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The Third Way and the politics of community

This chapter argues that the ideas of duty and responsibility defended by communitarianism were used by New Labour to water down the party's commitment to equality. It begins with a brief explanation of communitarian ideas, and focuses on the works of 'prescriptive communitarians', given that it was these thinkers who had an influence on New Labour's thinking. The chapter deals with the link between ideas on community and socialism. The idea of community was present in Tony Blair's Third Way pamphlet, in which he defended a 'politics of "us" rather than "me"', one that would be based on 'an ethic of responsibility as well as rights'. The chapter is concerned with the narrative on social exclusion-social inclusion, which sheds light on New Labour's approach to poverty and social inequalities. It ends with a discussion of the implications of those deviations for the party's ideology.


This chapter argues that New Labour did not endorse a communitarian blueprint, but that it used communitarian ideas to revise traditional Labour values. In particular, it argues that the ideas of duty and responsibility defended by communitarianism were used by New Labour to water down the party’s commitment to equality.Inorder to demonstrate this argument, New Labour’s narratives on community, which were used to justify policies aimed at promoting work, are analysed.

The chapter begins with a brief explanation of communitarian ideas, focusing on the works of ‘prescriptive communitarians’, given that it was these thinkers who had an influence on New Labour’s thinking. From there it explains the use that New Labour made of these ideas in the context of policies aimed at promoting work.

New Labour developed several narratives or subplots to the ‘politics of community’, which were fashioned by different actors at different times. The most salient subplot was the one developed by Tony Blair, who stressed the relevance of duty. The second subplot deals with the link between ideas on community and socialism. The third subplot concerns the narrative on social exclusion–social inclusion, which sheds light on New Labour’s approach to poverty and social inequalities.

The final section assesses the impact of these ideas on New Labour’s ideology and argues that New Labour did not endorse communitarianism, but simply used those ideas to revise the party’s approach to equality. This is demonstrated by highlighting how New Labour endorsed and deviated from the communitarian agenda. The chapter ends with a discussion of the implications of those deviations for the party’s ideology.

The narrative of community

Soon after Tony Blair became leader of the Labour Party, journalists and political commentators started to raise questions about the party’s ‘Big Idea’. The answer to this quest was quickly found in the national press. Melanie Phillips, in the Observer, wrote that Blair’s speeches had the ‘imprints’ of the American communitarian thinker Amitai Etzioni;1 and, in the Guardian, Seumas Milne claimed that Tony Blair’s New Labour ‘project’ was ‘communitarian to its fingertips’.2 Peter Mandelson and Roger Liddle also helped to strengthen that perception. In The Blair Revolution: Can New Labour Deliver? they argued that New Labour’s distinctive emphasis was ‘on its concept of community’, which was not a ‘soft and romantic concept’, but a ‘robust and powerful idea’ which meant teamwork, mutuality and justice.3

As the reference to Etzioni suggests, a particular type of communitarianism, which is defined here as prescriptive communitarianism, influenced New Labour’s communitarian narrative4. But, in order to understand ‘prescriptive communitarianism’ we have to understand the starting-point of the communitarian debate. Sketchily explained, communitarianism draws from an academic debate fostered by thinkers who challenged Rawlsian liberal philosophy. Authors such as Charles Taylor, Michael Walzer, Alasdair MacIntyre and Michael Sandel, among many others, criticised the alleged individualistic and atomistic premisses of procedural liberalism developed by Rawls and some of his followers, and argued instead that individuals were socially embedded.5

From this analytical framework, a group of thinkers, including Amitai Etzioni, Philip Selznick, Henry Tam and William Galston, developed a blueprint for political action which contained prescriptions on how to create the ‘good society’.6 It was this group of communitarian authors, here called ‘prescriptive communitarians’, which in part inspired New Labour’s political agenda and language. The Scottish philosopher John Macmurray is also cited as one the main influences on Blair’s communitarian thinking. His influence (or lack of it) is considered in chapter 5 of this book.

Prescriptive communitarians blamed excessive individualism and excessive neo-liberalism for the alleged moral drift of contemporary societies and also for the growth of a ‘culture of dependence’. Excessive individualism was also perceived as a potential threat to individual autonomy.7 In order to tackle such social ills, prescriptive communitarians developed a blueprint, the aim of which was the promotion of individual responsibility.8 For instance, Amitai Etzioni proposed ‘a moratorium on the minting of most, if not all, new rights; re-establishing the link between rights and responsibilities; recognizing that some responsibilities do not entail rights; and, most carefully, adjusting some rights to the changed circumstances’,9 and recommended a ‘return to a language of social virtues, interests, and above all, social responsibilities’.10 According to prescriptive communitarians, the implementation of such an agenda would lay the ground for inclusive communities, in which individual autonomy is fostered while all members contribute to the common good.11

