The British Labour Party and the "Third Way"

Analysing the ideological change and its reasons under the leadership of Tony Blair

Bachelor Thesis, 2010

46 Pages, Grade: 1,5



Deutsche Zusammenfassung/ German Abstract

1. Introduction

2. The ‘Third Way’ – major changes in the political ideology
2. 1 Ideology
2.2 Account of existing order
2.3 Vision of a “good society”
2.4 Theory of political change
2.5 Interim conclusion

3. The reasons of the ideological change
3.1 Reasons within the Labour Party and its history
3.2 Reasons within the society in the 1990s

4. The ‘Third Way’ as an electoral strategy

5. The impact of the ‘Third Way’

6. Critique

7. Conclusion

Declaration of labeling all used literature:



Deutsche Zusammenfassung/ German Abstract

In der vorliegenden Arbeit soll der Einfluss des ‚Dritten Weges‘ auf die englische Labour Party geklärt werden. Zu Beginn der Arbeit untersuche ich, ob der ‚Dritte Weg‘ als Ideologie zu bezeichnen ist. In diesem Kontext kläre ich die wichtigsten Punkte des Politikansatzes anhand eines Rasters von Andrew Heywood in Abgrenzung zum tradierten sozialdemokratischen Ansatz. Dies geschieht um nachzuvollziehen, dass es sich beim ‚Dritten Weg‘ um einen durchdachten Politikansatz handelt und nicht um lose Fragmente politischer Ideen. Darüber hinaus können hierdurch die größten Unterschiede zur alten Sozialdemokratie besser betrachtet werden. Nachfolgend bestimme ich die Einflussfaktoren, die die Labour Party dazu motiviert haben, die Modernisierung ihres Politikkonzeptes voranzubringen. Dabei werden Faktoren innerhalb und außerhalb der Partei betrachtet.

Wir müssen bedenken, dass es sich beim ‚Dritten Weg‘ um einen Zwitter handelt. Auf der einen Seite ist es ein umfassender Politikansatz, gleichzeitig aber auch eine Strategie zur Maximierung des Wahlerfolges. Ich vergleiche diese Strategie mit dem Konzept des Parteienwettbewerbes von Anthony Downs.

Zum Ende der Arbeit kläre ich den Einfluss des Konzeptes auf die Partei und die Frage zur Implementierung des Politikansatzes. Innerhalb der Arbeit wird eine Frage aufgeworfen, die nicht beantwortet werden kann. Wenn wir die Zielstellung zur Maximierung des Wahlerfolges betrachten, dann ist die Frage, ob die Modernisierung der Partei für diesen Wahlerfolg erforderlich war, von besonderer Bedeutung.

Im Fazit fasse ich die Ergebnisse der vorangegangenen Kapitel zusammen.

1. Introduction

“New Labour is dead”, Anthony Giddens the ideological father of the ‘Third Way’[1] just summarized the debate around the election date at 6th of May 2010 [Giddens, 2010: 38] and the German newsmagazine ‘Die Zeit’ phrased

“nobody knows, who is going to lead the next government, but everybody knows who is going to lose it [...]: the last dream of the European social democracy. The dream named ‘New Labour’ [...], a vision of the ‘Third Way’ beyond capitalism and socialism [...].” [Assheuer, 2010: 50][2].

Designed in the United Kingdom the ‘Third Way’ as the ideology of ‘New Labour’[3] was an attempt to establish a new policy; a policy, that Tony Blair called: ‘neither the old left nor the new Right’ [Leach, 2009: 123].

