Is the Left/Right Distinction
A Theoretical Appraisal and Application to New Labour in Great Britain
The assertion that there is no longer any relevance to the distinction
between left and right which, over the two centuries since the French
Revolution, has been used to divide the political universe into opposing
camps, has been made repeatedly in recent years to the point of becoming a
cliché (Bobbio 1996). Contra to such an assertion I would argue, rather,
that far from having lost their relevance, the stakes to which the left
and the right allude are more pertinent than ever (Mouffe 2000, 127). I
shall employ political philosopher Norberto Bobbio’s Left & Right: The
Significance of Political Distinction (1996) in an effort to counter
the recent trend towards the suppression of the left/right distinction.
Bobbio sets out, first to refute the idea that the left/right distinction
is in any way a thing of the past, and then to argue for his own
definition of that distinction. I argue, following Bobbio, that the
criterion most effectively used to distinguish between the left and the
right is their attitude to the ideal of equality: the left tends towards
equality and the right towards inequality.
Bobbio will provide the theoretical basis for my analysis of New Labour in
Britain under the leadership of Tony Blair. I intend to demonstrate not
only the qualitative difference between New and Old Labour, but also the
normative similarities between the New Labour movement and Thatcherism. I
hope to expose the fatuousness of New Labour’s claim to have transcended
the traditional political distinction between left and right by carefully
examining the ideological and policy stances of New Labour since their
coming to power in the 1997 British general election. Upon recognizing
the convergence between New Labour and the more right-oriented British
parties, I address what this means for the state of political discourse
and electoral politics in Britain today.
In Britain, the strategy of New Labour seems almost modeled on Bobbio’s
definition of a third way based on submerging the left/right distinction
and somehow attempting to transcend it (Bobbio 1996, xx). Since its 1997
victory, New Labour has begun to market itself as a radical movement, a
movement representing a “third way” between social democracy and
neo-liberalism (Mouffe 2000, 108). Labeled as Tony Blair’s “intellectual
guru” (Lipset 2001, 74), Anthony Giddens attempts to theorize this
supposedly new model for “modern politics” (Giddens 2000) in a series of
three books: Beyond Left and Right (1994), The Third Way
(1998), and, more recently, The Third Way and its Critics (2000).
I will attempt to identify a number of weaknesses inherent in the
philosophy of the “third way,” or “radical centre” (Giddens 1994),
advocated by New Labour.
Grasping the fundamental flaws of the “third way” requires coming to terms
with the conflictual nature of politics and the “ineradicability of
antagonism,” which is precisely what the increasingly fashionable “third
way” approach is at pains to deny (Mouffe 2000, xii). Blair suggests that
“[t]he totalizing ideologies of left and right no longer hold much
purchase” (Heffernan 2000, 135).
Blair’s main achievement was to redefine the entire ethos or culture of
the Labour party. New Labour’s “modernization” involved the creation, in
effect, of a new party (Kavanagh 1997a, 534; Kavanagh 1997b, 217), a party
clearly intent on pursuing a neo-liberal agenda. In Britain, the moral
claims of social democracy have been watered down “until they become very
general claims about taking responsibility for ourselves and each other…”
(Finlayson 1999, 272), and my analysis of recent New Labour policy
proposals and policy implementation will reflect this rightward
ideological shift. Characterized as a “Thatcher in trousers” (Hobsbawm
2000, 107), Tony Blair and his program of “modernization” betrays many of
the primary tenets associated with orthodox social democracy and reflects
instead a position informed by Labour’s accommodation to and adoption of
Thatcherism’s neo-liberal political agenda (Heffernan 2000, 178).
The Challenge To The
Distinction and Its Survival
“Left” and “Right,” Bobbio argues, are two antithetical terms used
habitually to signify the contrast between ideologies and movements which
divide the world of political thought and action. As antithetical terms,
they are mutually exclusive in the sense that no movement can be both “on
the left” and “on the right” at the same time. Bobbio refers to this
polarizing distinction as a dyad, by which he means a “distinction
covering the whole of the political universe whose twin components are
antithetical” (p. x). The opposition between left and right represents a
typically dyadic way of thinking, for which there are examples in all
fields of thought. In sociology it is society/community, in law
public/private, in aesthetics classical/romantic, and in philosophy
transcendent/immanent. Yet, rarely is the germaneness or current
relevance of these distinctions subject to the same degree of objection as
is the left/right dyad in the political sphere. In fact, a central
argument of this essay is that it is vital for democratic politics to
understand that liberal democracy results from the articulation of two
logics which in no way and at no time can be perfectly reconciled (Mouffe
2000, 5). As someone who writes extensively on the political theory of
Wittgenstein, Chantal Mouffe articulates the irreconcilability of the left
and the right in a uniquely “Wittgensteinian way”: “…there is a
constitutive tension between their corresponding ‘grammars’, a tension
that can never be overcome but only negotiated in different ways…The
tension between its two components can only be temporarily stabilized
through pragmatic negotiations between political forces which always
establish the hegemony of one of them” (Mouffe 2000, 5).