The construction of inclusive communities presupposes the promotion of self-reliance through the work ethic and the support of family life. For prescriptive communitarians, work and family life have character-forming and ‘community-building’ qualities. Through work and through family life, they argue, people learn how to be self-reliant, responsible and civil, and how to contribute to the wealth of the community and of the country. Prescriptive communitarians argue that individuals have the ‘moral responsibility’ to be self-reliant – that is, to work for their own provision.12 Work is important because it provides citizens with greater degrees of autonomy, self-esteem and sense of purpose in life, and gives people a sense of responsibility and fulfilment.13 Philip Selznick argues also that policies for full employment should be part of a communitarian agenda given that, ‘for most people of working age, the most important road to belonging and self-respect is a decent and steady job’.14

However, the duty to work is not of paramount importance. Individuals have the duty to work insofar as they are paid and the work is fulfilling, enabling individuals to live dignified and empowered lives. Prescriptive communitarians, such as Etzioni, opposed the imposition of penalties on those who refuse to work. Indeed, in those circumstances the state has the duty to provide them with basic goods. According to Etzioni, ‘the state’s duty in a good society is to ensure that no one goes hungry, homeless, unclothed or sick and unattended’, given that ‘providing essentials to people will not kill the motivation to work, as long as work is available and they are able’.15

Concerning the support of family life, the communitarian agenda is slightly more prescriptive. From the assumption that the consequences of family failure affect society at large, and, therefore, that questions of family structure are not purely private matters,16 prescriptive communitarians defend the two-parent family on the grounds that ‘the best antipoverty program for children is a stable intact family’.17 But what prescriptive communitarians such as Etzioni or Tam defend is not the hierarchical family of the 1950s, but a democratic style of family in which men and women share equal rights and responsibilities.18 Because they assume that two breadwinners form the typical family in contemporary societies, prescriptive communitarians argue that there must be a better balance between work and family life, in order to support families. To that end they advocate policies, which may or not be enforced by legislation, governing working hours, paternity leave, childcare facilities, and the distribution of welfare.19

Prescriptive communitarians also claim that the spirit of community must be promoted through ‘moral suasion’ and peer-pressure, and not by governmental decrees. Thus, they rely ‘on moral dialogues, education, and suasion to win people to their ideals, rather than imposing their values by force of law’.20 Likewise, the ‘social order’ can be established only voluntarily and chosen individually. In other words, in order to be accepted as legitimate by individuals, the new social order cannot be enshrined in legislation, but is to be promoted through the informal links of family, civic associations, churches, etc. This social pressure would then promote family life, faith,21 a work-ethic and the mushrooming of social webs deemed essential for the creation of the good society. Communitarian thinkers like to stress that inclusive communities will not thwart individual autonomy, since their ‘operative power relations’ will enable all members to participate in collective decision-making.22 Despite such assurances, several commentators have perceived the model of community defended by Etzioni as authoritarian and illiberal.23

The empowerment of the individual and of the community is considered necessary by prescriptive communitarians because they claimed that the state is partly responsible for the moral drift of society.24 Hence they also aim at reducing the role of the state and at protecting individuals from state interference. However, communitarians stress that reducing the role of the state does not amount to replacing the state with other institutions. Indeed, communitarians like Etzioni and Tam reserve an important role for the state, namely the responsibility of ensuring that ‘everyone has access to the basic necessities of life’25 and the responsibility of limiting inequality.26 Moreover, communitarians have shown some concerns about the promotion of a meritocratic society and the acceptance of socio-economic inequalities. Indeed, Henry Tam claims that ‘progressive communitarians hold that power inequalities tend to undermine inclusive community life and, therefore, should be minimised as far as it is compatible with the maintenance of a reasonable degree of economic well-being’.27 In a similar vein, Philip Selznick claims that ‘meritocracy can undermine community’.28 Furthermore, communitarians argue that to pay taxes is ‘a civic virtue which good citizens are proud to display’29 and that progressive taxation ‘is a demand for responsible participation by those who gain most from the contributions of all’, since ‘people who gain most from the social and economic order, and from the benefits of community, have correspondingly greater obligations than those who get less, and especially those who get the least’.30

Though sketchily explained, these are the main points of the prescriptive communitarian agenda which have influenced New Labour’s thinking. However, as I show, significant sections of this agenda were left out by New Labour, omissions which signal important aspects of its ideology.

The politics of community

The narrative on community was instrumental for New Labour to stress its ideological differences from the Conservatives, but it was equally important to emphasise its loyalty to the party’s traditions. Community was thus presented as New Labour’s ‘Big Idea’, the idea that would renew the party’s electoral appeal. However, as a new idea, ‘community’ was used to mean different things at different times, as if the party was still trying to find the best formula for the presentation of New Labour’s project.

