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Where Now for the Third Way? - Felix Bunting

At a Road to Conference meeting in September 2016, hosted by Progress, the mood in the room was not positive. Though Milliband was soft-left and it had been a while since a Third Way politician had led Labour, Corbyn and the new members were making the possibility of Labour reclaiming this form of politics unlikely. The possibility of Clinton winning was offered as one possible positive, and given that they are unlikely to consider the Trump administration a successful outcome, what is the future of Third Way? In this article, I hope to define the term ‘Third Way’, and discuss examples of its influence within countries and its possible future.

The Anthony Giddens described the Third Way as the “renewal of social democracy”. It broadly is considered to represent the pursuit of social democracy without the need for old-school Market Socialism, and instead calls for social justice by harnessing market forces. It can be understood most clearly by considering Blairism as an example. Here, Third Way politics could be considered as resulting in record public spending on investment & welfare and pro-growth & pro-aspiration business regulation, combined with legislation focused on promoting social justice. More fundamentally, however, the Third Way was to be the ideological foundation to what some considered the ‘watering down’ of traditional left politics to appeal to the growing middle classes.

After the election of Trump, the US would not normally be considered an example of healthy centre-left politics: the Democrats were defeated by a right-wing Republican and the establishment Democrat was almost defeated in the primaries by a more left-wing candidate. However, I feel this criticism is unfair: Clinton won the popular vote, polled extremely highly with ethnic minority voters, and aside from Obama in 2008 received the most votes of any presidential candidate – not bad for a candidate suffering from poor popularity running as the sitting party candidate after 8 years of Democratic presidency. There are clearly problems though – a Trump victory and near Sanders win in the primary suggests that the American public feel like they and their problems have been forgotten by globalisation. For the Third Way to win again, against such strong feelings, it needs to utilise the parts of American identity which are so loved by its citizens. Though Trump is losing popularity, it seems like the “establishment” Democrats have failed to alter their strategy sufficiently to attract those who feel disenfranchised. The electoral success and personal popularity of Bill Clinton and Obama show that Third Way politics can be written into the narrative of the American Dream. 

The election of Macron shows the Third Way can still win the support necessary to pursue progressive policies. Having previously worked as an investment banker and as a Socialist Party politician, he has clear links to progressive policies and economic pragmatism, and with his own party being called En Marche! (which translates literally to “forward”), he is a clear successor to the emotion and rhetoric of the Third Way, as well as its policies. The rhetoric of En Marche! is particularly evident in articulating policy positions, whether talking about EU policy (“not a Europhile, not a Eurosceptic”) or Nuclear Power (“A French choice and choice for the future”), it speaks of liberal, moderate policies in a way which presents them as reasoned, exciting and patriotic. Furthermore, when it comes to electability, Macron clearly had an edge. Because the French presidential elections have an initial vote and then a run-off between two candidates (one of whom was Le Pen), their electoral system is geared towards politicians who can win second preference votes. Since taking office, there is a perception that Macron has failed to live up to his bold vision, but as this is often a feature of how Third Way politicians are viewed in office, the real test will be in future elections.

Third Way Politics had been a poor position for a while in the UK. Ed Miliband’s election was won on the back of supporting predistributionist politics as opposed to the redistributionist politics of Blair – unlike Mandelson, Miliband was not “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich” whether “they pay their taxes” or not. With the loss of the 2015 GE, and the lack of a sufficiently popular centrist candidate, Corbyn was elected leader. With the influx of new members, it initially appeared that it would be a while before Labour returned to more centrist policies. However, the clear majority of the PLP is to the right of Corbyn, and a significant number have strong links to Third Way politics – many are Progress members, many served in the Blair/Brown governments and most are united in internationalist, pro-business policies which put them at odds with leadership. The surprise election (and surprise result) is may suggest that voters are happier with Corbyn’s leadership than many expected, though we wait to see how he would have done if the electorate believed he could have won. The frequent calls for “a new centrist pro-Europe party” suggest that there remain people who buy into Third Way ideals, but whether this is a sizable demographic, or simply an influential demographic in terms of media representation remains to be seen.

When looking at the future for the broad range of political and philosophical goals which are described by the term ‘Third Way’, I think it is helpful to look at what underlined their creation in the first place. I feel it can be summed as having three broad causes: general improvements in living standards mean people appreciate the advantages of capitalism and are averse to radical politics; a reduction in the power of unions and other traditional tools of Labour politics; and a feeling that broad public support was needed for a change from the neoliberal status quo. Whilst the criteria remain true, I feel that they alone may not provide enough of a push to see a revival of Third Way politics. The Brexit vote and the support for Sanders, Trump and Corbyn, indicates that traditionally left-leaning voters appear unconvinced that moderate progressive change is manageable or even desirable. The number of Labour voters who voted against EU membership, an emblem of Third Way politics in the way it promotes managed economic growth, pragmatic policy making and an internationalist outlook, suggests that the thought of improving circumstance wasn’t enough for many people. Furthermore, Third Way politics is very much tied to the metropolitan liberal elite/coastal elite by whom people feel let down. In conclusion, I feel that a return to Third Way business as normal is unlikely – feelings of isolation and having “enough of experts” means this is unlikely to happen. But the economic impacts of fighting globalisation are bound to hurt, and a Third Way which recognises and supports progressive concepts of community and identity alongside social and economic justice may the natural conclusion to the current political situation. 

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