It is often argued ‘What is the ‘Third Way’?’ and it stays vague and elusive, what the Labour Party and Tony Blair meant with this term [Leach, 2009: 3]. But there are some plans and values that have been designed. “Some of these projects are clearly continuous with the Labours Party’s tradition of egalitarian social democracy. Others are much less so.” [Leach, 2009: 4]. This sentence shows the difficulty to figure out the ideological content of the ‘Third Way’. It separates itself from the old party’s agenda and it tries to border itself from the Conservative governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major, ruling until 1997. Anthony Giddens, the political thinker of the ‘Third Way’ announced, he wanted to create “no more than an outline – of an integrated political programme, covering each of the major sectors of society” [Giddens, 1998: 69]. This is an enormous requirement and it shows that he wanted to design a coherent political agenda.

The modernisation of the Labour Party; its structures and its guiding principles were a long process. It started in the mid of the 1980 and especially after losing the third election in a row 1987 the process of modernisation was gathering speed. Thinking of this, it was a process to gain and regain votes in the first instance [Shaw, 1999: 181]. A program like the ‘Third Way’ was developed in many countries [Giddens, 1998: 17-20] and nearly all of the centre-left parties have restructured their doctrines in response to the ‘Third Way’ [Powell, 2004: 9]. Already in 1993, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown visited the new US President Bill Clinton to discuss his ideas of modern centre-left parties. After Tony Blair became leader of the Labour Party and especially after the enormous victory in the 1997 election, Great Britain became a prototype of modernising social democratic parties. The US Democrats and the British Labour Party do have some similar conditions for modernisation.[4] They came into power after a long time in opposition, they both claimed to have a key to modern social democratic politics and both separated themselves from their own history and tradition. But even breaking with their tradition, the ‘Third Way’ understands itself as a project within the socialistic tradition [Sandner, 2002: 3-7]. Tony Blair described the ‘Third Way’ as a project that splits left and right but what was based on values that only the left adhered [Fielding, 2003: 79].

Let me briefly explain the main idea of this work. I want to describe the impact of the ‘Third Way’ to the British Labour Party and the situation of the Labour Party in the middle of the 1990s. Therefore, I do three things. Firstly, I prove that the ‘Third Way’ is an ideology by verifying the content of the three characteristics of an ideology (chapter two). I do this to show that the policy New Labour implemented was caused by a coherent set of ideas. Secondly, I outline the ideas of the ‘Third Way’ as the ideology of New Labour and its differences to old-style social democracy as the ideology of Old Labour to see the main changes of Labour Party’s policies. This is important to see how the Labour Party changed its policy agenda. Thirdly, I show the reasons the Labour Party caused in develop this policy strategy (chapter three). I analyse why the Labour Party modernised itself. Therefore, we need to know the surrounding conditions of the Labour Party. The reasons to modernise can lie within the party or within the society. To describe the situation of the Labour Party properly I work with some statists, polls and political calculations.

The ‘Third Way’ is a hybrid. On the one hand it is an ideological coherent set of ideas, as we will see and on the other hand it is an electoral strategy. In chapter five I will compare the ‘Third Way’ to the concept of party competition developed by Anthony Downs. In doing this we will better understand the ‘Third Way’ as a set of ideas that is rather formed by the party’s principles than the electoral success. Towards the end of this work (chapter four) I describe the impact of the ‘Third Way’ in British politics. There is often mentioned that the ‘Third Way’ did not have any impact on British politics. I will work out, whether Labour could implement the policy agenda they gave themselves. There is an unanswered question. This question is whether the Labour Party really did need to modernise to come back into office. A complete outline about this topic is not possible within this work, but if we keep in mind that this modernisation caused a lot of costs to the party and changed the traditions within the party completely, this question is with no doubt crucial. I gave a brief outline why I am in doubt that these modernisations really mattered. In the conclusion I summarise the results of the earlier chapters.

2. The ‘Third Way’ – major changes in the political ideology

2. 1 Ideology

By analysing the changes in the policy agenda of the Labour Party we need to find some criteria. In this chapter I define the political term ‘ideology’ and show that both – Old and New Labour – are ideologies. In showing this, I will indicate important changes within the policy agenda.