Tony Blair was the strongest advocate of the ‘politics of community’. Community and the communitarian themes of ‘duty’ and ‘responsibility’ were omnipresent in Blair’s speeches, although his ideas on community underwent several metamorphoses. Gordon Brown developed a narrative on community, but his discourse was more consistent in the sense that he always linked communitarian ideas to the party’s traditions, in particular the tradition of ethical socialism. And all Labour frontbenchers, especially those with social policy portfolios, spoke about community and about the ethos of ‘rights and responsibilities’, but those ideas were presented in simpler terms, in that there was no attempt to build bridges with the party’s ideological past or to develop a grand narrative. For instance, Frank Field did not speak specifically of communities, but he argued that New Labour’s welfare reform agenda aimed in part at ‘reinventing and nurturing civil society’.31 He also said that behind New Labour’s values and principles ‘lies the idea of the Good Society’.32 On the theme of social morality, Field often stated that the welfare state does not operate in a moral vacuum, but that in fact it teaches values.33 Similarly, David Blunkett often repeated the theme of ‘rights and responsibility’, and occasionally spoke about the need to create ‘healthy, cohesive societies’.34 Alastair Darling was the most pragmatic of the ministers involved in welfare policy since, in his speeches, he focused more on the practical aspects of policy than on the principles and values those policies were supposed to represent. Nonetheless, he occasionally referred to the ethic of ‘rights and responsibilities’, and about the need to change the culture of welfare claimants.35

The common thread to all the subplots of the politics of community is the relevance of duty. Indeed, duty and responsibilities are the core values of the communitarian blueprint, but they are also the distinctive trademark of the New Labour project. According to Blair and Brown, duty and responsibility are the forgotten values of the Labour tradition. But, more importantly, in New Labour’s hierarchy of values, the concept of duty should be given priority over the concept of rights. Thus, ‘duty’, ‘responsibility’,or ‘obligation’, can be found in most of the speeches concerning the social policy developed by New Labour.

However, and despite the salience of these words in Blair’s and other ministers’ speeches, the nature of those duties and responsibilities was only vaguely specified, with the exception of the duty or responsibility to be self-reliant. New Labour’s leaders perceived work as the means whereby individuals could feel connected to each other; thus, they claimed, the main duty in society was the duty to work. But more than promoting civic virtues and connectedness, the duty to work allowed New Labour to defend a new role for the State. In this new role, the State would be enabling, but it also would have fewer responsibilities.

Blair’s spirit of community

Tony Blair started to use the idea of ‘community’ to convey the message that New Labour was not betraying the party’s values, but renewing them. This linkage to the past was made by associating ideas of community with ideas of solidarity and collective endeavour. He was also trying to reassure the party by claiming that ‘duty’ was in fact a traditional Labour value. By defining his project in such terms, Blair was able to stress the differences between New Labour and the more individualistic and market-driven Conservatives.

However, Blair’s discourse on community underwent several changes, with ‘community’ meaning different things at different times. In the first instance, Blair used communitarian ideas to establish a link with the party’s past. For example, in a speech in 1993, he established the links between his ideas on community and early socialist political thinking by saying that ‘the most basic belief of the Left is that people are not individuals in isolation from one another but members of a community and society who owe obligations to one another as much as to themselves and who depend on each other, in part at least, to succeed’.36 In his speech to the 1994 Labour Party Conference, Blair defined his socialism as an ‘understanding that the individual does best in a strong and decent community of people with principles and standards and common aims and values’.37

By establishing this link with the past, Blair was able to claim that communitarian themes, which sounded potentially authoritarian to some Labour supporters,38 stemmed from traditional left-wing thought. The exercise of rooting his project in Labour’s traditions was undertaken in parallel with a criticism of the recent past of the party. Blair argued that ‘Old’ Labour committed two major mistakes. On the one hand, it promoted a rights-based ethos that did not tackle individualism. On the other, it relied too much on the powers of the State and too little on the responsibilities of the individual39. The Labour leader also criticised the ‘egalitarianism’ of Old Labour, skilfully relating his argument to Etzionian and ethical socialist arguments. Moreover, he argued that a communitarian philosophy ‘applied with common sense’ would allow New Labour ‘to move beyond the choice between narrow individualism and old-style socialism’.40 This criticism prepared the ground for the reform of Clause 4. Indeed, the new Clause 4 replaced the commitment to the collectivisation of the means of production with a commitment to the market economy and a communitarian ethos.

But the criticism of the party’s recent past also prepared the ground for the defence of a conservative version of community, which was illustrated by the adoption of a rather austere language. For example, at the 1994 Labour Party Annual Conference, Blair defined his socialism as the understanding ‘that the individual does best in a strong and decent community of people with principles and standards and common aims and values’.41 Blair also said that New Labour wanted ‘to encourage people to make good and valuable choices, whether in terms of their own behaviour or their actions towards others’.42 Moreover, and like Etzioni, Blair claimed that ‘the only way to rebuild a social order and stability is through strong values, socially shared, and inculcated through individuals and families’.43

From here, Blair then moved on to the ‘stakeholder society’. The ideas on the stakeholder society were first articulated by Will Hutton and John Kay. But, in the end, Blair’s speech-writers were inspired by Francis Fukuyama’s Trust, and Robert Putnam’s ideas on ‘social capital’.44 Blair showed those influences when he said that his idea of stakeholder economy reflected ‘new thinking about the economics of trust and social capital, as well as older ideas about rights and responsibilities of all those involved in wealth creation’.45 For Blair, the stake-holder society is based on the communitarian principle of reciprocity, since it is a society ‘based on a notion of mutual rights and responsibilities, on what is actually a modern notion of social justice – “something for something” – a society where every individual has a stake in the life of the community’.46

