The Third Way was billed as the way forward for Europe’s center-left. But with Tony Blair’s Labour Party set to win a third term on right-leaning policies, the question should be: "Whatever happened to the Third Way?"
Going seperate ways: Schröder now on the left, Blair on the right
The 2005 British General Election on Thursday may seem to some voters as a step back in time. Just as it was in the 1997 election, in which Tony Blair first swept to office on the back of a euphoric landslide victory, the Labor party is the unbeatable favorite while the opposition Conservative Party is in deep disarray.
But it's wrong to think that British politics has remained stuck in a time-warp since the late 1990s. Many things have changed, including the government that is running, and is likely to continue running, the country. It may still be a Labor government in name but much of the ideology associated with that name has been abandoned.
To chart the change, one must start with that first landslide victory. That heady summer of 1997 was filled with buzzwords cultivated by the bright young things on the left. The Labor Party had been remade in Blair's image of New Labor and socialism, a word and concept rendered unutterable by consecutive Tory governments, had been replaced by The Third Way, a path between right and left which would allow market driven politics to be combined with social idealism.
Blairite masterminds had developed a strategy that would appeal to the traditional socialists and social democrats on the one hand and the advocates of Thatcherite free-market conservatism on the other.
Courting Middle England and the working class
The Third Way promised the electorate a combination of conservative market orientation with the social idealism of the Labor movement. In place of arguments about the age-old 'tax and spend' approach, the Third Way would deliver improved public services while lowering taxes. While keeping the working classes sweet, Blair was also courting Middle England. It worked beautifully.
Once in power, it was revealed that Blair's vision didn't end there. At the end of the 1990s, 13 of the EU's old 15 member states were run by center-left governments. The British prime minister saw this as an opportunity to remake Europe in the New Labor image and with the continent wrapped up in the good feeling of sweeping decades of conservatism aside, Blair set about spreading the Third Way. He found willing participants in Lionel Jospin in France and Giuliano Amato in Italy. But few were more convinced at the time than newly elected German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder of the Social Democrats (SPD).
Schröder joins wave of center-left optimism
The Social Democrats came into power in 1998 after 16 years in opposition to Helmut Kohl's Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Schröder, a former chairman of the radical Social Democratic Student Association, fought and won the election on his pledges to bring economic stability and development to Germany and to increase domestic security and continuity in foreign affairs.
A charismatic young leader, Schröder was quick to associate himself with Tony Blair and US President Bill Clinton as one of the "new breed" of center-left leaders who were driving their countries away from conservative governments which had been led by the likes of Kohl, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. It didn't take long for Schröder to be seduced by the Third Way.
In June 1999, Schröder and Blair came together to write and publish the center-left manifesto "Europe: The Third Way / Die Neue Mitte." The leaders of Great Britain and Germany were now working together to advocate a change to the traditional policy instruments in areas such as the concept of social justice, the role of the state, the balance between individualism and collectivism, and entrepreneurial spirit. It was an alternative model to the old labels of right and left and one that fitted the atmosphere of optimism which hung over Europe as the new millennium dawned.
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