The third way in the UK

What do you do if you’re a ‘third wayer’ and things don’t seem to be turning out all that flatteringly for your vision?  You just keep talking in pretty much the same way, slap a coat of Web 2.0 paint on the vision and press on.

Oh well, none of us that I know of are that clever about what we should be doing to make the world a better place.  But it can be irritating both reading and listening to Tony Blair clones. The general shtick is that the era of mass this and mass that is over, thus we have to ‘move beyond’ mass welfare.  This will be done when we empower people.

Couldn’t agree more, but somehow I don’t think we can make much progress without acknowledging how difficult this is. While there are things we can do to make welfare more active, more empowering etc etc, the third wayers seem never to write about this in the tragic terms that I think are warranted.  When there was no welfare people looked at the misery and the indignity of it and thought that surely welfare was a no-brainer.

(I agree – in any reasonable utilitarian analysis the ‘utility’ supplied to the poor from welfare vastly exceeds the disutility of us rich people giving up ten, twenty or even thirty percent of our income. The idea that redistribution from rich to poor was socially beneficial was an integral and natural part of the views of early 20th Century mainstream economists like Marshall and Pigou. If the consumption of virtually all commodities is characterised by diminishing marginal utility (as you consume more you get less ‘utility’ from each unit consumed) then it stands to reason that taking a dollar from someone with lots of money can be done at relatively little cost to utility whilst redistributing it to the poor enables the use of the same dollar to secure things of much higher utility. On a simpler level, swapping one person’s luxuries for another’s necessities makes obvious sense. This commonsense disappeared from economics as it tried to give itself value free foundations and so lost contact with its origins in moral philosophy.)

Anyway, as we now discover, we’re also subsidising the behaviours that generate poverty – like single parenthood, drugs, domestic violence and the breeding and neglect of kids. Why do third wayers never really focus on the tragedy of this – on the difficulty of subsidising something while trying to reduce it?  We’ve got ourselves a very very hard problem and we’re probably condemned to tinkering at the edges to alleviate the worst of it – unless that is one simply declares war on the welfare state as some on the right would like to do.

The third way has broadened its base in the UK, illustrating just how important leadership is.  In Australia we had eleven years of John Howard and the parameters of our politics – perhaps that should be perimeters of our politics – are still shaped by that time as we continue to obsess about the most recent boatload of asylum seekers. In the UK they’ve had a similar amount of time with New Labour and now they have cooked up a new brand – “progressive conservatism” a subject which no fewer than two think tanks have dedicated themselves to exploring (not to mention Demos who established a ‘progressive conservatism’ project from which much of this seems to have started.)

David Cameron the putative Conservative PM spends a great deal of his time sounding more like Tony Blair than anyone else. When this struck me from watching a few of his YouTube videos I discovered on further inspection that this is indeed a criticism which has some currency in the UK.  However given the party he heads one presumes that there are plenty within progressive conservatism who hope to use the third way and the Web 2.0 ideas which have come in the wake of the third way to scale back the state, as alternative approaches are cranked up.  Then it may not seem so nice.

It’s in the nature of politics that bold claims get made when one is campaigning in poetry and that those claims end up looking a bit shoddy after a period of governing in prose. What’s more galling is all the consultants and spruikers for the new approaches sound just the same – when it seems to me that those who set themselves up as ‘thought leaders’ ought to both campaign and govern in prose.

I thought this when recently hearing a new generation spokesman purveying ‘progressive conservatism’ recently in Australia. I kept wondering with him as I do with all the progressive conservatives I’ve come across why it’s seems to be such a fundamental part of their identity that they’re conservatives. After all, these are within a hair’s breadth of the same ideas that took New Labour to power and have kept it there for over a decade. I’m all for them taking them on and pointing out that they can be given a conservative spin.  Indeed they can, and they’ll grow depth for it. (I also appreciate the use of the word ‘conservative’ to imply Burkean conservatism rather than just representing the interests of capital, poofter bashing and anything the right wing spinmeisters are on about at the time – which, in the US includes destroying the budget while in government and complaining about the destruction of the budget – or the repair of the budget depending on what is happening – when out of office.)

But there you go.  If the Conservatives win in the UK elections I guess we can watch with interest to see what gets made of these ideas when they start being translated from poetry into prose. I’m intending to post at least one follow up to this post, though there may be others – and Don Arthur probably has more sensible things to say than me on it anyway. In any event, this post got written as an introduction to a brief response to reading a old third wayer’s recent rehabilitation of an agrarian communist from the English civil war. Lot’s of poetry, not much prose, if you get my meaning – and I’ll expand in my next post.