Though popular, the ideas on the stakeholder society were shortlived. According to an insider’s account, Gordon Brown did not like stakeholding as an economic idea, because it would ‘expose Labour to the risk of attack on grounds of social costs’.47 In other words, stakeholding as an idea would jeopardise New Labour’s relations with the business community and it therefore had to be discarded. Hence, stakeholding ideas were ditched, and the narrative of community once more assumed a highly normative gloss. The stress was again on the duties, and on the responsibilities, that individuals owed to their communities. In his first speech as prime minister, Blair said that his would be a ‘government rooted in strong values, the values of justice and progress and community’.48 At the 1997 Labour Party Conference in Brighton, Blair warned that a ‘strong society cannot be built on soft choices’, but ‘is based on duty’.49 The same idea of community was present in Blair’s Third Way pamphlet, in which he defended a ‘politics of “us” rather than “me”’, one that would be based on ‘an ethic of responsibility as well as [of] rights’.50

In more recent years, Blair has added a liberal finish to his ideas on community. At the Institute for Public Policy Research Conference, in January 1999, he proposed his ‘modern idea of community’. In this new formulation, a far more liberal one than those articulated in previous years, the stress was more on what community could give to individuals. On that occasion, he described New Labour’s idea of community as one ‘which applauds and nurtures individual choice and personal autonomy and which recognizes the irreducible pluralism of modern society’.51 Blair also expounded at great length his ideas about pluralism, tolerance and individual choice in connection with his ideas on community. What is not entirely clear is whether this later view is a complement to the previous ideas on community, or whether New Labour is experimenting with a less authoritarian conception of community.

From 1999 onwards the references to ‘community’ became rarer, and, when used, community was referred to as a means to liberate the potential of individuals, or to recognise the individuality of all. Until the end of New Labour’s first term in government, Blair claimed that community was a central value of his project,52 but communitarian ideas lost salience in his speeches. By contrast, meritocratic ideas gained a new prominence.

In short, from 1994, Tony Blair articulated different ideas on community, depending on his immediate political needs. However, in all the incarnations of the idea of community articulated by Tony Blair, we can find common threads. In all his communitarian visions, Blair mentions Etzionian themes: namely, the need to support the family, the need to promote work, and the need to promote ‘decent values’ for a ‘decent society’.53 Blair’s decent and well-ordered society is based on the family, which, he argues, is the ‘foundation for cohesive and for strong communities’.54 Thus, Blair argues that the State should help the family, but he also uses this assumption to justify being more normative about the family.55 For Blair, not to be morally neutral about the family is to state, as he did, a preference for the two-parent family.56 However, Blair ignored important communitarian tenets: he addressed neither the question of rising inequalities nor the threats meritocracy can pose to inclusive communities.

Community and socialism

The second main subplot of New Labour’s politics of community explored the links between New Labour and the traditions of the Labour Party. Gordon Brown was the main advocate of this subplot. Indeed, in most of his references to ‘community’ he tried to revive the link between New Labour and the intellectual traditions of the party.

For Brown, community ‘properly understood’ is the defining idea of socialism, since ‘at its centre is the belief that society is a collective moral enterprise’ in which all individuals are engaged. In addition, ‘it stands in polar contrast to market individualism’, and ‘it offers a collective individualism’ through which ‘diversity and individuality are protected’.57 Brown also claimed that the goal of individual emancipation, held by New Labour and by ‘early socialists’, would be achieved through, among other things, a ‘strong community’.58 He claimed that at the heart of New Labour’s analysis was

the enduring socialist message that it is only by using the power of community to spread opportunities to all that we can ensure that all our citizens are not only free from the threat of poverty, unemployment, disease and discrimination, but have the education, the skills and the opportunities to fulfil their potential to the full.59

Brown associated the idea of community with the ‘historic socialist vision of working together for a greater good’.60 The link with early socialism was also stressed when Brown articulated the idea that community can be a useful instrument to tackle the popular left-wing concern with the ‘entrenched interests and accumulations of power that hold people back’.61

But community was used by Brown to say other things: namely, to defend a new role for the State. In this new role, ‘community’ would replace the State. ‘Our new economic approach is founded on the socialist principle, that the community must accept its responsibilities for the goals of sustained growth and full employment’, he argued.62 The new policies represented something of a shift from Labour’s traditional approach to the role of the State, but the way Brown phrased them diluted that impression, because he linked the proposed new role of the State to the socialist ideal of individual emancipation: ‘For a hundred years the socialist message has inevitably had to be that the State should assume power on behalf of the people. Now it is time that the people take power from the State.’63

This diluted impression was reinforced by the ambiguous uses of ‘responsibility’ in Brown’s discourse. He did not state in detail what the responsibilities of the community were, but simply that the community – meaning individuals – has responsibilities, including the responsibility to achieve sustained economic growth and full employment. But the most important change is Brown’s perception of the State as inefficient and authoritarian.