The claim that the left/right distinction is exhausted has been repeated
regularly throughout the years. Jean-Paul Sartre advanced this argument
in the 1960s (Bobbio 1996, 3; Giddens 1998, 38), but it has been since the
1980s – accelerated of course by the collapse of communism – that we have
heard so much about the demise of the left/right opposition (Mouffe 2000,
108). Bobbio identifies various reasons for the assertion that there is
no longer any relevance to the distinction between left and right, an
opinion which is gaining increasing currency everyday.
The first doubt Bobbio highlights arose from the so-called “crisis of
ideology” which refers to those who view the distinction as having
disappeared, and therefore see a certain pointlessness in attempting to
contrast the concepts of left and right. The obvious objection, Bobbio
argues, is that ideologies have not disappeared at all, it is merely the
case that they have been replaced by others that claim to be new.
Besides, there is nothing more ideological than declaring the
demise or disappearance of ideologies. But then again, “left” and “right”
are not just ideologies:
To reduce them to purely ideological
expressions would be an unjustifiable simplification: they indicate
opposing programmes in relation to many problems whose solution is part of
everyday political activity. These contrasts concern not only ideas, but
also interests and judgments on which direction society should be moving
in; they exist in all societies, and it is not apparent how they should
disappear. (Bobbio 1996, 3)
A second, and perhaps more widespread, argument is concerned with the
inappropriateness of the distinction and the insufficiency of the
resulting political spectrum. Basically, as Bobbio notes, the objection
is that in a multi-faceted democratic society, in which many forces are at
play, which agree on some points and not on others, problems cannot be
posed in antithetical form as one thing or another. It follows then that
the political world can no longer be divided into two distinct and
opposing camps. Bobbio, however, is quite emphatic in insisting that the
distinction between left and right does not in any way preclude the
existence of a continuous spectrum which joins left and right.
Acknowledging the existence of the “centre,” this central area between the
extremes, does nothing to invalidate our thesis if we recognize that its
very existence is based on the antithesis between left and right.
We shall further unpack the meaning of the “centre” in our critique of
“third way” philosophy.
A third reason for rejecting the oppositional dyad is the view that it has
lost a great deal of its descriptive value. The left/right distinction
has, in a developing society where the creation of new political problems
has produced movements which cannot be categorized antithetically, become
largely anachronistic. This is an argument frequently advanced by
advocates of the “third way” who assert that there are many problems and
issues that do not fit clearly into a left/right dimension, and feel that
it is a fundamental mistake to “cram them all into it” (Giddens 2000,
39). Bobbio recognizes the nature of such movements that evade the
traditional categories of left and right, yet understands that in no way
does this recognition presuppose that the distinction is at all
anachronistic. It is the case, Bobbio argues, that the left/right split
will reproduce itself within the various movements, despite their recent
Perhaps the most decisive reason for rejecting the left/right distinction
involves the claim that the two labels, “left” and “right,” have become
purely fictitious. Moreover, the movements that claim to be “left-wing”
and those that claim to be “right-wing,” faced with the complexity of
current problems, say more or less the same things, and propose more or
less the same immediate ends. Bobbio refers to politics in Italy, but
this sentiment is particularly true of the political conflict in Britain,
where many observers are of the opinion that there is little reason for
acrimony between the two parties when the opposing sides are arguing for
the same things. I shall flesh out the
weaknesses in this argument below as I
highlight the definitive criterion between left and right, but first,
I shall attempt to qualify Bobbio’s
assertion that the distinction between left and right survives.
Bobbio argues that in times when the left and the right appear evenly
balanced, the question of whether the left/right distinction is relevant
does not arise. But in times when either the left or the right become so
powerful that it seems “the only game in town,” both sides have interests
in promulgating the demise of the left/right distinction. As Margaret
Thatcher proclaimed, the side that is more powerful has an interest in
declaring that “there is no alternative” (Giddens 1998, 39). Furthermore,
at times when one side becomes so predominant as to leave little room for
the other side to be taken seriously as a political force, the weaker side
has an interest in undermining the left/right distinction, and, in fact,
may decide to recycle itself as something totally new, something which
goes beyond the traditional distinction. This is clearly the tactic
currently being employed by many parties of the left – most notably in the
United Kingdom, where we find that, after eighteen years in the political
wilderness, the Labour Party emerged intent on pursuing a markedly
neo-liberal agenda defined by their opponents.
The fact that all of these claims to have transcended the left/right
distinction fail to materialize once the parties in question move into the
realm of practical politics forces one to wonder why the distinction has
proved so enduring. The most important point, according to Bobbio, is
that “left” and “right” are not absolute terms. “They are not substantive
or ontological concepts. They are not intrinsic qualities of the
political universe,” but, rather, relative terms situated in “political
space” (p. 56). What is left or right in one period is not necessarily so
in another. This says nothing about the content of the opposing sides; it
is only proof of their relativity. That left and right are opposites
simply means that one cannot be on both the left and the right at the same
time; but this says nothing about the content of the opposing sides.
The distinction has also proved enduring because politics is necessarily
adversarial, and, as Bobbio explains, it should surprise no one that a
dyad, or dichotomy, is the most common way of representing the political
world. Bobbio refers to war, an essential dichotomy, as “the most extreme
manifestation of the ‘friend/enemy’ distinction, which in turn is the most
abstract way of representing politics as something antagonistic” (p. 32).
