archive - go to home page

Ken Livingstone

On the Third Way



It is very easy to be cynical about the concept of the Third Way. For a start, the very name seems to be an absurdity for anyone serious about constructing an ideological framework - defining oneself against two other 'ways' rather than starting from what you believe in for yourself seems to me to be a bit of a dodgy intellectual exercise.


Which reminds me of an old Soviet joke. President Gorbachev visits Britain, and is impressed. Returning to the USSR, he announces that he has discovered the secret of UK success. 'Britain drives on the left, whereas we drive on the right. Therefore I will issue a decree. From now on, everyone in the Soviet Union will drive on the left side.'


The assembled members of the Politburo think for minute, and reply: 'This is too radical. The people will not understand it. We must avoid extremism.' Gorbachev ponders, and concludes: 'you are right. The decree will be altered. Half the cars will drive on the left, and half on the right.'


If that seems like a bit of a caricature, I plead guilty. But so should the theorists of the Third Way. Anthony Giddens is a reputable academic, and he has written a short book which is at times engaging and infuriating but mostly just plain wrong.


One of the tactics of the Millbank Tendency in internal Labour Party debates is to counterpose two simplifications. The concepts of 'New' and 'Old' Labour are the perfect example. In this way subtlety - and eventually accuracy - are easily abolished. Giddens contends that the Third Way should be seen as the renewal of social democracy. Constrained by the very concept of a 'third' way, he first defines the other two: old style social democracy and neo-liberalism. It is in the ideological clash between these two - both of which he sees as having had their day - that a new third way emerges. I agree with him about the inadequacy of both of these positions, but that is where we diverge.


There are two problems: one, that 'old style' social democracy cannot be said to encompass the political thought of a very large number of Labour Party members, particularly of my generation and younger; and two, that there are more than two existing choices. Take his section on the 'democratic family'. Giddens argues: 'is there a politics of the family beyond neo-liberalism and old-style social democracy?'. This is a daft question, as feminists will no doubt remind him. Giddens is left to argue that 'many on the social democratic left' argue for a new conception of the family based on diversity and choice, in which there is no ideal family, and where heterosexuality and homosexuality are not discriminated against on issues such as parenting.


With respect to Giddens, this conception is not at all prevalent within social democracy. Indeed, it was supposedly because of such 'loony left' ideas that so many social democrats deserted the Labour Party in the early 1980s. Giddens is arguing against a position which cannot be said to 'social democratic', counterposing to it the views of the 'new' Third Way politics. His third way on the family is ghastly. Preoccupied with 'rights and responsibilities', he proposes 'contractual parental commitments', arguing 'fathers should have greater parenting rights than at present'.


This idea is extended to children, whom, he suggests, 'should have responsibilities to their parents, not just the other way around'. He favours statutes requiring children to look after needy parents. Rights and responsibilities are something Third Wayers are big on. I didn't realise how big until I read this book. For Giddens, 'one might suggest as a prime motto for the new politics, no rights without responsibilities.' This is a cloak for social authoritarianism. Rights are not conditional, they are absolute, or they are not rights at all.


The Third Way is a product of its age. The collapse of the Soviet Union has completely disorientated the left. Many welcomed what they saw as the democratisation of Eastern Europe, regarding the reintroduction of capitalism into the USSR as the best chance of liberating the people there. The bi-polar world was abolished, and optimism reigned.


Seen in retrospect, this optimism was misplaced, and the illusions are having to be shed fast. The new world order has turned out to be a disaster for the vast majority of the people of the planet, with huge capital flows out of the third world, and a succession of irresponsible interventions by the dominant world power - the USA - allowed to go unopposed. Social democracy has looked on, impotent, and often supportive of the inroads being made by neoliberalism.


This is beginning to unravel. Larry Elliott in the Guardian recently argued that the current crisis in the world markets, and particularly the meltdown in Russia, are as much a crisis for the left's leaders as they are for the neo-liberal right.


Certainly, the crisis on the right is acute. But the politicians of the third way are also confused. So far, the British government has simply repeated to the people of Russia that they must continue with the very reforms that have brought their country to its biggest crisis since Hitler's invasion.


There is nothing in Anthony Giddens book which convinces me that the politicians of the third way - which at best is a very right wing version of social democracy - have in their armoury anything which would be of relevance to the people of Russia. Indeed it is noticeable that the social democratic parties in the former soviet union are few and far between.


I said at the start of my comments that there were more than two choices, to which I mush add a rider: Giddens has deliberately posed a false choice, because his book is not only an academic exercise, but an attempt to assert the final burial of a different third way - democratic socialism. Yet the 'Lex Column' of the Financial Times, mostly devoted to the developments on the world markets, recently asked under headline 'Das Kapital revisited', why the world had swung 'from the triumph of global capitalism to its crisis in less than a decade'. Socialists, of which there are millions all over the world, still have some answers, despite Giddens's claim that 'socialism is no more'.



Ken Livingstone is Mayor of London.  This review appeared as 'There are more than three ways' in the New Statesman, 25 September 1998.