Like Blair, Brown argued that individuals have the responsibility to take on the work opportunities given to them.64 However, he refused to make moral judgements about unemployed individuals, ‘because there are many people incapable of working’.65 Again, like Blair, Brown talked about moral values. But unlike Blair he did not mention the need to ‘inculcate moral values’ in individuals, and he never addressed the issue of ‘moral breakdown’. When he referred to the theme of ‘moral purpose’ he linked it to socialist aspirations.66 In other words, Brown avoided addressing conservative themes, such as the ‘culture of dependence’, and always emphasised that New Labour was renewing Labour’s traditions. But, like Blair, Brown ignored the issue of rising inequalities and defended a welfare-to-work programme which would punish those who refused to work.

The politics of inclusion

The communitarian tune of rights and responsibilities was also part of New Labour’s discourse on social inclusion–social exclusion. This discourse was used mainly by Harriet Harman, Peter Mandelson, Alastair Darling and other ministers responsible for welfare policy, although tackling social exclusion was presented as a central governmental initiative. Unsurprisingly, the central plank of New Labour’s strategy to tackle social exclusion and to promote social inclusion was work. The strategy ‘to tackle the causes of poverty and social exclusion’ was based on ‘helping people find work’,67 because paid work was perceived as ‘the best way to avoid poverty and social exclusion’.68

By ‘social exclusion’, New Labour meant a new social phenomenon which was different from ‘poverty’. While ‘poverty affects different aspects of people’s lives, existing when people are denied opportunities to work, to learn, to live healthy and fulfilling lives, and to live out their retirement years in security’, social exclusion ‘occurs where different factors combine to trap individuals and areas in a spiral of disadvantage’.69

New Labour’s approach to social exclusion suggests that, more than being concerned with the predicament of each individual, the Government was concerned with the impact of social exclusion on the wider society. Hence, fighting social exclusion was another way of saying that poverty is a problem that affects all members of the community, and that everybody has a duty to do something about it.70 Moreover, social inclusion was presented as a replacement for egalitarian concerns. As John Gray put it, by talking of ‘social exclusion’ New Labour was able to ‘escape more or less elegantly the egalitarian solutions that poverty problems traditionally required’; and on the other hand it was able to ‘focus on the most serious problem of the break-up of communities’.71

There is another noteworthy aspect to this narrative of social exclusion: the absence, in New Labour’s discourse on social exclusion, of any mention of the widening gap between rich and poor.72 New Labour does not seem to be concerned with rising inequalities. Indeed, Brown accepted that ‘not all inequalities are unjustified’, but only those which are ‘a standing affront to any notion of equal individual worth’.73 In conformity with the acceptance of inequalities, New Labour adopted a new stance concerning redistribution – the traditional Labour way of promoting equality. Blair dismissed the idea of raising taxes on the grounds that to ‘tax and spend is not the right way to run an efficient, dynamic, modern economy’.74 However, New Labour did implement some redistributive policies; its rhetorical resistance to redistributing wealth in order to reduce inequalities is related to its concern with the idea of rewarding talent, effort and work, but also to its goal of promoting a meritocratic society. Even when New Labour became more vocal about redistribution, it was to argue for more investments in public services or to tackle poverty, but never to fight inequalities. Indeed, in a memorable interview before the 2001 general election, Blair argued that ‘the key thing is not . . . the gap between the person who earns the most in the country and the person that earns the least’, because what was important was ‘to level up, not level down’. Moreover, Blair argued that if the Government chose to go after ‘those people who are the most wealthy in society, what you actually end up doing is in fact not even helping those at the bottom end’.75 On the same occasion, he said that it was not his ‘burning ambition’ to increase the taxes of the ‘David Beckhams of this world’.76 In terms of the communitarian blueprint outlined in the first section, this approach to equality has nothing distinctively communitarian – or, for that matter, social democratic – about it.


It is clear that prescriptive communitarianism inspired New Labour’s policy-makers. New Labour figures such as Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Blunkett, Frank Field and others often spoke at length about their ‘vision’ and ‘values’, and ‘community’ or ‘social cohesion’ always featured in those visions. The words ‘responsibility’, ‘obligation’ and ‘duty’ – the cardinal values of the communitarian blueprint – and the critique of the ‘rights-based culture’, together with the themes of self-reliance, work, family and social order, are omnipresent in speeches by New Labour figures.

The way in which New Labour sought to transpose its politics of community was, however, highly selective, and it is this feature which is interesting. The selective use of the communitarian blueprint suggests that New Labour did not have as an aim the promotion of a communitarian project. Instead, its aim was to use the communitarian blueprint as a way to forward a rather different agenda, in particular to revise some traditional goals of the party.