War can only have two contenders. From the moment a third party becomes
involved in the conflict, it becomes an ally of one side or another. For
Bobbio, as long as there are conflicts, there will be polarization.
The left/right metaphor has an
historical tradition, which dates back to the French Revolution (Hobsbawm
and although this metaphor has proved appropriate for our current
orientation with the left-right spatial dyad, as Bobbio aptly points out,
there is no reason to believe that history could not have come up with an
alternative metaphor. “Clearly the success of left and right is due not
to the felicity of the metaphor, whatever its forcefulness, but to the
fundamental nature of the political distinction which it has come to
express” (Bobbio 1996, x).
The Nature Of The Distinction:
Between Equality and
Inequality, As Expressed
By the Terms “Left” and “Right”
The major criterion that continually reappears in distinguishing left from
right is the ideal of equality. Bobbio, for example, sees the moral value
of equality as the essential component of all leftist political theories,
and, given the nature of the dyad, it follows that types of opposition to
such equality are inherent characteristics of rightist political
theories. As Bobbio proclaims: “…there is a very clear distinction
between the right and the left, for which the ideal of equality has always
been the pole star that guides it” (Bobbio 1996, 82). The concept of
equality is relative, not absolute. It is relative, Bobbio argues, to
three variables which have to be considered each time the practicability
of equality is discussed: “(a) the individuals between whom benefits and
obligations should be shared; (b) the benefits or obligations to be
shared; (c) the criteria by which they should be shared” (p. 61). In
other words, no proposal for equality can fail to respond to three
fundamental questions: Between whom? In what? On the basis of which
criteria? One can assess the egalitarianism of a particular doctrine
according to the number of persons involved, the quantity and worth of the
benefits to be distributed, and the criteria used in distributing these
benefits to certain groups or persons. For example, one could make the
claim that orthodox social democracy, which assures all its citizens
social as well as libertarian rights, is more egalitarian than liberal
democracy, and certainly more egalitarian than the old-style hierarchical
conservatism that believes ‘given’ differences between human beings should
be directly translated into political terms: those who have the finest
qualities of leadership should rule (Eagleton 1996, 119).
Before proceeding, we should recognize that only a few thinkers (Bobbio
calls them egalitarianists) really believe in “equality for
everyone in everything,” a regimented “sameness” across society. Such a
view, according to Bobbio, would not only be a utopian vision, “…but what
is worse, it would be a proposal which could not possibly have any
rational meaning” (p. 63). For as Thomas Nagel, in his Equality and
Partiality (1991), warns us:
A theory is utopian in the pejorative
sense if it describes a form of collective life that humans, or most
humans, could not lead and could not come to be able to lead through any
feasible process of social and mental development. It may have value as a
possibility for a few people, or as an admirable but unattainable ideal
for others. But it cannot be offered as a general solution to the main
question of political theory: How should we live together in society? (p.
Yet, equally as important as the avoidance of utopianism is the avoidance
of “hard-nosed realism” (Nagel 1991, 7). So, for Bobbio, the fact that
the left is egalitarian does not mean that it is “egalitarianist,” for a
doctrine or movement which tends to reduce social inequality and seeks to
make natural inequalities less painful is far removed from an
“egalitarianist” philosophy, understood as “equality for everyone in
everything.” I hope to make this distinction clear, because it is all too
often the case that those who consider equality to be the distinguishing
characteristic of the left are labeled utopists, or, in the words of
Bobbio, “egalitarianists.” Secondly, the fact that a certain type of
egalitarian ideology has been used to justify totalitarian forms of
politics has resulted in additional criticism of the left, yet, as Mouffe
(2000) remarks, this “in no way forces us to relinquish the struggle for
equality” (p. 123). Such criticism stems from what Bobbio calls an
“insufficient understanding of the ABC of egalitarian theory” (p. 63).
It therefore follows that the left is more egalitarian than the right.
Where the left feels moral outrage at the existence of social
inequalities, the right sees them as rather
natural and cannot understand the rage felt by the left. The root
of this diametrically opposed attitude to equality, Bobbio claims, lies in
the fact that human beings are both equal and unequal. The
superficial assertion that “all men are equal” resembles the kind of
political rhetoric with which we are familiar: the writings of Locke,
Hobbes, Rousseau, and innumerable declarations of rights, all contain this
assertion (Minogue 1966, 52);
but, by adopting as a starting-point the position that all
people are both equal and
unequal, Bobbio recognizes the premise from which egalitarians, as well as
those who are not egalitarian, operate. Thus, the distinction between
those who are egalitarian and those who are not lies in their response to
this claim. Bobbio, therefore, defines egalitarians as those who, “while
not ignoring the fact that people are equal and unequal, believe that what
they have in common has greater value in the formation of a good
community. Conversely, those who are not egalitarian, while starting from
the same premise, believe that their
diversity has greater value in the formation of a good community” (p.
66-7). Beyond basing her beliefs on the conviction that human beings are
more equal than unequal, the egalitarian is convinced that the majority of
inequalities which she would like to see removed are social, and can thus
be eliminated. The anti-egalitarian, on the other hand, believes the fact
that we are more unequal than equal is something natural, and as such
cannot be eradicated. “The contrast could not be starker: the egalitarian
condemns social inequality in the name of natural equality, and the
anti-egalitarian condemns social equality in the name of natural
inequality” (Bobbio 1996, 68-9).