Ideology is a widely discussed term within political science. Therefore we have to define, what is meant by the term ‘ideology’. Few political scientists presented a clear definition for the term ‘ideology’ or the mostly simultaneous used term ‘political theory’. ‘Ideology’ is often used in a negative connotation or as Marx’s indicates ‘Ideology’ as a critical concept, it was used to mystify the society. In writing this, he is able to classify his own views as scientific [Heywood, 207: p 6]. I present two different definitions of ideology, even in knowing that it is impossible to define it comprehensively.

Mostafa Rejai points out, that an ideology embraces five dimensions:

The ‘cognitive dimension’ is an outlook of society and politics, a ‘world view’ about social and political reality. Within this description of reality is always a myth, because “every society is founded upon myth and is saturated in myth” [Rejai, 1994: 5]. Myth is fundamental, because it simplifies the reality, needed to describe and communicated the reality.

The second dimension is the ‘affective dimension’. This dimension deals with emotions, which are important to appeal people. Within this context we need to distinguish between open and closed belief systems. Open belief systems are able to admit new circumstances, emotions and information. The ideology can adapt these new circumstances. A closed belief system is static and cannot change itself, while the situation is changing. In extraordinary time open belief system can affect the people emotions even there are changes peoples are afraid of [Reja, 1994: 7].

The ‘evaluative dimension’ is the third one. To embody the normative elements, an ideology announces some evaluated facts and to prove itself as true or to prove the existing order as wrong [Rejai, 1994: 8-9].

Mostafa Rejai mentions the ‘programmatic dimension’ as the fourth one. Ideologies state out a specific program, which steps to go, to reach the aim of the ideology. So they set out a system of beliefs, what is going to be reached and mention the activity to go further to it [Rejai, 1994: 9].

As the last dimension Rejai characterises the ‘social-base dimension’. Ideologies need a mass base. They need the combinations between elite project and mass mobilisation to function [Rejai, 1994: 10].

In summarising the definition of ideologies, Rejai states out:

“Political ideology is an emotion-laden, myth-saturated, action-related system of beliefs and values about people and society, legitimacy and authority, that is acquired to a large extent as a matter of faith and habit. The myths and values of ideology are communicated through symbols in a simplified, economical, and efficient manner. Ideological beliefs are more or less coherent, more or less articulate, more or less open to new evidence and information. Ideologies have a high potential for mass mobilization, manipulation, and control; in that sense, they are mobilized belief systems.” [Rejai, 1994: 11].

As we can see, defining ideologies is rather complex. Andrew Heywood tries it in a compact way.

He describes ideology as a “coherent set of ideas that provides the basis for organized political action, whether this is intended to preserve, modify or overthrow the existing system of power.” Furthermore, he states that an ideology needs to fulfil three items.

Firstly, it needs to “offer an account of the existing order, usually in the form of a ‘world view’”. Ideologies “provide individuals and groups with an intellectual map of how their society works” [Heywood, 2007: 11- 12]. This is “embedded within a set of normative or prescriptive beliefs, both about the adequacy of present social arrangements and about the nature of any alternative or future society.” So, as Rejai did, Heywood defines Ideologies as well not only as an description. Ideologies include beliefs and normative judgement about the current society. Ideologies therefore have a powerful emotional or affective character, as they are able to express hopes and fear, sympathies and hatreds. In Heywood’s view this is natural, because “all people’s views are shaped, consciously or subconsciously, by broader social and cultural factors” [ibid.].

Secondly, he expresses that an ideology presents “a model of a desired future, a vision of the ‘good society’”. “An ideology [...] can be seen as a set of principles, doctrines and theories that help to structure the process of intellectual enquiry [ibid.].” An ideology expresses a more or less coherent set of ideas of an aim that is going to be reached. They deal with abstract ideas, principles and values that are the crucial and they are mostly formulated from a refusal of the existing order. Heywood describes this as the idea-based part of the ideology.