Before discussing New Labour’s agenda, I examine the points at which New Labour’s narrative on community deviates from the prescriptive communitarian blueprint. The aim of this exercise is not to claim that New Labour is or is not communitarian. Political parties rarely, if ever, apply theoretical blueprints. However, the use they make of those blueprints can be quite revealing about their intentions.

The first striking deviation from the communitarian agenda is the absence of dialogue and consultation in the promotion of its welfare reform agenda. The farthest New Labour went in the process of consultation was the Green Paper on welfare reform, which anyway would, as all Green Papers do, involve a period of consultation. But New Labour did not use the Green Paper as an opportunity to engage in dialogue, but simply to promote its policies.

The second departure from the communitarian blueprint concerns aspects of policy on the family. New Labour adopted communitarian stances in some areas of family policy. However, in others it did not follow those prescriptions. Before showing how New Labour departed from communitarian prescriptions, there are some commonalities with communitarianism to be considered. Communitarians are strong defenders of the family. According to them, it is in the family that individuals learn about rules and values; therefore family life is perceived as having a civilising role. For those reasons, communitarian writers such as William Galston are strong supporters of marriage and argue that the state should make divorce for parents more difficult to obtain.77 However, prescriptive communitarians do not support the patriarchal family, but rather families in which men and women are equal partners. Following the communitarian line of argument, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and others make no apology for their defence of the family. As Driver and Martell put it, lack of economic opportunities and social exclusion are linked to problems of parenting and family.78 Moreover, like most communitarian thinkers, New Labour’s leaders have not been supporters of the ‘traditional family’. Indeed, they want ‘mothers’ to participate fully in the labour market. However, New Labour deviates from the communitarian blueprint in one important aspect. Though Blair defended the two-parent family, the family policies implemented by his Government provide support for all family structures and not only to married couples. In fact, New Labour replaced the married couple’s allowance with the child tax allowance, which is available to all forms of family. Moreover, New Labour did not try to re-engineer a particular type of family (in this case, with married parents) via its social policies, as the Clinton administration did in 1996 (the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 established as a goal the reduction of out-of wedlock pregnancies and encouraged the maintenance of two-parent families79).

The third departure from the prescriptive communitarian blueprint is apparent in the application of the ethic of ‘rights and responsibilities’. New Labour seemed to agree with the communitarian argument that contemporary societies have been badly hurt by excessive individualism and by the so-called ‘rights culture’. Like communitarian thinkers, New Labour argues that it is necessary to promote an ethos of mutual rights and responsibilities. But whereas communitarians claim that ‘it is a grave moral error to argue that there are “no rights without responsibilities” or vice versa’,80 New Labour makes rights conditional on the performance of duties. Moreover, the strategy of distinguishing between the ‘deserving’ and the ‘undeserving poor’ may have a destabilising, instead of a strengthening, effect on communities.

The fourth main departure from the communitarian blueprint concerns the role of the State. Like communitarians, New Labour claims that the State has an important role in society, but the role it ascribes to the State departs in important respects from the communitarian blueprint. Communitarian writers want the State to have a smaller role in shaping the ‘moral culture’, since that is the role of individuals and communities and can be achieved only through a ‘national conversation’, and not through laws and governmental recommendations. By contrast, New Labour argues that the State does have an important role in shaping the moral culture, and attempts have been made to change and encourage different behaviour through legislation, governmental recommendations and guidelines, as illustrated by the New Deal and other policies. Furthermore, New Labour has not promoted a ‘national conversation’ on making work a condition to receive benefits, but has rather assumed that a consensus exists in society about what was necessary.

Communitarians are against State interference on matters of ‘moral culture’, but think that the state has an important social role in regulating equality of opportunity. Communitarians are concerned with the widening gap between rich and poor, arguing that ‘society cannot sustain itself as a community of communities if disparities in well-being and wealth between elites and the rest of society are too great’.81 Communitarians believe, therefore, that the state must ensure equality of opportunity for all and maintain progressive taxation.

New Labour has sidelined all these positions. First of all, the silence with which New Labour responded to the problem of rising inequalities suggests that it is not concerned with the issue. There is concern over ‘social exclusion’, poverty and deprivation, but not with inequality as such. New Labour claims to be committed to equality of opportunity, but its conception of ‘equality of opportunity’ differs from that espoused by communitarians. For communitarian thinkers, equality of opportunity means ensuring that everyone has a similar starting point.82 Yet the equality of opportunity which underpins the welfare-to-work programme, the working families’ tax credit and the ‘baby bonds’ proposal, for example, amounts more to ‘minimum opportunities’ than to equal opportunities,83 given that as soon as some very basic needs are met the State is no longer worried over ‘levelling up’.