Bobbio develops the theory that the distinction between left and right
corresponds to the difference between egalitarianism and “inegalitarianism,”
and the fundamental choice that each side arrives at with respect to what
it is that makes human beings equal and what makes them unequal.
Certainly Bobbio’s theory is effective in distinguishing the two ideal
types, but his discourse on the ideal of equality rarely ventures outside
the highly abstract. It is imperative – especially as we prepare to apply
his model to New Labour – that we identify the ways in which equality, as
an ideal, manifests itself in the world of practical politics.
Equality is one of the central concepts of political thought, but there
are different ways of conceiving equality and wholly different reasons for
advocating it (Finlayson 1999, 279). Liberals – including those who fancy
themselves on the “new” or “contemporary” left – place the prime stress
upon “equality of opportunity” (Giddens 2000, 86). The liberal’s
conception of equality seems complex: “given” inequalities must be
artificially evened up by the apparatus of the state, so that everyone has
more or less the same chance as everyone else, or, put another way,
“everyone must have an equal opportunity of becoming unequal” (Eagleton
1996, 116-9). Equality of opportunity creates a diversity that, for its
proponents, is in no way harmful and, in fact, represents a greater value
in the formation of a good community. This, Bobbio argues, is consistent
with the anti-egalitarian position. The egalitarian, on the other hand,
accepting the precept that human beings are not all equal in their
concrete attributes, or, in the words of Locke, their “determinate
characteristics” (Hoffman 1999, 103), arrives at the conclusion that to
treat two people equally must not mean giving them exactly the same
treatment but attending equally to their different needs (Eagleton 1996,
116-7). An egalitarian policy is typified, Bobbio claims, by the tendency
to remove the obstacles which make men and women less equal. Bobbio, in
one of his few remarks on the pragmatic application of egalitarianism,
refers to the principal theme of the traditional parties and movements of
the left: the removal of private property. “For the left, the struggle
for the abolition of private property and for collectivization has also
been a struggle for equality and the removal of the main obstacle to the
creation of a society of equals” (Bobbio 1996, 81). It is still the case
that many define equality by the government’s ability to provide the
social services and redistribution that a free market cannot ensure (Hobsbawm
2000, 105), and I would argue, in line with Bobbio, that these social
services – the right to work, the right to health care, et al. – are all
egalitarian services aimed at minimizing the inequalities between the
haves and the have-nots. Again, Bobbio argues, there is an element that
typifies the doctrines and movements which are universally recognized as
left-wing, and this element is egalitarianism. At a more practical level,
this egalitarianism involves encouraging policies which aim to make those
who are unequal more equal, and, as Miliband (1994) avows, seeks “the
elimination of the major inequalities in every sphere of life which
characterize societies deeply divided on the grounds of income, wealth,
power, and opportunities” (p. 54).
What unites the social democratic left is its value system of equality
through social justice and social welfare based around cooperation and
community with a form of government that employs collective action. The
“new” social democracy and the voguish “third way” have abandoned the
tests of “classic” social democracy – jobs for all, reducing inequality
and increasing democratic control over the economy (Thomson 2000, 9-11).
Upon recognizing the antithetical nature of the left/right distinction and
the opposing attitudes to the ideal of equality that are intrinsically
bound to each of the respective components that constitute the dyad, one
must question how a doctrine or movement which claims to transcend the
left/right distinction understands this notion of equality. I would argue
that the Third Way represents a clear departure from social democracy, for
included among the core values of social democracy is the firm egalitarian
commitment to equality, a commitment the Third Way lacks.
Beyond Left and Right?
Questioning “Third Way” Theory
New Labour will be a government of the
radical centre….A modern party, to be
successful in the modern world, must be in
the centre speaking for the mainstream majority.
--Tony Blair, speaking to the
British-American Chamber of Commerce in New York, 12 April 1996
Recognizing the difficulty with which one is faced when attempting to
define the much-heralded “Third Way,” an article in The Economist
(19 December 1998) comments on the third way’s “fundamental
hollowness”: “Trying to pin down an exact meaning in all this is like
wrestling an inflatable man. If you get a grip on one limb, all of the
hot air rushes to another” (47,49). Nevertheless, since its victory New
Labour has begun to market itself as a new type of radical movement, a
movement that has indeed found a third way between social democracy and
neo-liberalism. This third way is envisaged as occupying a position
which, by being located above left and right, thereby manages to
overcome their old antagonism (Mouffe 2000).
