The Left views Third Way politics as a sell-out these days and Josie Pagani is damned as an adherent – but what's wrong with compromise and wanting to win elections?

During a visit he made to Melbourne in 2000, I joined some colleagues to sit down for a chat with Dick Morris, the self-proclaimed strategic mastermind who claimed to have single-handedly rescued Bill Clinton's flailing presidency and coined the term "triangulation" along the way.

I can’t recall a word he said, but Morris was in terrible shape: red-faced, tremulous and bloated, he looked like an escapee from the Fall of the Roman Empire. In the years since, after lurching further and further right, Morris has become such a figure of scorn for his erratic behaviour and loathsome views that even Fox News showed him the door.

It was not always thus: at the time of our meeting, his alleged role in guiding Bill Clinton to comfortable reelection in 1996 made him guru du jour in political circles, and his advocacy of the so-called ‘Third Way’ found eager audiences across the political spectrum.

As with the man himself, time has not been kind to Morris’s beloved Third Way doctrine. The theory that parties of the Left can meet electoral success only after cherry-picking from the Right’s playbook (think ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’) emerged in the US after twelve years of Reagan and Bush, and eighteen years of uninterrupted Tory rule in the UK. In 1983 and 1984 respectively, before the phrase had even entered the lexicon, it was Third Way thinking that inspired new Labour governments in Australia and New Zealand to ostentatiously flaunt their deficit busting fiscal bona fides.

To absorb your opponents’ strengths is to neutralise your own weaknesses. Politics as Jujitsu.

While the term is rarely used non-perjoratively these days, the Third Way approach to elections has been spectacularly successful, and not just for parties of the Left. National’s co-option of Working for Families and Labour’s nuclear-free stance, not to mention its utter capitulation on the public provision of health and education, are central to its electoral viability.  

By contrast, in the US, as long as Republicans refuse to “triangulate” on issues like immigration (and, increasingly, same sex marriage) its path to the White House remains murky at best. Like Freudian theories of human psychology or Keynesian economics, the central insights at the heart of the Third Way have been fully absorbed into mainstream thinking even as the label itself has become discredited and unfashionable. And, as with Freud and Keynes, Third Wayism is hard to take in its undiluted form: endless compromise for its own sake; relentless message discipline without conviction; winning, but for what purpose?

On the left, the Third Way is the new third rail: code for sell-out, a generalised slur.

By way of questioning the New Zealand Herald’s perfectly sensible choice of Josie Pagani as an election commentator, blogger-extraordinaire of New Zealand’s liberal left, Russell Brown, snidely dismissed Pagani as a Third Way adherent when she is nothing of the sort.

Pagani, formerly an Alliance staffer, is actually a straightforward economic populist who has spent the pre-election period arguing that Labour should return to its roots and attack National head-on over issues like economic inequality, infrastructure, jobs and cost of living.  As Tonys go, she is closer to Benn than Blair – and yet, to Russell Brown and Pagani’s many other critics on the leftysphere, her crime is to talk openly about winning elections by fighting National for votes in the political centre.

These are strange times indeed when such an entirely unremarkable theory about elections – that political parties should try to win them – has become synonymous with selling out.  But, then again, it was Twain – Mark, I think, not Shania – who said that, while history may not repeat, it rhymes.

The very doctrinaire rigidity that led to one electoral defeat after another, and gave rise to the Third Way movement to start with, has emerged again in over-reaction to it.

Comments (7)

by Kevin Moore on September 02, 2014
Kevin Moore

The problem I have with the Third Way is that it mistakes the need to adjust to a new political 'logic' with the need to adjust to new policies.

You say it 'cherry picked' policy positions from the right and that this, in some way, was 'political jujitsu'. That's incorrect.

In martial arts terms, adopting your opponent's policies amounts to assisting them in delivering their body blows. It does not overpower your opponent it simply leads to you being a 'tag-team' with your 'opponent' (which makes it clear who the real 'opponent' must be).

A 'Fourth Way' is far more desirable. That would involve understanding and co-opting the logic and assumptions (and values) underpinning the appeal of some right wing policies and then using that logic to support your own policies.

For example, what underpins people's desire for their governments to be 'tough on crime/criminals'? What's the underlying 'emotional logic'? Hint: it's very similar to the logic underlying people's concerns with beneficiary 'bludging'. It's about cheating (by the criminals and beneficiaries) mixed in with fear (of the criminals and beneficiaries). Make use of that underlying logic to gain support for a left wing approach to crime and social security.

That is real 'political jujitsu'.

But of course it's a lot more intellectually and rhetorically challenging (and innovative) than the 'Third Way' approach so there might not be many takers amongst politicians.

by Rich on September 02, 2014

The problem with the "Third Way" is that it doesn't work. It ignores the steady erosion of middle class living standards, security and prospects, which started in the 1980s and has steadily gathered pace.

