Why the Third Way Failed, by Bill Jordan

Policy Press, 2010, iv + 228 pp, pbk 978 1 84742 656 7, £22.99, hbk, 978 1 84742 657 4, £65

Tony Blair’s and New Labour’s ‘Third Way’ expected contracts in free markets, detailed targets in the public sector, and close regulation of our collective life, to achieve social ends. Jordan’s thesis throughout this carefully argued and quietly passionate book is that means need to cohere with ends: that is, that social and moral means are needed if moral and social ends are to be achieved; and that therefore individualistic market-oriented policies will struggle to deliver a sustainable and moral society. Under New Labour ‘the collective processes at work in every society’ were submerged beneath an emphasis on ‘individuals, their choices, aspirations, and achievements’. What is now needed is a return to a social order understood as ‘a moral order of interdependent members giving each other mutual recognition’ (p.17).

In the first part of his book Jordan outlines institutional arrangements which would enable ‘justice, equality, wellbeing, respect and [a] sense of membership’ (p.18) to flourish: lower benefits withdrawal rates, localism within a context of broader solidarities, and an openness to scientific advances. The second part of the book tackles the malaise into which New Labour stumbled: a reliance on contracts to solve social problems, and consumer choice. Jordan shows why contracts between a government and the commercial sector rarely work out as planned, and that consumer choice is rarely that. Underlying these particular problems was a touching faith in capitalism’s ability to solve social problems, and in a rather dessicated economic logic. The proper role of economic science is as a tool in the cause of judgements made on the basis of moral regulation by social relationships constituted by ritual and symbol, and Jordan shows how New Labour failed to understand this.

The third part of the book contains Jordan’s policy prescription: a Citizen’s Income to rebalance formal and informal work, and radical devolution of public services. He concludes that both contractual and moral regulation are required, and calls for ‘a heightened awareness of broader common interests and a recognition of fellow citizens’ (p.200).

This book is classic Jordan, drawing in diverse material in the service of wide-ranging political critique and social justice. It is carefully argued – for instance, discussing in detail Žižek’s doubts about a Citizen’s Income; it is timely, because as well as offering a critique of the Third Way it asks questions of David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’; and it is gently inspiring, because it shows how a combination of not impossible policy changes could deliver a more just society.

What is particularly uplifting about this book is that it could be read positively from within any of our three major political parties, which means that it has the potential to generate a common mind on how future social policy should be shaped.