Anthony Giddens, sociologist and director of the London School of
Economics, and often regarded as one of the key architects of the Third
Way, attempts to theorize this model of third way politics. Socialism,
argues Giddens, is dead (1998, 1). This is true not only for its
communist version, but also for its traditional social democratic version
whose aim was to “confront the limitations of capitalism in order to
humanize it” (1998, 3). But, Giddens argues, the economic theory of
social democracy was always inadequate, underestimating the capacity of
capitalism to innovate and adapt (1998, 4-5). Moreover, as Giddens argues
in his earlier bestseller Beyond Left and Right (1994), the “old”
left’s economic theory was based on a “cybernetic model” which was
reasonably effective as a means of generating economic development in
conditions of “simple modernization,” but which fails to work in a
post-traditional social order characterized by globalization and the
expansion of “reflexive modernization” (p. 66). In today’s world, he
argues, we need a new type of radical politics that responds to “life
politics,” rather than the “emancipatory politics” of the left (1994;
2001, 40). This new “life” politics overcomes the traditional left/right
divide by drawing on philosophic conservatism while preserving some of the
core values usually associated with social democracy. This idea, of
course, is consistent with his agenda of creating a “win-win politics”
that goes beyond the antithetical model described by Bobbio, and promotes
solutions that supposedly benefit all people in society. If our
understanding of Bobbio is correct, then we can see that this is precisely
where the fundamental flaw of this supposedly “new form of radicalism”
lies. Overall, Giddens suggests, the Third Way can be regarded as a
“contemporary” philosophy which should be prepared to forge new alliances
to sustain an agenda of economic, institutional, welfare and civic reform,
but, unlike the traditional centre, which lies in the middle of the
spectrum of left and right, this, we are told, is a “radical centre” that
goes beyond the traditional left/right division by articulating themes and
values from both sides in a new synthesis (Mouffe 2000, 108; Webb 2000,
1999). Returning to Bobbio for a moment, we can see that there is in fact
a qualitative difference between the “included middle” (traditional
centre) and the “inclusive middle” (‘radical centre’). The “included
middle,” according to Bobbio, attempts to find its space between two
opposites, and although it inserts itself between them, it does not
eliminate them, rather, it prevents them from coming into contact with one
another, all the while providing an alternative to the stark choice
between left and right (p. 7). The “inclusive middle,” on the other hand,
tends to go beyond the two opposites by incorporating them into a higher
synthesis, and therefore canceling them out (p. 7). The “inclusive
middle,” Bobbio notes, is usually presented as an attempt at a third way,
that is to say, something which transcends the politics of left and
right (unlike the “included middle” which is simply in between the
left and the right) (p. 8). The “included middle,” Bobbio argues, “is
essentially practical politics without a doctrine, whereas the ‘inclusive
middle’ is essentially a doctrine in search of a practical politics, and
as soon as this is achieved, it reveals itself as centrist” (p. 8).
The radical centrism advocated by New Labour, and various other adopters
of third way philosophy, is, according to Mouffe (2000), “a renunciation
of the basic tenets of radical politics” (p. 111). The central flaw of
the attempt to modernize social democracy by third way theorists is,
Mouffe argues, that it is based on the illusion that, by not defining an
adversary, one can side-step fundamental conflicts of interest (p. 111).
This, of course, differs from “classic” social democracy which always had
capitalism as one of its antagonists, and its task was to confront the
systemic problems of inequality and instability generated by this mode of
production. Mouffe contends that the “sacralization” of consensus, the
blurring of the left/right distinction and the present urge of many left
parties to locate themselves at the centre, not only created a left-wing
that has abandoned any attempt to offer an alternative to the hegemonic
order, but this “consensus of the centre” form of politics opens the door
to populist right-wing parties (pp. 113-6). Populist parties, Mouffe
argues, that challenge the dominant consensus appear to be the only
anti-Establishment forces representing the will of the people. This is
why discourses on the “end of politics” and the irrelevance of the
left/right distinction should be cause not for celebration but for
concern. Movements like New Labour, instead of trying to build a new
hegemony, have capitulated to the neo-liberal one. Thus, Mouffe
concludes, “one of the crucial stakes for the left democratic parties is
to begin providing an alternative to neo-liberalism” (p. 118).
New Labour in Government:
Politics After Thatcherism
The Blair Era
He [Blair] is, quite simply, a
Liberal….This young man has not the faintest idea of how socialists
think, and does not begin to understand
the mentality of the party which he has been elected to lead.
--Ken Coates, a longtime Labour MEP
In his leader’s speech to the 1995 Labour Party conference, Tony Blair
used the word new on fifty-nine occasions, sixteen of them with
reference to “New Labour.” In contrast, he mentioned socialism just once
and referred to the working class not at all (Seyd 1998, 49). By the time
the Labour Party was elected to government in May 1997 it had a new
constitution, new policies, new internal structures, and a brand new
image. “The party had been changed out of all recognition. A revolution
had occurred in British party politics more significant than anything
since the Conservative Party’s postwar adaptation to social democracy” (Seyd
1998, 49-50). Unrecognizable as the party that fought the 1983 general
election, the Labour Party had reinvented itself.
To emphasize the depth of this change, Blair officially described his
party as the New Labour Party and characterized his policy orientation as
the “third way.” Certainly no one denies that many of the changes were
already under way before Blair became leader, but, as Thomson (2000)
points out, “the manner of their implementation has been more provocative
and less consensual than in the past” (p. 131). Blair and his allies have
sought, in ideological terms, to transcend some of the antinomies of
recent political discourse, yet one certainly detects the prevalence of
one ideological tradition over others in certain domains – conservatism in
social policy, and liberalism when it comes to the international economy
(Smith 2001, 254). The New Labour Party now accepts traditional social
democracy as a thing of the past, principally concerned with the
strengthening of capital, the agenda of New Labour reflects policies
pursued by the Thatcher and Major governments.