Third way policies are essentially based around a nominally left-wing party claiming to be better managers of capitalism, backed up with a pseudo-blokeish appeal to "working class values". (As recently embodied by the Harvard educated former CEO of a slave-fishing operation).

The challenge for the left is to set out an alternative to capitalist hegemony whilst recognising that the mass media (including, sadly, the state owned mass media) are essentially instruments of capitalist power, not any sort of ethical or impartial institutions.


by Lee Churchman on September 02, 2014
Lee Churchman

The American example is not instructive, since the Democrats' capacity for compromise has been used by the Republicans to move the centre of debate to the right. The fact that the Tea Party are unelectable matters less for that reason. 

As for New Zealand. Compromise makes genuine reform impossible. We, like most similar countries, appear to be stuck in a political holding pattern. Of course trying to get out of it is going to be hard and will require defeats along the way, but there is no alternative. Remember that it was only 16 years between Goldwater's catastrophic defeat and the election of Reagan. 

by Chris Eichbaum on September 02, 2014
Chris Eichbaum

I recall a piece in The Guardian in which it was suggested that, like Monty Python's parrot (the Norwegian Blue) the Third Way was not dead, but just resting.

One needs to be clear on what is meant by the Third Way (TTW). Phil's piece views it as an electoral strategy a la Dick Morris and triangulation (in point of fact the notion of a contested political centre (a focus on the median voter), particularly in a two-party system with a normally distributed voting population on the left to right axis was advanced by Anthony Downs in An Economic Theory of Democracy published in 1957).

The mid to late 1990s versions of TTW had their origins in different drivers and authorities - In the UK Giddens advanced a case based on fundamental societal shifts; in the US Clinton's new democrats saw merit in the adoption of a tough fiscal stance to counter the 'tax and spend' baggage of past Democratic administrations; NZ Labour in 1999 needed to differentiate itself from the Fourth Labour Government, and from Richardson-era austerity on the one hand, and Muldoon statism on the other. When Peter Harris and I collaborated in editing a volume of essays designed to influence the policies of an incoming centre-left government in 1999, our preferred title was "Towards a post-Washington concensus" - the publisher suggested reference to "A Third Way for NZ?". My own preference - given the ambiguity and imprecision attached to TTW -  was to advance an argument for a 'modern social democracy' - even though the Minister for whom I worked at the time liked to represent himself as an adherent to the Third Way (and I gather still does).

In my view, it's mush, and it's very much a parrot of the Monty Python kind. The reality is that sometimes the contest does have to focus on the centre-ground and those median voters, but it would be very poor political science, reflecting on the 2014 NZ election, to suggest (as one prominent political scientist has) that there has been a convergence on the centre in terms of policies - a commitment to a Capital Gains Tax, and the largest shake-up in monetary policy since 1988 (among other policies) means that there is greater divergence and choice in 2014 on core economic and social policies than we have seen for perhaps 30 years.

by barry on September 02, 2014

The problem with 3rd-way politics is that you are giving away priniciples to get elected.  If you are going to do that why should anybody support you.  Blair gave away prinicples until in the end he was worse than the opposition.  He was more militaristic, more monetarist.  There was hardly any Labour ideals left.

Expediancy leads to corruption.

I am not going to support an economically left party that is prepared to go for lock-em-up-and-throw-away-the-key crime policy, or one that is going to sacrifice human rights, or support wholesale spying.  Why should I?

I want people in parliament who are going to fight for what they believe in, so long as they believe in similar things to me.


by Danyl Mclauchlan on September 03, 2014
Danyl Mclauchlan

Here's my problem with the Pagani/Third-Way hypothesis that Labour needs to shit to the centre/right to win elections: whenever there's any polling done on Labour's current policies they're usually wildly popular, far more so than the actual Labour Party.

So the problem isn't with the current values or policies of the party. Where is it? Well, I'm picking that its with the performance of the Labour Party. They seem like a bunch of incompetents who all hate each other. That's a combination of qualities that the public desperately does not want to put in charge of the country. 

That toxic culture within Labour seems like the big problem to fix. I don't know how you fix it, but I do know that Pagani running around insisting that the party needs to move to the right is kind of like yelling that the engine in your car is on fire, so you need to change the tires. 


by Ross on September 06, 2014

Pagani, formerly an Alliance staffer, is actually a straightforward economic populist who has spent the pre-election period arguing that Labour should return to its roots and attack National head-on over issues like economic inequality, infrastructure, jobs and cost of living.  As Tonys go, she is closer to Benn than Blair – and yet, to Russell Brown and Pagani’s many other critics on the leftysphere, her crime is to talk openly about winning elections by fighting National for votes in the political centre.

 I think you will find, Phil, that Labour has been doing precisely what you argue Labour should be doing. I can only think you haven't been following the election over here very closely. I wonder if you, like Pagani, think that John Tamihere is a top bloke who should be welcomed with open arms by the Labour Party...that seems to be one of Pagani's revolutionary ideas to bring the Labour Party to the centre. 

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