We're in the family way

September 18, 1998

'No rights without responsibilities' should sum up a new politics, says Anthony Giddens

When he came back from his policy discussions in Washington earlier this year Tony Blair spoke of his ambition to create an international consensus of the centre-left for the 21st century - a "third way", different from the old left and the new right. Nothing much hangs on the term third way, which has been used before in the history of social democracy. It refers to a debate about what political agenda we might construct to respond to the profound changes going on in the world.

Certainly a new vision is needed. Surveys in many countries bear out the inadequacy of the left-right division as a means of capturing contemporary social and political attitudes. Many issues cut across the left-right divide, including responses to globalisation, cultural diversity, ecological concerns and scientific and technological change.

The class divisions that used to underlie political affiliation have shifted dramatically, due to the steep decline in the blue-collar working class and the mass entry of women into the workforce. The party that has recently grown most in the west is not part of politics at all: it is the non-party of non-voters.

Governments claiming to represent the left are creating policy on the hoof. Theoretical flesh needs to be put on the skeleton of their policy-making.

But what is the third way? We know what it is not - it is neither the old left, old-style social democracy, built on consolidating the welfare state and the notion that capitalism can be humanised through socialist economic management. Nor is it the new right, broadly characterised by free-market philosophies, a hostility to "big" government and a devotion to family.

I regard third-way politics as sustaining core social democratic values. However, social democrats need to break more radically with the past than most have done so far. Third-way politics should aim to help citizens pilot their way through the major revolutions of our time: globalisation, transformations in personal life and our relationship to nature. Its prime motto might be: "no rights without responsibilities." Unemployment benefits, for instance, should carry the obligation to look for work, and it is up to governments to ensure that welfare systems do not discourage active search. But the principle should also apply to business.

In terms of the family, battleground for some of the most contentious debates in modern politics, the same can be applied. Protecting the well-being of children is one of the most important goals of family policy. In some countries, more than one in three children is born outside marriage, and lifelong sexual partnerships are becoming increasingly uncommon. How to cope with this? Contractual commitments to a child could be separated from marriage and made by each parent as a binding matter of law. Co-parenting should be encouraged, with childcare just as available for non-resident fathers as for single mothers.

Third-way politics looks to rediscover a role for active government. Social democrats in the past have been keen to expand the scope of government; free marketeers to shrink it. The third way argues that it needs to be reconstructed. The "new democratic state" should be based on the devolution of power - downwards to localities and regions, upwards to transnational agencies. Democracy needs to be democratised - including greater transparency in public affairs, constitutional reform and experimentation with referenda.

Social democrats have wanted to maintain a maximal welfare state, free marketeers to reduce it to a safety net. Third-way politics seeks to restructure the welfare state to bring it into line with changes in the wider world. The reformed welfare state will establish a new relationship between risk and security on the one hand and individual and collective responsibility on the other.

It is important not to be too parochial. Continental social democrats have anticipated ideas that have only recently become prominent here, such as active labour market policies. Yet the discussion in this country has been more freewheeling than elsewhere. Blair's aim - that this country could be a sparking point - could very well be realised.

Anthony Giddens is director of the London School of Economics. The Third Way will be reviewed next week.

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