As many critics of New Labour have observed, Blair’s third way politics
fails, in terms of objectives as well as methods, to offer a distinctive
political strategy dramatically at odds with the Thatcherite project
(Heffernan 2000, 173). In fact, in 1996 Blair himself declared that
Labour would fail “if it sees its task as dismantling Thatcherism”
(Heffernan 2000, 19).
In sum, I would argue, New Labour is not a “third way” between the New
Right and the Old Left. Claims that it has a wholly distinct agenda in
economic and social policy are wrong, and given our understanding
regarding the confines of the left/right distinction, these claims are
absurd in that they contradict a reality that recognizes left and right as
mutually exclusive totalities which cannot coexist in any sort of
“dialectic totality”; rather than actively challenge the Thatcherite
legacy, Labour “modernization” colludes with it. In a word, New Labour
does not represent a movement that has somehow managed to transcend the
left-right spatial metaphor. New Labour has simply moved to the right.
New Labour, New Opportunism: Courting
New Labour seems, for the most part, to satisfy Kirchheimer’s (1966)
“catch-all” party model. Kirchheimer suggests that the affluence of the
postwar period and the rise of a consumer-oriented society would force the
“mass integration” parties of yesteryear to abandon attempts at the
“intellectual and moral encadrement of the masses.” This catch-all
“people’s” party would turn more fully to the electoral scene, “trying to
exchange effectiveness in depth for a wider audience and more immediate
electoral success” (p. 184). Nearly thirty years after the “catch-all”
model was constructed, Tony Blair and New Labour have risen to embody the
precepts of the model more clearly than anyone in recent history. Above
all, Blair is concerned with identifying New Labour with the aspirations
of the majority of voters, much in the same way Thatcher did in the
1980s. Labour had to become a “people’s party,” which meant embracing the
middle class and prosperous working class. Appealing to trade unions and
the traditional working class was no longer sufficient, for both had
shrunk dramatically in size since 1979 (Kavanagh 1997a, 536).
The essence of Labour’s victory in the 1997 general election lay in its
success in “middle England.” Labour became the leading party in the
massive middle-ground of the lower middle class and mortgage holders,
winning almost half the vote of both groups (Harrop 1997, 313).
Furthermore, during the 1997 general election net volatility reached
record levels with an unprecedented proportion of voters switching
directly between the major parties, as opposed to using the Liberal
Democrats as a halfway house. Unlike the previous two elections, at which
the Tory vote remained static, Labour’s victory this time was matched by
Conservative decline; two million Conservatives appear to have switched
directly to Labour (Harrop 1997, 311,Margetts 1997, 185; Norris 1997, 515)
further substantiating the claim that New Labour has merely stolen the
Tories political clothes. By appealing to its traditional opponents
without alienating its traditional supporters, New Labour had successfully
become a “catch-all party.”
Of course, New Labour’s “catch-all” status may now be fading. The most
recent general election in 2001 did confirm Labour’s growing strength
among the middle class, but it also exposed Labour’s unpopularity with the
working class, especially among older voters living on the state pension (Harrop
Over the last two elections, Tony Blair’s leadership has altered class
appeal, and succeeded in flattening the relationship between class and
The real story to emerge from the general election in 2001, however, was
the decline in voter turnout. This fell from a record low of 71 per cent
of the electorate in 1997 to a humbling 59 per cent in 2001 (Harrop 2001,
309). Labour was elected with fewer votes than any government since
1924. For the first time, more electors abstained from voting than voted
for the winning party (Harrop 2001, 309). Did Labour’s move to the centre
and its wooing of new recruits from the middle classes mean that
enthusiasm was muted among the party’s traditional supporters? Despite
the fact that many blame the abstention on wider social processes, I see
it as a reaction to New Labour’s political decisions, its move towards the
centre, its virtual abandonment of trade unions, and its active courting
of the middle classes.
An article in The Economist (16 February 2002) reported that just
last June a mere 16 per cent of voters thought that there was a great deal
of difference between Labour and the Tories. In no other election since
1964 has this proportion dipped below a third (p. 56).
Despite its many oversights, many of the propositions advanced by Anthony
Downs in An Economic Theory of Democracy (1957) have materialized
with the emergence of New Labour. Downs’ model is based on the assumption
that every government seeks to maximize political support, and that
parties seek as their final ends the power, income, and prestige that go
with office. Ideologies – even ideologies that declare the “end of
ideologies” – develop out of this desire as means to gaining office.
Downs argues, ahead of Bobbio, that political parties “tend to maintain
ideological positions that are consistent over time unless they suffer
drastic defeats, in which case they change their ideologies to resemble
that of the party which defeated them” (p. 300). New Labour’s response to
the dominance of Thatcherism is a notable example. The pressure in
British politics is towards strategies that seek the centre – a pressure
which has, of course, led New Labour to marginalize and on occasion even
expel more radical elements within the party (Mair 1994, 152).
