Third Way can’t survive Tony Blair

Commentary, Frontier Centre, Role of Government, Worth A Look

With his dogged support for George W. Bush’s war against Iraq, British Prime Minister Tony Blair has done more than split his own parliamentary caucus and divide the United Kingdom from its European partners. He is also writing the closing chapter for the so-called “Third Way” option in world politics.

Mr. Blair was first elected in 1997 on an aggressively centrist platform that emphasized New Labour’s break from its socialist past. His election, coinciding with other left-wing breakthroughs in Europe, was interpreted by some as the dawning of a hard-headed generation of social-democratic politics. Mr. Blair even launched an international manifesto of “progressive governance” along with Bill Clinton, Lionel Jospin, and Gerhard Schroeder, at an Italian summit meeting in 1999. From those heady days, Mr. Blair’s Third Way movement has crumbled into ruins, like much of Iraq.

Mr. Bush replaced Mr. Clinton, and Mr. Jospin and Mr. Schroeder ultimately followed more traditional social-democratic policies (government spending, economic regulation). Even on Tony Blair’s home front, after six years in power it is hard to see what positive impact his modernist policies have had on the day-to-day lives of New Labour’s constituency.

Many Canadian pundits advised the NDP to follow Mr. Blair’s Third Way road map. Most NDP members, however, balked at this idea, especially federally. Mr. Blair’s electoral strategy was based on two-party arithmetic: By moving so far to the middle, he won enough votes from the Conservatives to sweep into power. This strategy can’t work in Canada, where the middle is already effectively and flexibly occupied by our natural governing party, the Liberals.

But the Iraq crisis has demonstrated, in dramatic fashion, that Tony Blair is actually located significantly to the right of Canada’s federal Liberals. While Mr. Blair was betting his political future on a unilateral and unpopular U.S. war, Jean Chrétien was issuing a surprising declaration of Canadian independence. But it’s not just on Iraq that Mr. Blair looks more like a conservative than a socialist. Along several other axes, he has followed policies that would put him squarely on the right of Canada’s political spectrum.

Taxing and Spending: According to statistics from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, government spending in the United Kingdom has been consistently smaller as a share of GDP under Mr. Blair’s leadership than it was under Margaret Thatcher’s. After six years of New Labour, overall taxes are lower in the United Kingdom than in Canada.

Public Services: Ottawa just reaffirmed its commitment to public health care, with the Romanow report and $35-billion of new money in last month’s federal budget. New Labour, on the other hand, is privatizing many public services — including health care (through Mr. Blair’s plan for independent “foundation hospitals”), schools, and transportation — despite widespread opposition.

Labour: His party still nominally carries labour’s name, but Mr. Blair has been consistently tough on his traditional constituency. He shows no fondness for unions, as evidenced most recently by his no-holds-barred battle with U.K. firefighters. Benefit payments to Britain’s unemployed are even one-third lower than those under Canada’s now-measly EI system.

Poverty and Inequality: A higher proportion of Brits than Canadians live in poverty, and the gap between rich and poor (measured by the ratio of average incomes) is roughly 50-per-cent larger. The gap hasn’t narrowed under Mr. Blair’s leadership.

Globalization: Mr. Blair’s firm support for the World Trade Organization now seems oddly contradictory to his willingness to wage war without the approval of the United Nations. Nevertheless, his government has fawned as much over the virtues of free trade as our Liberals.

Across the gamut of political issues, then, Tony Blair’s New Labour has followed a philosophy that is more business-friendly and laissez faire than our own Liberals. No wonder Canada’s social democrats didn’t want to follow him down the Third Way garden path. And after six years in power, characterized by acquiescence to business and wealth rather than a willingness to challenge the status quo, left-wing voters now realize that Mr. Blair’s Third Way is a dead end. His support for Mr. Bush’s war is the final nail in the coffin of a political movement with grand ambitions, but which in retrospect was a short-lived fad.

Tony Blair is obviously no socialist, of the Third Way or any way. He barely qualifies as a Liberal. He may survive his Iraq debacle, if the war he helped engineer is short and he’s allowed to share in the political spoils of U.S. victory. But the international political movement he inspired is clearly finished, as dead as the bodies that litter the deserts of Iraq.

Jim Stanford is an economist with the Canadian Auto Workers union.