Moreover, the discourse of duties and responsibilities does not apply equally to all members of society. Whereas the duties of the poor are clearly assigned, the duties of the most successful members of society – who, according to prescriptive communitarians, have greater responsibility towards the community – are not spelled out at all. In fact, what is hinted at is that these members of society are necessary to create wealth for the country (no matter how unevenly that wealth is distributed) and therefore should not be burdened with more responsibilities.84

This approach once again suggests that New Labour is not inclined to vocally defend redistribution to tackle inequality or to subsidise jobs for the unemployed. To date, New Labour has argued only for redistribution in order to invest in public services, not to reduce inequalities. This reluctance to accept the idea that government should be an employer of last resort and that the most successful members of a society have special duties also suggest an acceptance of all the implications of the market economy. Again, this position reveals a selective application of communitarian ideas. Communitarian writers hold that ‘market exchange makes no inherent contribution to autonomy’ and therefore that ‘market competition should be limited in contexts … where its impact on individual autonomy may be disabling rather than developing’.85

The selective endorsement of their agenda led some communitarian thinkers to react to the appropriation of their ideas by New Labour and other governments. For example, Henry Tam acknowledged New Labour’s creation of a Social Exclusion Unit, but commented that the overall policy thrust of the Government seemed ‘to be more concerned with easing the plight of the poor so that the drive for greater economic growth can roll forward without risking social unrest’. In addition, he remarked that ‘wealth redistribution as a tool for tacking power inequalities does not feature at all’ in New Labour’s plans.86 He further concludes that, from a progressive communitarian point of view, ‘there is definitively a distinct way to practise politics, but it differs significantly from what currently goes by the name of Third Way’.87 Philip Selznick has expressed similar concerns about the selective endorsement of the communitarian agenda. Selznick admitted to being ‘troubled’ ‘by a selective concern for personal responsibility, personal virtues, personal morality’. ‘While these themes are music to the ears of Conservative writers and politicians – whose main concerns are crime, illegitimacy rates and similar offences, and who see immorality as a lower-class evil appropriately addressed by punitive measures – they pay little attention to the responsibilities of the affluent, or of business leaders, and, more importantly, the moral responsibilities of the community as a whole are only dimly perceived and given short shrift.’88

Amitai Etzioni also has been critical of New Labour, though his own position changed over time. In an article published in The Times in 1997, Etzioni admitted that New Labour’s Clause 4 ‘recognises that a communitarian society entails much more than nurturing local residential communities, or building on small platoons’, and that New Labour understands ‘that it is necessary to replace the welfare state notion of entitlement’.89 But he warned that ‘the communitarian paradigm does not call for closing down the welfare state and replacing it with armies of volunteers’, and that in an economy that still has considerable unemployment ‘pushing welfare clients to work is likely to push others into unemployment and ultimately on to welfare’.90 Etzioni also criticised the decision to cut benefits to lone parents as a ‘not very communitarian’ one, because ‘the notion of getting people off benefit before there is real, solid evidence that we have provided them with work, or opportunities to find work, is too punitive’.91 In 2001, Etzioni was more sympathetic towards New Labour. He praised Blair for making the concepts of community and responsibility ‘a core element’ of his first election campaign, but he argued that those were ‘merely baby steps’ towards the development of a genuinely communitarian approach.92

The discourse of ‘duty’, ‘community’ and ‘self-reliance’, and the absence of concern over rising social inequalities, suggest that New Labour aims at something different from the communitarian blueprint. With this discourse, New Labour seems to have found the arguments with which to justify a more modest role for the State. Indeed, if individuals work, the State does not need to provide for them. In fact, the State does not need to provide employment, and in the process work becomes a duty and ceases to be a right. This argument was strengthened by Blair’s criticism of liberal individualism. Tony Blair made ‘individualism’ a synonym for ‘redistributive policies’; therefore, ‘community’, a socialist value, meant independence from the State. From there it followed that, in order to achieve the ‘communitarian’ goals of the party, it was necessary to revise the role of the State as a distributor of wealth. New Labour policy-makers argue that the State must be an enabler and a provider of guidance about life choices.

By accepting social inequalities, by ascribing a more modest new role to the State and by defending a less regulated market economy, New Labour has redefined some of the ends of the Labour Party. Indeed, a more modest role of the State that coexists with an unequal society and an unregulated market is unlikely to deliver the stronger and fairer community, formed by freer and more autonomous individuals, which the Labour Party has traditionally promoted.