Of course, the Downsian model, which saw office-seeking as the only
feature of party behavior, is limited in that it doesn’t address the fact
that parties do not necessarily formulate policies to win elections but
can win elections to implement policy (Heffernan
2000). The assumption that voter preferences are fixed and unchangeable
has been the subject of sustained criticism. If voters do not have fixed
policy preferences, parties can
influence these preferences. As a result,
voter preferences can be determined by party competition not simply by
voters themselves (Heffernan 2000). The phenomenon of Thatcherism itself
creates considerable difficulties for the Downsian model. By combining
office-seeking with policy-seeking, the Thatcher-led Conservative
government was able to refashion the political middle ground and pull the
British political spectrum to the right (Heffernan 2000, 120), a
phenomenon confirmed by Labour’s playing the politics of catch-up
The Revision of Clause IV
Over time, Clause IV
took on the status of a totem. Our agenda was
as statist socialism lost credibility, so did we lose support.
Blair, in Let us Face the Future (London: Fabian Society, 1995)
Blair’s first great move as party leader left no question as to which
direction on the left-right spectral metaphor he intended to nudge his
“new” party. An important indicator of Blair’s determination to change
the nature as well as the image of the party was the rewriting of the
party constitution’s Clause IV. Often dubbed the “ark of the socialist
covenant,” Clause IV committed the party to public ownership, it vowed “to
secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their
industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible
upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production,
distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular
administration and control of each industry or service” (Seyd 1998, 55).
Instead of working towards the public ownership of the means of
production, distribution, and exchange the new clause claimed that the
party would work for a dynamic economy, it welcomed the enterprise of the
market, and praised the rigor of competition (Kavanagh 1997a, 536).
Again I do not wish to suggest that “modernizing” changes, especially
those intent on seeing off vestiges of public ownership, were not under
way before Tony Blair; nonetheless, it was Blair who made the decisive,
and most symbolic, break with Labour’s past by writing out the party’s
commitment to common ownership (Driver and Martell 1998, 40). For
“modernizers,” this rid the party of an irrelevant and outdated commitment
inappropriate for the modern age. To Blair, this aspect of the
constitution was open to misinterpretation and, what is worse, it
represented the Old Labour Tradition. For the Left, it rid Labour of what
made it socialist and different from other parties and replaced it with
something they could all agree on (Driver and Martell 1998, 67). Thomson
(2000) accuses Blair of having “miscalculated the degree to which the old
Clause IV acted as a potent symbol for those on the Left, signifying the
power of the state and the degree to which the Labour Party was still a
socialist party. They viewed Clause IV as the ‘soul’ of the party…” (p.
132). A corollary to the replacement of Clause IV was the abandonment of
plans to renationalize industries that the Conservatives had privatized.
There was a time when the extension of public ownership, to the point
where it would encompass most of economic activity, was, at least in
theory, part of the programmatic consensus of the Left (Miliband 1994,
100). The commitment to public ownership as an ideological principle is
gone, and nothing better symbolizes Labour’s willingness to embrace the
market than this renouncement of public ownership.
Taxation and the Economy
There were certain things the 1980s got right—
an emphasis on enterprise, more flexible labour markets.
--Tony Blair, speaking to a meeting of the Socialist International
Britain will be safe in the hands of Mr.
--Margaret Thatcher at the start of the
Traditionally, the left favors collectivist solutions to the problem of
economic distribution whereas the right favors a more individualistic
approach. This, of course, is no longer the case in Great Britain under
the leadership of Tony Blair. One of the most important facets of New
Labour’s shameless opportunism involves an obsessive desire to convince
the electorate of its economic competence—a characteristic not
traditionally associated with left-wing parties in Europe. Concerned only
at the rhetorical level with the promotion of social justice, New Labour
is principally concerned with strengthening the power of capital. Tony
Blair has made it clear that excessive taxing, borrowing, and spending are
all things of the past (Heffernan 2000, 71). And, in the extreme case
that Labour leadership would fall victim to fits of ideological nostalgia,
some luminary from the “third way” would surely be there to reel Labour
back to the metaphorical middle.
Annesley, Claire. 2001. “New Labour and Welfare.” In New Labour in
Steve Ludlam and Martin J. Smith. New York: St. Martin’s
Blair, Tony. 1997. New Britain: My Vision of a Young Country.
Bobbio, Norberto. 1996. Left & Right: The Significance of Political
Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Clift, Ben. 2001. “New Labour’s Third Way and European Social
Democracy.” In New
Labour in Government, ed. Steve Ludlam and Martin J.
Smith. New York: St.
Downs, Anthony. 1957. An Economic Theory of Democracy. New York:
Harper & Row
Driver, Stephen, and Luke Martell. 1998. New Labour: Politics after
Cambridge: Polity Press.
Eagleton, Terry. 1996. The Illusions of Postmodernism. Oxford:
Finlayson, Alan. 1999. “Third Way Theory.” Political Quarterly
Freeden, Michael. 1999. “The Ideology of New Labour.” Political
Quarterly 70: 42-52.
Gallagher, Michael, Michael Laver, and Peter Mair.1992. Representative
Modern Europe: Institutions, Parties and Governments.
New York: McGraw Hill.
Giddens, Anthony. 1994. Beyond Left and Right: The Future of Radical
Cambridge: Polity Press.