Postscript: I’m aware that the values base and ideas appealed to in the video of David Cameron to which I’ve linked could be explained as just a relatively cynical outreach to Labour voters which accordingly used language that wouldn’t upset them (and it reminded me of the ALP add when it said “no offence Mr Howard, but you’re just out of touch” – showing respect to the other side so as not to accuse those who voted for them of being stupid.) However there are lots of other more general examples – I had videos of several in an earlier draft of this post which WordPress ate up. Perhaps readers can provide some better links. In the meantime how’s this for an example.

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James Farrell
James Farrell
14 years ago

That video is interesting, isn’t it? I can imagine Malcolm Turnbull saying similar stuff, though he could never make hinmself sound so humble. I’m also struck by the invocation of ‘social responsibility’ on the website. Somewhere it’s been decided that ‘individual responsibility’ would sound too much like a return to Thatcher. The exhortation to reject ‘paternalist government’ is not new, but the solution is sought not in the ‘private sector’, on grounds of its efficiency, but in ‘community’ organisiations (and this clearly doesn’t mean churches, so it’s different from what Bush was up to) on grounds of authenticity.

So how come the Poms get this soft-hearted centrism from their Tories, and we get Abbott? Wouldn’t one predict the opposite on the basis of out voting systems? Compulsory voting should push parties to the middle ground, while voluntary voting should encourage rightwing demagogues who can motivate their footslidiers to come out and vote.

Stephen Collins
14 years ago

Cameron strikes me as a particularly interesting character. In stark contrast to the hard right, faith-driven shift amongst Australian conservatives, he presents a singularly more palatable view of what the Right could be.

I agree with James’ view above that our system should incline parties to the centre. I think it has largely been that way until Abbott’s ascension. I’m entirely baffled by what the Libs think they’re up to – either they have some very secret polling about a drift to the right amongst mainstream voters (and they’re exploiting it) or they’re setting themselves up for a mighty fall.

Either way, their politics of difference and fear on all things is entirely distasteful. That said, I find much of Labor these days equally distasteful.

Cameron’s words in the video you link above provide something more of a drilled down view to that which he presented at TED this year. Which, unsurprisingly, sounded not a small amount like parts of what was said by Brown at TED Global in Oxford six months before.

Jimi Bostock
14 years ago

I am pondering the concept of “progressive conservatism”.

A few weeks back on Q&A there was an academic who made some really interesting points about what we now call conservatism as being quite different to the traditional notion. I found his thinking to be quite interesting and valid.

He made the point that one could not really describe the Howard government as “conservative” and it may be more correct to call them radical. If you look at some of the big ticket items, GST, etc, the radical term is apt.

Progressive conservatism does seem strange, perhaps an oxymoron. The central meaning of conservatism is that it is about slow and incremental change.

I will admit that as I get older, the notion of conservatism, being that change should be slow and deliberate, is becoming more attractive. So, I am wondering about the idea of left conservatism. Can I be a leftie, as I am, yet be against radical movement in policy.

I fear that the 24/7 news cycle and the insatiable need for big headlines is part of the issue. A healdine such as “Govt delivers small change to …” is not as powerful as “Govt in radical overhaul …”

I see one problem is the almost co-dependant relationship between the media and govs. Everything has to be a crisis nowadays.

A few boatloads of refugees, almost miniscule in number compared to the global flow, is now a crisis. Even the great GFC, can be seen in another light as not having been a crisis. Global warming is the great moral crisis, and the list goes on.

Look at health. My god!!! It is a crisis. Are we joking. Try that on in a thrid world nation. Tell them all about the wait for elective surgery. Share with them the four hour wait at emergency for a sniffle. No, our health system is amazing. So, why is it called a crisis.

So, everything is a crisis and all gov action needs to be radical.

However, let us consider a place like Australia. Truly, what is so wrong here that could be ever declared a crisis? I propose that there is nothing that needs to be declared a crisis and nothing that requires radical action.

Which leads to Abbott. There is no way he is conservative. He is as radical as they come and I suggest that it could go either way. Fed by the murdoch press, the people may well let him in entirely because he has radical plans to fix every crisis we have.

