You don’t hear much about the Third Way these days.
Perhaps Kevin Rudd avoids the phrase because Mark “Civilising Global Capital” Latham so thoroughly owned it during those now-forgotten days when everyone declared him a genius. More likely, the ignominious deflation of Tony Blair’s political balloon rendered Blairism a unattractive referent for Kevin 07.
But with Labor in power, the comparison between the ALP here and New Labour in Britain deserves more attention than it’s received.
As Guy Rundle recently argued in The Age:
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Those who want a forecast of Rudd Labor should look to the decade of New Labour in Britain. There, New Labour’s trick has been to substitute behavioural coercion for real structural change, so instead of addressing a shortage of 5 million homes, war is declared on obesity or binge drinking. Does that sound familiar? Having abandoned any desire to implement real change, Labo(u)r turns its attention to reshaping and disciplining the public.
The Blairite approach to Laura Norder provides a good example.
In 1993, the murder of two-year-old James Bulger by two ten year-olds appalled the world. Tony Blair seized the chance to assault on the Tories on crime. The nation faced “moral chaos”, he warned: “A solution to this disintegration doesn’t simply lie in legislation. It must come from the rediscovery of a sense of direction as a country.”
New Labour famously promised to be “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime.”
Accordingly, under Labour, Britain’s rate of incarceration skyrocketed: it now locks up more people than any other western EU member apart from Luxembourg.
As Jackie Ashley noted in The Guardian:
Since 1997 there have been more than 50 major Home Office bills, which is more than all the criminal-justice bills in the whole of the previous century. There have been 1,300 new regulations, hundreds of initiatives and a doubling of the Home Office’s central staff. There are more police. Since 2001, when the spending tap was turned back on, the numbers have been rising steadily: England and Wales have a record 143,000 police officers, and the first 6,300 community support officers too.
Tough on crime? Check! Causes of crime? Not so much. Any serious attempt in that direction would involve a large-scale transformation of society, precisely the kind of thing that sends shivers down the spine of a Blarite spin-doctor.
After all, in the UK, as in Australia, the real policy disputes are over. On both sides of the aisle, there’s a single model of economic and political management – and it’s a conservative one. It allows for more police powers but it’s not so big on fundamental projects like extinguishing the causes of crime.
In his much-derided End of History thesis in 1989, Francis Fukuyama argued that we’d reached the total exhaustion of systematic alternatives to free-market liberalism.
OK, you only have to look at Iraq to recognize that History still sputters on but Fukuyama’s point stands as a description of a political culture in which no credible candidates recognize options other than “free market liberalism”.
“The end of history will be a very sad time,” he prophesied.
“The struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one’s life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands.”
Is this not more or less exactly our political landscape today?
When politics becomes entirely about economic calculation and technical management, the parties of the Left and the parties of the Right necessarily rely on the same methods to appeal to those sophisticated consumers known as voters.
So, in 2008, Tony Blair’s anti-crime rhetoric resounded once more:
I want to speak about the senseless, barbaric and seemingly remorseless prevalence of violence in our country … We’re collapsing into an atomised society, stripped of the local bonds of association which help tie us together … It’s time for a new approach … we can end our culture of violence and reclaim our streets.
This time, the speaker was Tory leader David Cameron – but his words were one hundred percent pure New Labour.
As Rundle says, New Labour behavioral coercion will in all likelihood dominate Australian politics into the future. But don’t be surprised if it catches on in the Liberal Party, too.
Jeff Sparrow is the editor of Overland.