Review of Concepts of the Third Way

“We live in a world of dramatic change and the old ideologies that have dominated the last century do not provide the answers”. (Tony Blair). Do you think Blair’s “Third Way” provides the answer?

In this essay I intend to examine the underlying concepts of the Third Way and the solutions it has to offer on some of the major issues confronting contemporary British and politics. I shall in no way be able to do justice in this short essay by discussing the Third Way in any great detail as the Third Way itself has proven to be a very ambiguous subject. I am proposing to structure this essay in a way so that I shall be able to cover three to four central ideological concepts of Blair’s Third Way.

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So what is the Third Way. It’s critic’s claim that it’s eyewash, void of any real substance. They hold it to be a collaboration of policies, which are with out any real content. They define the Third Way as being undefined, an elusive set of doctrines which have been taken from existing ideologies on order to form an incoherent set of policies. They argue that the underlying concept of the Third Way is in no way unique, it’s remnants can be found littered throughout the twentieth century where a compromise or a third way has a always been sought to the problems of that particular time.

Alan Ryan offers the following interpretation: The Third Way is a distinct and viable political position, but it isn’t an innovation. It first emerged in British Politics about a century ago at which point it was known as new Liberalism. Keeping in mind that before the advent of the Third Way, the Labour government before its ascent to power was portrayed has having a non-ideological basis for their policies.

Steven Wood (a fellow in politics at Magdalene College, Oxford) says that the “Third Way represents a product differentiation with out really knowing what the product is”

Proponents of the Third Way argue that class is no longer the driving force in politics and that the old divisions of left/right are meaningless. They base their argument on the premise that in a world which is rapidly in a constant state of flux in terms of technology and globalisation. A new innovative and powerful form of politics is vital. They stress that there are no borders that can not be transgressed in order to find the solutions deemed necessary for the problems facing the contemporary period. The politics of left and right should be interchangeable and no barriers to entry must exist between left and right if politics is to be prosperous.

The Third Way was first promulgated by new labour in 1998 during a series of lectures given by Tony Blair and senior Labour colleagues. Tony Blair argued that: Third Way is a position of “radical centre” that is beyond old definition of left and right, meaning that it is a method of selecting the best policies of traditional left and right.

In more apparent terms it can be defined as a partnership between the public and private sectors. The emergence of Blair’s Third Way was the acceptance of economic globalisation as a hard fact with all its consequences for economic growth in a highly competitive world market and the type of jobs which it is going to make available. Globalisation, however, is a highly ambiguous term. It is multidimensional in its scope and ambivalent in its meaning.

There is much evidence to support the fact that communication; effects of ecological destruction, diseases, cultural encounters and migration to a certain extent are transgressing political frontiers. The nation states are more than ever playing an increasingly dominant role on the world stage. Financial markets have become thoroughly globalised. There yet remains to be seen a single world-wide marketplace in which all economic unities compete with each other. This is further proof that this is not synonymous to comprehensive economic globalisation.

Tony Blair states in his explanation of the Third Way: Just as economic and social change were critical to sweeping the right to power, so they were critical to it’s undoing. The challenge for the Third Way is to engage fully with the implications of the change. The changes he identifies concern global markets and culture, technological advance and information industries.

The Third Way seeks to promote global developments at both the local and national level. Proponents of the Third Way argue that the advancement of global markets and technologies, enhance the ideals of community, locally, nationally, and globally this being a response to change and insecurity. With this there will come a new political agenda, which is founded, on mutual responsibility across the globe. These aims will have far reaching consequences in terms of opportunities for people and businesses through the achievement of an open world and an open economy.

However, its success they claim will rest on a strong mutual feeling of certain values through a global commitment to help those affected by debt, environment and genocide. According to their plans, globalisation is meant to serve as a great engine of economic growth, spurring innovation and making capital and labour much more productive than they were under protectionism. They are not ignorant of the fact that there are major obstacles to achieving their objectives such as undeveloped civil societies which leads to undemocratic regimes, there is a need for democratic leaders to announce a global war on poverty are a few. Nevertheless they stress hope in that the Asian economies who are known as tiger economies have shown great resolve and their exemplified advances has shown that the global economy has great potential.

