Third Way And Policy Trends

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Third Way and Policy Trends With Reference To British Economic Policy Since 1997

Third Way and Policy Trends With Reference To British Economic Policy Since 1997

According to John Kay (1998: 35), “Welfare-to-work … represents the largest ideological shift by New Labour and most clearly epitomises the Third Way”. However, perhaps the most searching question is how far this differs from the American Way, appropriately repackaged for British consumption. New Labour's reform rhetoric certainly exhibits a strong American accent, even if some of the more contentious terminology is given a European inflection: Blair speaks of the 'workless class' rather than underclass, of 'social exclusion' rather than poverty; the British debate is less explicitly race-structured, instead focusing on the dispossessed (and potentially 'dangerous') class of unemployed youth. Yet the pervasive influence of 'welfare dependency' is very much a shared one, as is the overriding faith in the efficacy of work as a solution to poverty. As Alan Deacon (1997) has demonstrated in the context of the UK welfare reform debate, US connections and affinities are unmistakable, at every level from underlying analysis through political terminology to programme methodologies. According to Robert Walker,

The acceptance of the flexible labor market and, by implication, low wages, combined with proactive measures to encourage workers to accept them, positions New Labour closer to Clinton Democrats than to social democrats on continental Europe … Blair's speeches, and the writings of his close colleagues, resonate with a pot-pourri of US influences … Blair seems to accept that welfare has become a problem rather than a solution, destroying the work ethic and other family values … [proposing] an agenda forged from a heady mix of US social liberalism and communitarianism, combined with British Christian Socialism (Walker, 1998: 35).

Welfare reform has become an object of a new brand of Third Way conviction politics. Here, a willingness (bordering, in some instances, on enthusiasm) to embrace 'hard choices' in social-welfare policy has become an acid test of loyalty to Blair's leadership. Oppositionalism tends to be brusquely dismissed as a residue of 'Old Labour' thinking, while economic and social change is held to leave no alternative to root-and-branch welfare reform (see Blair and Giddens).

One of the reasons, perhaps, why New Labour is pursuing social-policy reform with such vigour is that it has much less that is new to say about economic policy. In this latter sphere, the strategy has been a steady-as-she-goes approach based on tight financial management; to be not just as but more economically prudent than the Conservatives. This neoliberal economic orthodoxy is the foundation stone of the welfare reform programme (see Gray and Gray, 1998b). In terms of the presentation of policy, however, this relationship between economic and welfare policy is inverted: the latter is not predicated on the former, the New Labour credo insists, but rather, welfare reform is part of the solution to economic problems. In its British variant, welfare reform is not solely a matter of microsocial intervention, as seems to be the case in ...
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