1 Phillips 1994.
2 Milne 1994.
3 Mandelson and Liddle 1996: 19.
4 Prescriptive or political communitarianism is diverse, but there are central themes which are shared by all varieties of prescriptive communitarianism, namely civic spirit, responsibility for self and for the community, mutuality and reciprocity (Frazer 1999: 35).
5 Raymond Plant (1991: 327) provides a useful description of the communitarian criticism of liberalism: ‘Communitarians criticize the ontology and in particular the theory of the self put forward by liberal theorists and the conception of the human condition which follows from this. This involves making the case for arguing that the self at least is part constituted by the values of the community within which the person finds him or her self and therefore that choosing values in some kind of abstract way as envisaged by liberal theory just embodies a false moral ontology.’
6 Mulhall and Swift (1996: xiv) also make a distinction between the ‘communitarianism’ of political philosophers and what they perceive as the ‘popular appropriation’ of the term by political parties, the media and political movements, such as the communitarian movement launched by Amitai Etzioni. See also Minogue 1997: 161.
7 Etzioni 1993: 40 and 1997a: 27; Tam 1998: 1–3.
8 Etzioni 1993: 4. More recently, Etzioni (2000: 29) has argued that rights are not conditional. ‘Basic individual rights are inalienable, just as one’s social obligations cannot be denied. However, it is a grave moral error to argue that there are “no rights without responsibilities” or vice versa . . . The number of basic rights we should have may be debated, but those that are legitimate are not conditional.’
9 Etzioni 1993: 4.
10 Ibid., p. 7.
11 Gray 1996: 20–1.
12 Etzioni 1993: 144.
13 Tam 1998: 85–8.
14 Selznick 1996.
15 Etzioni 2000: 31–2.
16 Galston 1995: 285.
17 Ibid., p. 284. Galston also argues for the active promotion of marriage and for making divorce more difficult for couples with children.
18 Etzioni 1997a: 74.
19 Frazer 1999: 217.
20 Etzioni 1997a: 74; see also Etzioni 1993: 39.
21 Most communitarian writers mention the role of churches in promoting communities and a sense of moral values. William Galston is perhaps one of the most vocal defenders of the ‘civilising’ role of religion in the United States: see Galston 1995: 276.
22 Tam 1998: 8.
23 Campbell 1995; Kenny 1996: 18; Walker 1998: 71; Price 1998: 65.
24 Etzioni 1993: 44.
25 Etzioni 2000: 32–3.
26 Ibid., pp. 53–4.
27 Tam 1999: 4.
28 Selznick 1996.
29 Tam 1999: 5.
30 Selznick 1996.
31 Field 1998a.
32 Field 1998b: col. 686.
33 Field 1997a; 1997b: 38.
34 Blunkett 2000: 1; 1999.
35 Darling 1998: col. 340.
36 Blair 1993; reprinted: 1996: 221.
37 Blair 1994a; 1994b: 4.
38 Coote 1995; Gove 1996; Malik 1995; Mayo 1999.
39 About the ‘mistakes’ of the Left Blair (1995a: 236) said: ‘a strong society should not be confused with a strong state, or with powerful collectivist institutions. That was the confusion of the early Left thinking. It was compounded by a belief that the role of the state was to grant rights, with the language of responsibility spoken far less fluently’.
40 Blair 1995b.
41 Blair 1994a.
42 Blair 1999a.
43 Blair 1995b; see also 1995c: 13.
44 Gould 1998: 254; see also Driver and Martell 1998: 51–6.
45 Blair 1996a: 13.
46 Blair 1996b: 298.
47 Gould 1998: 255.
48 Blair 1997a.
49 Blair 1997b; this idea was repeated several times during the speech: ‘I tell you: a decent society is not based on rights. It is based on duty. Our duty to each other. To all should be given opportunity, from all responsibility demanded.’
50 Blair 1998a: 14.
51 Blair 1999a; Blair developed this idea further: ‘We are also about wanting to encourage people to make good and valuable choices whether in terms of their own behaviour or their actions towards others. This is not “new authoritarianism”. There will be no nanny state. It is common sense: people want tolerance, but they also want rules.’
52 Blair 2000.
53 Blair 1998b.
54 Blair 1995c: 12.
55 Blair 1995d.
56 Blair 1995e, reprinted: 1996: 249.
57 Brown and Wright 1995: 24–5.
58 Brown 1994a: 118.
59 Brown 1994b: 25.
60 Brown 1995.
61 Brown and Wright 1995: 13–14.
62 Brown 1994c.
63 Brown and Wright 1995: 26.
64 Brown 1998a.
65 Brown 1998b.
66 Brown 1995.
67 Department of Social Security (DSS) 1999: 84.
68 DSS 1999.
69 Ibid., p. 23.
70 Levitas 1998: 45.
71 Gray 1997a: 8–9; see also Levitas 1998: 35.
72 The few references to rising inequalities were exceptions. In the first report on social exclusion, the Government acknowledged that ‘the benefits of growth have not been shared by all’ (DSS 1999: 27).
73 Brown and Wright 1995: 20.
74 Blair 1997c.
75 Blair 2001.
76 Ibid.
77 Ibid.
78 Galston 1995: 284.
79 Driver and Martell 2000: 188.
80 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996.
81 Etzioni 2000: 29.
82 Ibid., p. 53.
83 Ibid., p. 54.
84 This point was made by Martell 2001: 211.
85 Blair (1999b: 2) said: ‘If the markets don’t like our policies they will punish you.’
86 Gray 1997b: 329–30.
87 Tam 1999: 5.
88 Ibid., p. 11.
89 Selznick 1996.
90 Etzioni 1997b.
91 Ibid.
92 Etzioni, quoted in ‘Labour attacked by guru’,Independent, 27 December 1997, p. 2.
93 Etzioni 2001: 25.


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The Third Way and beyond

Criticisms, futures, alternatives


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