The undifferentiated neoliberal use of the globalisation argument is to a high degree ideological, mainly designed to delegitimise labour demands, macroeconomics and the claim of all political responsibility for the outcome of the economy. Thus it is one of the crucial watersheds between neoliberal and social democratic politics how the term globalisation is defined and which consequences are derived from it. For a critical use of the argument which takes into consideration its conditions and limitations, two consequences are crucial.

The first is that the real shape and amount of globalisation does not render macro-economic policies and political responsibility for the entire economy completely obsolete. The second is that much of the political influence, which has been lost to globalisation, can be regained and re-established at a regional level, an argument that is particularly valid for the European Union. In addition, concepts to develop more comprehensive and effective transitional and even global regimes to regulate the global economy are no mere illusions. GATT shows that there is scope for political framework setting, which possibly is subject to further amplification if only there is the political, will to do so.

It has been argued that Blair talks of a workforce that must compete in the global market place, no doubt against other workforces and with the cheapness of labour as their main selling point, this again is a distinctive policy framework maybe that of the previous conservatism government.

They argue that Blair’s Third Way has shown no intentions to alter the fact that will switch the million of pounds gifted to the transitional subsidies into investment for home based companies which would not desert this country and their local workforce. In short they stop short of declaring that Blair’s Third Way government is powerless to do anything at all in the face of globalise and its not so free market forces.

Rethinking governance within the respective political roles of government and society is one of the central impulses of the Third Way. This concept has two dimensions. The first is a functional one; it stems from the experience that in highly complex modern societies it is increasingly difficult to try to steer the development of societies from a strategically political apex which is placed at the top of the pyramid of society and unable to oversee to a sufficient extent its performances, problems and functions.

The idea has become prominent that modern governance requires new forms of co-operation between the political system and civil society, in other words a new division of labour between state and social actors. Increasingly government becomes a partner of societal agents, acting as a broker, facilitating, inspiring and monitoring. The devolution of power to a certain extent seems to be a functional necessity in today’s complex post-industrial societies.

The second dimension of the transfer of political functions onto civil society is a cultural one, based on ongoing processes and declared needs to rebalance the individual’s sense of rights and obligations in modern societies. A reinforcement of the individual’s sense of obligation can regularly strengthen the citizens’ propensity to see first whether they can themselves jointly solve problems which emerge in their daily life sphere by spontaneous co-operation, and only inasmuch as this is not possible, delegate it for effective resolution to the political system.

In this dimension, a new division of labour between state and society is not in the first instance a question of simply discarding state functions and leaving their fulfilment to the discretion of private actors. It is rather about rendering a good deal of state intervention superfluous as the job is done in society itself on a voluntary basis.

The Third Way proposes the restructuring of some key parts of the welfare state. There are changes within the society, which make appropriate changes in welfare state structures unavoidable. To mention just the most consequential ones:

  • The level of medical technology is expanding constantly and so is, as an unavoidable consequence, the costs of health-care systems. A system which entitles each individual to the full scale of medical treatment as indicated by his diseases will constantly raise the portion of income spent for health, which seems unaffordable already in the not so long run.
  • The ratio of working-age population to old-age population is constantly decreasing. This makes new formulas for a sustainable general pension system mandatory.
  • In some welfare states unemployment insurance has created a particular unemployment trap by taxing 100 per cent or more of low-wage income away. New ways of relating the welfare system and the labour market are needed.

Even though the welfare state is badly in need of reform this should be done in such a manner as to preserve the basic objectives for which it has been invented. The Neoliberal remedy is straightforward: reduce the welfare state and resign vis-à-vis the power and the wisdom of the market. This will, so the neo-liberals suggest, immediately ease the burden on public budgets and sooner or later adapt workers expectations and attitudes to the hard facts of the labour market. As Neoliberal thinking considers the market both an unparalleled mechanism of rational decision-making and a basic value, the social costs of such a strategy are neglected in theory and tolerated in practice.