Thirdly, an ideology has to connect the vision of ‘good society’ with the order in the existing world. It explains “how political change can and should be brought about.” This means that an ideology have to design steps, to go from the existing order to the vision of a ‘good society’. Heywood describes this as the action-orientated part of an ideology. An ideology needs a broad political movement, to engage in popular mobilisation and to struggle for power [ibid.].

In fact, both definitions summarises quite similar elemental facts of an ideology. In the following parts I will limit the analysis on the following parts: an ideology presents a ‘world view’ an account of the existing order, a more or less coherent ‘vision of a good society’, a set of beliefs and both mention that there needs to be a ‘theory of change’. The definition of Heywood is more practicable to prove the elements of ideology, because they are quite concrete.

In the following chapter I analyse for what extent the three criteria mentioned are fulfilled by Old Labour and the ‘Third Way’.

2.2 Account of existing order

In this chapter I will examine the differences between Old Labour and the ‘Third Way’ in reference to the existing order. In some points it is hard to distinguish between the description of the status quo and the vision of a good society. In almost the same manner it is hard to distinguish between the vision and the theory of political change. The borders in the upcoming three chapters sometimes blurred, if this assists the reading.

The ‘Third Way’ does not restrict itself only from conservative; thatcherite politics. It restricts itself from Old Labour as well, as it was formulated in opposition to limit itself from former politics of Labour governments and the ruling Thatcher and Major government. The main problem is that the ‘Third Way’ mostly does not describe the existing order in a positive way. It uses the negative way to show, what the existing order is no more. Especially Anthony Giddens uses the negative way of distinguish between Old Labour and the ‘Third Way’ [Giddens: 1998: 26]. Stuart White assists that “New Labour is clear about what it is not. It is not old-fashioned ‘statist social democracy’ and it is not free-market neo-liberalism [White, 2001: 3]. Anthony Giddens describes the ‘Third Way’ the following:

“I shall take it ‘third way’ refers to a framework of thinking and policy-making that seeks to adapt social democracy to a world which has changed fundamentally over the past two or three decades. It is a third way in the sense that it is an attempt to transcend both old-style social democracy and neoliberalism” [Giddens, 1998: 26].

Based on this note we can see the intention to formulate the ‘Third Way’ quite clearly. Giddens wants to formulate an answer to the changes going on in the world. He wants to propose the social democratic parties for these changes and he wants to concentrate the discussion about social democratic parties in the Western World since the 1980s. At all the aim of the ‘Third Way’ is to formulate a policy concept that is electable to the people and that assures the social democratic parties an electoral success, for the upcoming years in a changing world [Giddens, 1998: 23-25]. Old Labour as an ideology and all main ideologies as a whole are discredited in Giddens view, because “political life is nothing without ideals, but ideals are empty if they don’t relate to real possibilities”. Ideologies without a real possibility that can be achieved lost their capacity to inspire. In his view these main ideologies, such as socialism, have no real background; that is why social democracy needs to be changed. He wants to formulate an ideology that really can be achieved, that can inspire the people. “We need to know both what sort of society we would like to create and the concrete means of moving towards it” [Giddens, 1998: 2].

For the discourse of the ‘Third Way’, Anthony Giddens saw the following reason:

“The second way – neoliberalism or market fundamentalism – has been discarded even by most of its rightist supporters. The East Asian crisis of 1997-8 showed how unstable, and destabilizing, unregulated world markets, especially financial markets, can be” and for the reason why centre-left parties revise their doctrines he mentions: “The blue-collar working class, the main focus of traditional leftist politics, is disappearing” [Giddens, 2001: 2-4].

