive politics for more than a century—democracy, liberty, justice, mutual obligation and internationalism.

BBC News | UK Politics | What is the Third Way?

Tony Blair. Beyond rejecting the tools of the old left, the Third Way represents a shift towards the centre and away from the left in its conceptual view as well.

Surprisingly, social exclusion was not featured in their election campaign, but it rapidly became a keystone of the New Labour welfare reform programme. Whilst holding the reins of power, the dedication shown by New Labour to combating social exclusion was like a rollercoaster; sometimes high, sometimes low, but it was through New Labour that it became such a domineering force in social policy in Britain. Unlike other, more established social policy concepts such as class, mobility, and poverty, social exclusion is—by comparison—a fairly new term.

However, the theory of social exclusion rapidly gained serious traction and was soon on the lips of politicians across Europe and, today, protection against social exclusion is a fundamental component of the European Social Charter. Beyond this, the causes, solutions, and even the fundamental definition of what it means to be socially excluded are heavily contested. The redistributionist discourse is mostly focused on poverty and grew out of British critical social policy; it critiques inequality and calls for a mode of citizenship pillared by power and wealth being redistributed.

MUD concerns itself with morality and sees social exclusion as an issue that stems from people with criminal intentions; irresponsible young mothers and unemployable young men amongst other things.


The social integrationist discourse focuses its primary concern on paid labour, and its proponents believe that social integration can be achieved most proficiently by placing emphasis on treating economic inactivity. Unfortunately, in spite of the heavy emphasis placed on social exclusion by New Labour, and the implementation of schemes like Sure Start and bringing in minimum wage legislation, there is very little evidence to support the belief that New Labour actually made any notable strides towards a more inclusive society and country as a whole. The failure of New Labour to veritably manufacture fundamental change in regards to social exclusion is due to a systematic failure of the ideology of the Third Way and the way in which this relates to social exclusion: the tendency of New Labour to conflate social exclusion almost entirely with a lack of participation in the labour market misses the mark, and in doing so becomes the poisoned root, killing the tree of Third Way welfare reform aimed at lessening social exclusion.

Moreover, even the more admirable aspects of the social exclusion agenda can be seen as ambigous due to their structuring by a MUD approach. No Ideological Commitment to Public Services The result is two key devices for changing that - first new measures of performance, new regulations and new controls across the public sector - from the Youth Justice Board who will crack down when delays in the criminal justice system are not addressed or offending behaviour not tackled early enough, to the reinforced social services inspectorate, from the regional commissions for care standards to the Commission for Health Improvement.

A whole new array institutions to drive up standards. Secondly there is no ideological commitment to public sector provision - there is a willingness to contemplate private and not for profit alternatives, something manifestly different from more traditional Labour policy which at times was indifferent to the voluntary sector and often hostile to private involvement in welfare. Now though private prisons are encouraged, private companies are invited to come in when education authorities have failed, the private sector is seen as the saviour of the NHS capital build programme - PFI survives and of course Best Value implies shopping around.

Indeed it is the social services white paper that is the most explicit on this, stating quite clearly that 'who provides' is not important. The one exception to this indifference so far is with the health service where a combination of Labour Party history, public regard and powerful professions have ensured that mainstream clinical services at least will stay public in every way - the quiet privatisation of sections of mental health care, nursing home care and non clinical services will stay quiet. And at its heart is social policy - shaping a new set of relationships within society and drawing together the successful businessman and entrepreneur with the lone parent - above all delivering not just a fairer society at ease with itself but a more effective one which uses the talents of all.

So will it work? The Third Way is nothing if not ambitious - it believes in the power and effectiveness of government and the capacity of the public sector to deliver social goals - it believes the public sector with the right alliances can not only deliver better services it can transform society reducing social exclusion, academic failure, family breakdown. And among those at and around the top of this administration there is no doubt about the coherence or the righteousness of this strategy - they know perfectly well that they are not closet Conservatives but they are much less confident about their capacity, your capacity to deliver what they demand.

The mantra education education education has been replaced with delivery delivery delivery. A nightmare for them is their election theme song 'Things Can Only Get Better' being played over pictures of hospitals filled with trolley waits and protests over closing old people's homes, and surveys which show concerns over education as high as in My own view is that they are right to be worried about delivery. The most important foundation IS in place - social reform can only ever succeed on the back of a successful economy and the crystal apparition that is the third Way will melt into a messy blob without a thriving economy - it needs the tax revenue to fund revitalised services, it needs jobs for those going through its New Deal programmes.

And jobs, for the exponents of the Third Way, are the way out of poverty.

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Were the economy to hit the buffers the entire social policy programme would fall apart. But as there is no evidence that it will, let us assume that that modest growth can be achieved with relatively low unemployment.