Third Way thinking is definitely considered right by its proponents in their basic assumption that it would be irresponsible and stupid to take refuge in merely defending the traditional welfare state while attacking neo-liberal irresponsibility. Re-engineering the old welfare state structures is inevitable, but only insofar as this helps to make it sustainable. This holds true for all the classical pillars of the welfare state. In respect to old age pension, more scope for choice is needed.

The individual should decide how much of his income he would like to save now in order to be able to spend it later, but a bottom line, which guarantees a dignified life after retirement, should be maintained. Unemployment benefits should be conditioned on the acceptance of job offers. Besides, they should be faded out in such a way as to leave a reasonable increase in income for those who pick up low-wage jobs.

All this can and must be done and there are many ways to achieve it. Pragmatism, creativity and a spirit of innovation are required. The message of the Third Way is however a renewal of the idea that each citizen is entitled to a dignified standard of living when all his own efforts have failed.

The guarantee of a decent life is not dependent on economic merit but a human right. It might be more necessary than before that the individual can prove that he has undertaken everything possible to earn his own living, but in case of failure, he has a right to social solidarity and he has a right that the blame for market failures are not put on his shoulders alone, so that in addition to poverty and insecurity he would be stigmatised with failure, remorse and blame.

For all these reasons the Third Way could prove a meaningful concept for the renewal of social democracy only to the degree to which it offers meaningful welfare state reforms without discarding the guarantee of social security. Otherwise it would not only damage the public identity of social democracy and deny its confession of basic values, but also contribute to social disintegration.

Therefore, a Third Way project must conform by a concept not just of opportunities for all, but of social justice, which implies the guarantee of a minimum standard of material well being. Of course, such a guarantee implies the individual’s obligation to seize every opportunity offered to him by the markets or the society to make his own living. Thus, employability, may be one of the useful objectives for welfare state reform, but not the sufficient condition for a renewed social democratic project as long as there are not enough jobs available for everybody.

And finally I would like to draw this essay to an end with a discussion on one of the most disputed features in the Third Way project as it is has been offered by Tony Blair is its concept of a general culture of entrepreneurship for all members of modern societies. It is meant to do away with the widespread attitude of entitlement, and, consequentially, allow for a major increase in labour market flexibility, welfare state reduction and a related increase in self-determined voluntary social activities.

The main thrust of the concepts seems to be towards overcoming the deeply rooted welfare consensus, which is prevalent in most European societies. Some of the distinguished promoters of the Third Way project such as Blair, Giddens, and in have repeatedly declared that the individual independent of the degree of education, job qualification, or social position must start to consider him or herself as an entrepreneur, fully responsible for his own fate in the world of markets.

Everybody should develop awareness that the risks of the labour market are in the last instance ones own risks and not failures created by default structures of society which entitle the individual to strong social guarantees. Such a major cultural change, which amounts to adopting a substantial portion of neo-liberal culture, would have serious consequences at two levels. According to its critics at the structural level, it would reduce the welfare state subsidies to support for employability.

At the socio-psychological level, the individuals at the lower strata of society would get the feeling, that beyond this limited support there is no reliable social security, which they are entitled to, whatever the outcome of their efforts in the labour market in the last instance, will be. Individuals would have to accept almost unlimited degrees of economic and social flexibility.

In conclusion I shall prefer to sit on the fence and watch this argument unravel itself. Although the Third Way is similar for all the European governments, each one of them as a different set of policies and topics of their own and differing methods as to how to achieve these objectives. Third Way needs three structural elements to succeed suggests Szreter:

First, the need of moral principles and priorities is essential. Second, a clear ideology with more details needs to be related to the real world. Third, these principles need to be clear, with policies and practices on how to change current policies to the Third Way policies. Finally we are in the middle of an exciting journey to which only time holds the answer.


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Review of Concepts of the Third Way. (2018, Aug 23). Retrieved from