‘Third Way’ politicians should “accept the logic of ‘1989 and after’ that [...] there are many issues and problems that this opposition no longer helps to illuminate.” [Giddens, 2000c: 51-52]. They should accept the status quo and should not addict to the time the curtain wall still existed. The ‘Third Way’ based on two facts: The significance of globalisation and of the science based economy [Nachtwey, 2009: 195]. By Anthony Giddens globalisation is “transforming the institution of societies in which we live”. This meant a complete change of the society and a “rise of the ‘new individualism’”. [Giddens, 1998: 33]. In Giddens view Britain was less hierarchical in the 1990s and more permissive than ever [Fielding, 2003: 79]. Therefore class- orientated politics cannot be successfully anymore. For example, people make their choices individually on their own and do not depend on decisions the trade union suggests to them. Especially for the Labour Party and its link to the unions this is a barrier. Labour needed the unions to finance them and needed the endorsement the unions gave to their members to vote for Labour. When people make their decisions individual the membership in the union or in the working class is no more a certainty they vote Labour[5]. This is the new basis New Labour has to give answers to.

Anthony Giddens criticises the adherence of Old Labour on parts of their ideology even the world around had fully changed. This guides him to the ‘Third Way’ because the adherence to the old political agenda makes the Labour Party unelectable to many people.

The welfare system Old Labour nourished in the status quo was a concept designed for a full-employment no one can guarantee anymore. This makes it “ill-adapted”. There are other changes the welfare system was originally not drafted for. The welfare state was designed for the role model of the husband being the breadwinner working in a homogeneous labour market with mostly manual workers in a dominance of mass production. This is not the reality in the 1980s or 1990s anymore [Giddens, 1998: 14-16]. There are a lot more women in the labour market, a lot of manual workplaces were fallen victim to the structural economic change and the mass production mostly left the United Kingdom. In Giddens view “the welfares state, seen by most as the core of social democratic politics, today creates almost as many problems as it resolves” [Giddens, 1998: 16] Giddens rejects the neoliberal position on the welfare system as well. “The welfare state is seen as the source of all evils in much the way capitalism once was by the revolutionary left”. The state sabotages the market to deliver the greatest goods to the society, all could participate from [Giddens, 1998: 13]. Though the welfare state creates benefits for the people, such as the possibility to take advantages of opportunities, counters unemployment and arranges social peace within the society [Giddens, 1998: 114-115].

Also education was a policy field, where Labour saw a lot of problems. The British state is not able to provide adequate education to every child. Pupils leaving school or students leaving the university are not sufficiently skilled to fulfil the needs of the economy [Webb, 2000: 97].

Other long standing beliefs that are not up to date anymore are the elitist state and the national economy. The state is not ruled by a small group of people anymore and the economic boundaries are international [Giddens, 1998: 16].

By contrast social democracy saw the Capitalism as the problem. The market produces inequality and instabilities [Giddens, 2000c: 28]. Social democracy even they are quite different had in common that they impute themselves to the reformist left. They shared a similar perspective in dislike capitalism and the market and they nourished the welfare system, which is described as the following:

“The welfare state is the high point of a lengthy process of evolution of citizenship rights. [...] [It will] progressively expand, matching economic development with the ever-fuller implementation of social rights” [Giddens, 1998: 10].

The welfare state was the answer of the social democratic parties to the inequality causes by the market. The majority view within the party was that “Capitalism is economically inefficient, socially divisive and unable to reproduce itself in the long term” [Giddens, 1998: 3-06]. The Labour Party of the 1980s was still committed to the post-war consensus, established by Prime Minister Clemens Attlee in the 1950s. All British parties accepted this consensus of social-liberal collectivism, until Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister. Attlee enlarged and established the welfare state, for example by founding the National Health Service (NHS). The basis for the theoretical concept was the ‘Report to the parliament on Social Insurance and Allied Services’, the so called Beveridge Report, written by William Beveridge. The welfare state should fight misery, illness, nescience, dirtiness and faineance and should free the poor people from the mortifying poverty laws. The cores of these reforms were the redistribution of wealth from the rich to the poor [Nachtwey, 2009: 110-112].