Giddens, Anthony. 1998. The Third Way: The Renewal of Social
Giddens, Anthony. 2001. The Third Way and its Critics. Cambridge:
Giddens, Anthony. 2002. “Don’t go back to the bad old ways of tax and
Blair.” January 7.
(February 5, 2002).
Grice, Andrew. 2002a. “Blair refuses to withdraw ‘wreckers’ attack.”
Grice, Andrew. 2002b. “Forget the Third Way, now it’s the Third Phase.”
Hall, Stuart. 1997. “The Great Moving Centre Show.” New Statesman
Vol. 126, Issue
Hall, Stuart. 1995. “Son of Margaret?” New Statesman & Society
Vol. 8, Issue 373: 23-7.
Harrop, Martin. 2001. “An Apathetic Landslide: The British Election of
Government and Opposition 36 (Summer): 295-313.
Harrop, Martin. 1997. “The Pendulum Swings: The British Election of
Government and Opposition 32 (Summer): 305-19.
Heath, Anthony F., Roger M. Jowell, and John K. Curtice. 2001. The
Rise of New
Labour: Party Policies and Voter Choices. New York:
Oxford University Press.
Heffernan, Richard. 2000. New Labour and Thatcherism: Political Change
New York: St. Martin’s Press, Inc.
Hobsbawm, Eric. 2000. The New Century. London: Little, Brown and
Hoffman, Piotr. 1999. Freedom, Equality, Power: The Ontological
Consequences of the
Political Philosophies of Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau.
New York: Peter Lang
Kavanagh, Dennis. 1996. “British Party Conferences and the Political
Rhetoric of the
1990s.” Government and Opposition 31: 27-44.
Kavanagh, Dennis. 1994. “Changes in Electoral Behaviour and the Party
Parliamentary Affairs 47 (October): 596-611.
Kavanagh, Dennis. 1997a. “The Labour Campaign.” Parliamentary Affairs
Kavanagh, Dennis. 1997b. The Reordering of British Politics: Politics
Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Kirchheimer, Otto. 1966. “The Transformation of the Western European
In Political Parties and Political Development, ed.
Joseph LaPalombara and
Myron Weiner. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Labour Party. 2001. “Ambitions for Britain: Labour’s manifesto 2001.”
http://www.labour.org.uk (March 1, 2001).
Labour Party. 1997. New Labour Because Britain Deserves Better.
London: The Labour
Lappin, Shalom. 2000. “New Labour and the destruction of social
47 (Fall): 15-19.
Lipset, Seymour Martin. 2001. “The Americanization of the European
Left.” Journal of
Democracy 12: 74-87.
Ludlam, Steve. 2001a. “The Making of New Labour.” In New Labour in
Steve Ludlam and Martin J. Smith. New York: St. Martin’s
Ludlam, Steve. 2001b. “New Labour and the Unions.” In New Labour in
ed. Steve Ludlam and Martin J. Smith. New York: St. Martin’s
Mair, Peter. 1994. “Britain: Labour and Electoral Reform.” In Mapping
European Left, ed. Perry Anderson and Patrick Camiller.
Margetts, Helen. 1997. “The 1997 British General Election: New Labour,
West European Politics 20 (October): 180-191.
Miliband, Ralph. 1994. Socialism for a Sceptical Age. Cambridge:
Minogue, K.R. 1966. “Thomas Hobbes and the
Philosophy of Absolutism.” In Political
Ideas, ed. David Thomson. New York: Basic Book, Inc.
Monbiot, George. 2002. “Wreckers unite.” February 19.
(13 March 2002).
Mouffe, Chantal. 2000. The Democratic Paradox. London: Verso.
Nagel, Thomas. 1991. Equality and Partiality. New York: Oxford
Norris, Pippa. 1997. “Anatomy of a Labour Landslide.” Parliamentary
Przeworski, Adam, and John Sprague. 1986. Paper Stones: A History of
Socialism. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Sanders, David. 1999. “The Impact of Left-Right Ideology.” In
British Parties and Voters in Long-term Perspective,
ed. Geoffrey Evans and
Pippa Norris. London: SAGE Publications.
Sassoon, Donald. 1996. One Hundred Years of Socialism: The West
European Left in the
Twentieth Century. New York: The New Press.
Seyd, Patrick. 1998. “Tony Blair and New Labour.” In New Labour:
Britain at the Polls.
Chatham: Chatham House Publishers, Inc.
Smith, Martin J. 2001. “The Complexity of New Labour.” In New Labor
ed. Steve Ludlam and Martin J. Smith. New York: St. Martin’s
Thomson, Stuart. 2000. The Social Democratic Dilemma: Ideology,
Globalization. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Thorpe, Andrew. 2001. A History of the British Labour Party (Second
Webb, Paul. 2000a. The Modern British Party System. London: SAGE
Webb, Paul. 1998. “United Kingdom.” European Journal of Political
Data Yearbook 1997) 34: 539-49.
1998. “Goldilocks politics.” The Economist, December 19, p. 47
2001. “Labour’s great NHS betrayal.” Socialist Worker, May 26, p.
2002. “Come back, Dr Beeching.” The Economist, January 19, p.
2002. “Pop Idols.” The Economist, February 16, p. 56.