Criticism and the future of the Third Way

The first observation has to be that the new funding not just in social services but in health, education and criminal justice does not match the hype - and those who greeted the CSR settlements with phrases like 'beyond our wildest dreams' are already eating their words. The realities in your own areas you know better than me - in education there is more but it is the one area where demand is not shooting way ahead of supply and where the link between the quality of service and the quantity of money is rather uncertain - meeting literacy and numeracy targets will not be achieved by throwing money at schools.

Parts of the health service meanwhile are in debt - the warnings are already coming out that in places the government will have to choose between the great modernisation projects and keeping the service running. The police mutter they cannot recruit more black officers because they are not recruiting at all. So on its own the extra money will make a difference - class sizes will fall, waiting lists too but there is not enough money and certainly not enough skilled people to bring about a metamorphosis.

Nothing left? In search of (a new) social democracy

The second area is the sheer complexity of what is being attempted- Andrew Foster the controller of the Audit Commission produces an remarkable flow diagram which illustrates how fiendishly complicated even the most basic of Whitehall functions can be when translated on to the ground - the funding of social housing streams out of a few Whitehall departments into a multitude of quangos and local agencies and ends up as a bowl of spaghetti. I do not suggest that partnership and joint working will fail but there are signs already that in places rhetoric may be moving ahead of reality and that with massive organisational change underway in health, local government and youth justice the danger is that operational demands suffer at the expense of structural reform.

The NHS and social services in England have been deluged with circulars - at the NHS confederation conference this year minister after minister acknowledged the size of the agenda and promised fewer initiatives - the NHS chief executive went further saying he did not expect managers to act on everything in every circular. Those who support the Third Way believe in the capacity of government and of planning.

Yet however ingenious their methods ultimately they can only make a difference in two ways - they can create conditions in which staff either do things better or do better things. Given the current patchwork of provision delivered by an array of different professions in agencies with widely different cultures there must a chance that good words will run ahead of good deeds. What is more the tension between the need for central control and the desire to foster local autonomy has not be resolved. Already some are warning that local creativity is being snuffed out by centrally prescribed initiatives.

Ministers of course make no apology for setting standards and setting directions for organisations that rely wholly or in part on government funds but with ever more outcome related measures the degree of Whitehall control in England appears greater than ever. And it will seem even greater when the new regulatory and inspection bodies are up and running. Nor is it just a concern for mangers.

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For a whole variety of reasons the professions are in turmoil - public sector morale, never good, has fallen back after the euphoria many felt at Labour's election victory. Yet above all others it is these groups, the doctors, nurses, social workers, OTs and police officers who are expected to deliver the Third Way. Holding them to account may be overdue but it is bound to be painful and not just for those deemed to be underperforming. And the implicit assumption that it will be possible to deliver reform while continuing to embrace all stakeholders is also coming under strain.

Disability groups at national level have already marched out of their forum with the government in protest against aspects of welfare reform, some mental health user groups have quit their consultative committee because they object to the government's emphasis on public safety and compulsory treatment in the community. Some police authorities have indicated that they will not co-operate by diverting funds into drug rehabilitation from their already overstretched budgets. And there perhaps lies one of the main underlying weaknesses of the Third Way - it conjures up the prospect of cost free reform, where everyone is a winner- John Galbraith was no doubt overstating it when he claimed politics was the art of choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable, but it certainly does often involve trading the interests of one group against another - to that extent John Major was right when he said there could be no gain without pain.

More than this though, like so many ideologies the Third Way runs the risk of overstating the capacity of government to deliver, to change the way people are, the ways they choose to live their lives. Many of today's social problems have deep roots; the physical illnesses of tomorrow are already predetermined by lifestyles of yesterday, some of the pressures that lead to mental problems are beyond government influence others may be exacerbated by the understandable drive for success.

This is not a counsel of despair but it may be good reason for greater humility and a call for both politicians and public to have lower expectations of what the Third Way can reasonably achieve within a reasonable time. This article was originally used as a speech delivered by the BBC's social affairs editor to the Institute of Directors of Social Affairs.

Is ‘Third Way’ Social Democracy still a form of social democracy? Is ‘Third Way’ Social Democracy still a form of social democracy?
Is ‘Third Way’ Social Democracy still a form of social democracy? Is ‘Third Way’ Social Democracy still a form of social democracy?
Is ‘Third Way’ Social Democracy still a form of social democracy? Is ‘Third Way’ Social Democracy still a form of social democracy?
Is ‘Third Way’ Social Democracy still a form of social democracy? Is ‘Third Way’ Social Democracy still a form of social democracy?
Is ‘Third Way’ Social Democracy still a form of social democracy? Is ‘Third Way’ Social Democracy still a form of social democracy?

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