Yep, I think that we need to challenge the need for anything radical. We need to get back to the basics of left/right. Even the dismissing of these as being relevant only reveals that all sides are now in constant crisis mode and always looking for the radical solution.

I believe that the new meme of crisis and radical action is now the burning issue as it clearly leads to bad policy (think insulation scheme) and sadly it is mostly leading to bad economic policy.

14 years ago

“Compulsory voting should push parties to the middle ground, while voluntary voting should encourage rightwing demagogues who can motivate their footslidiers to come out and vote.”

I think the latter may be correct but I’m not sure about compulsory voting pushing parties to the ‘middle ground’. Without getting into semantics defining the ‘middle ground’, it would seem to me that the ‘middle ground’ is determined more by focus groups, opinion surveys, msm, computer models of voter behaviour etc The agendas of political parties tend to reflect the data – politics is not about changing the world, it’s about pragmatism and power. One would expect compulsory voting to confirm the data. I suppose I’m suggesting that compulsory voting is a passive rather than active element in determining the middle ground (whatever that may be!)

Don Arthur
14 years ago

So how come the Poms get this soft-hearted centrism from their Tories, and we get Abbott?

One explanation might be that the Liberals are fighting their first election from opposition while the Tories have been wandering in the wilderness for more than a decade. In a piece for the New Statesman Vernon Bogdanor notes that oppositions take time to find to the centre:

David Frum, a former speechwriter to George W Bush, once wrote that “when a political party offers the voters ham and eggs and the voters say, ‘No, thanks,’ its first instinct is to say, ‘OK then. How about double ham and double eggs?'” Three successive Conservative leaders – William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard – responded to defeat by seeking to mobilise the Tory “core” vote. They did so by highlighting the “dog-whistle” issues: the so-called “Tebbit trinity” of Europe, immigration and taxes, or what Tim Bale calls “the politics of the 19th tee”.

Another theory is that the Tories built up a damaging reputation as a party that knew what it opposed but not what it stood for. And in their choices about what to oppose, they managed to alienate vast slabs of the electorate including many professionals and managers.

In a 2002 the party’s chairwoman Theresa May warned:

voters will only think of the opposition as an alternative government if the opposition acts as governments should – in a reasonable way, judging issues on their merits and people on their records.

She went on to say that pandering to the party’s core supporters was not a winning strategy:

Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us – the nasty party.

I know that’s unfair. You know that’s unfair but it’s the people out there we need to convince – and we can only do that by avoiding behaviour and attitudes that play into the hands of our opponents. No more glib moralising, no more hypocritical finger-wagging.

We need to reach out to all areas of our society.

The Tories had a lot to live down. As well as the Thatcher and Major governments, they had the years in opposition. Just as Blair had to prove he was tough on law and order and capable as an economic manager, Cameron needs to prove he can be trusted with the NHS, the welfare state and the environment.

The Tories didn’t lose in 1997 because their voters stayed home while Labour’s went to the polls — they lost a significant share of votes to Labour. Now they need to win them back.

14 years ago

The difference between UK Conservatives and conservative Australian Liberals is one that I have thought about for quite some time since I moved over to London. The key difference is the history behind the Conservative Party is longer and more diverse than the Liberal Party. During the 19th century, Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli spoke about “two nations” – one rich and one poor – and that the Conservative Party is about making “one nation”. The Tory Reform Group is a promoter of the One Nation tradition of the Conservative Party.

However, there are many occasions when Conservative PMs have shown that concern for the worst off drives policy. The repeal of the Corn Laws (tariffs on the importing of foodstuffs) was pushed through by Robert Peel in the teeth of vicious Conservative opposition. This was pushed through to lower food prices for the poorest in society.

Even in the 1950s the Conservative Party would promote that they built more council houses than the Labour Party.

At its heart, the Conservative Party is pragmatic, empirical and cautious. Thatcher made the party more radical and taught it that the Conservatives can be drivers of change. In Australia, the Liberal Party lacks the deep and diverse history and you can see it in the debate that is going on in the party. I have seen people who will say that the Liberals are about small government but ignore most of Menzies policies which were very paternalistic. With party members not knowing the history of Conservatism, and the history of the Liberal Party, you tend to see leaders resembling American Republicans than UK Conservatives.

13 years ago

William Hague appears to share much in common with another (deceased) well-known entertainer, a fondness for youthful people, many of them boys, and an abnormal childhood. Could William Hague be a political version of Michael Jackson?