This concept got hand in hand with Keynesians politics of full-employment. The focus of economic policy was on this topic. Full employment should enable the people to finance their living standard and to minimise the costs of the welfare state. Attlee socialised main industrial branches, as for instance the coal, gas and steel industry, and the energy and the railway companies. It would be a mistake to describe the Attlee government as an anti-capitalistic one, as the government did not use the nationalised companies as an instrument against private companies. Attlee bewared inefficient companies from commercial collapse [Nachtwey, 2009: 113]. The Labour paradigm built up on collective ownership, welfare state, equal opportunities, social minimum, Keynesian polictics and distribution of wealth were majority position up to the 1960s [Nachtwey, 2009: 123].

This paradigm was reintroduced when Harold Wilsons took over as Prime Minister in 1964 until 1970. The socialisations of economic branches and extensions of social policies were the key pledges in the election 1964 [Nachtwey, 2009: 124]. The definition of poverty changed. It was no more the absolute poverty that was fought. It was the relative poverty in relation to the whole society; to fight this poverty the government widened the social net of benefits [Nachtwey, 2009: 124-125].

This is probably the main difference between both. While Old Labour was very critical regarding the market, the ‘Third Way’ is not. They do refer in a positive way to it, as it is not seen as the factor of producing inequality, as the origin of social problems anymore. In their views it is more likely, that a well-functioning market, besides a strong civil society and an effective democratic government, is essential to avoid poverty. The markets can even be the means of overcoming it, because it produces wealth and private capital which is essential for social investment [Giddens, 2000c: 28-34]. The ‘Third Way’ opposes the economic theory of Old Labour. “It was always inadequate, underestimating the capacity of capitalism to innovate, adapt and generate increasing productivity” [Giddens, 1998: 4]. The concept of market changed completely. Old Labour was focused on the demand-orientated Keynesian policy. In contrast the ‘Third Way’ focused on the supply-side of the economy [Nachtwey, 2009: 195].


[1] The term ‘Third Way’ was often used in the history. The social democracy itself was often described as a third way between capitalist-freedom and communist-dictatorship. It was characterised as a socialistic and democratic model. In this work I concentrate on the process of modernization in the 1990s of the British Labour Party [Sandner, 2002: p 3] Anthony Giddens mentions in relation to this term: “the term ‘third way’ is of no particular significance in and of itself. [...] In Britain ‘this way’ has come to be associated with the politics of Tony Blair and New Labour.” [Giddens, 1998: p vii-viii].

[2] Original Quotation: Noch weiß man nicht, wer in London die neue Regierung stellt, aber wer für immer abgewählt wurde, das weiß man ziemlich genau: der letzte Traum der Sozialdemokratie. Dieser Traum hörte auf den Namen New Labour […]. New-Labour – das war die Vision vom Dritten Weg zwischen Kapitalismus und Sozialismus […].

[3] ‘New Labour’ is more used to describe the processes going on within the Labour Party, while the term ‘Third Way’ is usually used to describe changes in the policy of the party, the ideology behind New Labour. New Labour is as well used as the party name instead of Labour Party within the leadership of Tony Blair. When I am using the term ‘New Labour’ I am speaking about the party and the people guiding the modernisation and implement the ‘Third Way’ within the party and within government.

[4] All these conditions apply for the German Socialdemocratic Party (SPD) as well, when they overtook power in Germany in 1998.

[5] I analyse the declining cohesion between working class/ union members and Labour votes in the chapter 3.2.

Excerpt out of 46 pages


The British Labour Party and the "Third Way"
Analysing the ideological change and its reasons under the leadership of Tony Blair
University of Potsdam  (Institut für Politikwissenschaft)
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Die Arbeit wurde in englischer Sprache abgefasst. Lediglich das Abstract wurde in deutscher Sprache verfasst.
labour party, großbritannien, england, tony blair, third way, dritter weg, sozialdemokratie, ideology
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Philipp Kramp (Author), 2010, The British Labour Party and the "Third Way", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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