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Third Way

A Dictionary of Social Work and Social Care

John Harris,

Vicky White

Third Way 

This phrase was meant to capture the ideological indifference of New Labour, as it steered a middle course, distanced from ‘Old Labour’ and the New Right, after it came to power in 1997. However, there were substantial areas of overlap between the Conservative governments of the previous eighteen years and New Labour in terms of the primacy accorded to globalization, the restructuring of the economy, and society in response to its impact and the changes required in established practices and ways of working as a basis for capitalism’s future prosperity, in particular the imperative towards low costs and highly flexible forms of working. Four shared themes were: the primacy of economic competitiveness; the subordination of social policy to the needs of a competitive national economy; the limited or reduced scope envisaged for government intervention or direction; and a central concern with control over public expenditure. New Labour stressed that priority needed to be given to economic performance, growth, and low inflation. Within the Third Way, the role of social policy was delineated:

  • Social policy should function for capital. The state should promote permanent innovation and flexibility in a relatively open economy and seek to use social policy to strengthen economic competitiveness.

  • Social policy should be subordinated to the demands of labour market flexibility and economic competitiveness.

  • In social policy, increasing importance should be attached to non-state mechanisms compensating for market failures and delivering state-sponsored policies.

The Third Way was strongly influenced by the reflexive modernization thesis of Beck (The Risk Society 1992) and especially Giddens (Beyond Left and Right: The Future of Radical Politics 1994). This thesis suggested that new political responses were needed to meet the challenges posed not only by globalization, but also by social reflexivity, detraditionalization, and a heightened sense of risk in the late modern world. The thesis asserted that these forces undermined the social democratic welfare state, as traditional class identities dissolved and there were changes in the labour market, gender relations, and household forms. In the Third Way politics and policies of New Labour, the influence of this thesis can be seen in the stress on self-conscious citizens, who were depicted as concerned with consumerism and the market, with identity, and with ‘life politics’. Further reading: Harris, J. (2003) The Social Work Business, Ch 5, Routledge.