Center-Left Still Trying to Redefine Its Mission

Third Way Conference Brings Leaders to London

LONDON, JULY 19, 2003 ( Center-left leaders from around the world met here July 11-13 as part of their ongoing search for an identity. The gathering culminated in an encounter of heads of government and state from 14 countries that issued a final declaration. The mix of international conferences and academic publications started out with the title of the Third Way, but was later formalized into a think tank known as Policy Network. The London conference was formally titled as the Progressive Governance Conference.

The leaders on hand included Prime Ministers Tony Blair of Britain, Jean Chrétien of Canada, and Goran Persson of Sweden, and presidents Thabo Mbeki of South Africa and Alexander Kwasniewski of Poland. Former U.S. President Bill Clinton was also present, along with a number of representatives from center-left European political parties. In spite of the number of influential political leaders present, the meeting received little press coverage outside Britain. Here, ZENIT presents a summary of some of the main points raised in the encounter.

Conference themes included dealing with aging populations and changing family structures; reforming public services; finding a new balance between rights and responsibilities; coping with rising migration; and improving corporate ethics.

In his speech on July 11, Britain’s Blair outlined a number of points that “a successful left-of-center government” needs to keep in mind. He noted the importance of economic competence and respecting the public’s desire to take control of their lives. He argued in favor of investment in public services instead of tax cuts. He insisted that governments should understand new technology, as well as the opportunities and threats from globalization. He also called for effective ways of dealing with issues such as migration, asylum and crime.

Blair outlined the successes of Britain’s economy and affirmed that his government has “changed the essential paradigm of the right — you have to choose between more prosperity and more social justice.” He recognized, however, that rapid changes in today’s world obliges social democratic governments to adapt their policies.

A fundamental part of this will involve “the recasting of the relationship between citizen and state; to one that is neither dependency; nor abandonment; but a partnership between the two based on mutual rights and responsibilities to provide opportunity and security for all in the face of globalization.” This partnership between citizen and state calls for greater flexibility and innovation by governments.

Latin American interest

Three Latin American heads of state attended the London conference. Presidents Ricardo Lagos of Chile, Néstor Kirchner of Argentina, and Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil all have a left-wing past, the Financial Times noted July 11. But once in office they have taken a more pragmatic approach, distancing themselves from the radicalism of Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez.

The new generation of social democratic leaders in Latin America have their work cut out. The slow economic growth and rising unemployment in the last years has made it harder to balance a free-market economy with social concerns, the Financial Times said.

To coincide with the conference, the British daily Guardian published some texts written by the political leaders attending the meeting. In an essay published July 12, President Lula decried the fact that Brazil has one of the most unequal distributions of income in the world. He said the Brazilian Workers Party is formulating a project to combine economic growth with income redistribution, along with a deepening of political democracy.

While his government’s economic policies so far have concentrated on financial stability and restoring growth, Lula explained that his party’s “new economic model” has as its priorities social concerns such as fighting hunger and supporting small farmers. He also proclaimed the need for the state to “act decisively to carry out its regulatory role in the economy.”

The Brazilian president also called for “a new kind of foreign policy to help build a new world order that is both fairer and more democratic.” He criticized the excesses of globalization and the instability of financial markets. And he also requested a reform of multilateral bodies such as the United Nations, where, he added, Brazil has claimed the right to a seat as a permanent member of the Security Council.

Final declaration

The declaration issued by the heads of government and state proclaimed: “We share a belief in freedom; in justice and fairness; and in solidarity and mutual responsibility. We share a conviction — reinforced by history — in the power of collective action to improve people’s lives. And we share the experience of having seen our own progressive policies work in practice.”

In the international sphere the leaders emphasized the importance of a multilateral approach based on international law and the role of the United Nations in dealing with problems such as poverty, the environment, human rights and combating terrorism.

The political leaders pledged to work together on a range of issues. The priorities for action included: eliminating barriers to international trade and reducing agricultural subsidies; working toward a more stable international financial system that minimizes crises; improving migration policies; developing new sources of energy and dealing with climate change; improving corporate governance and transparency; and ensuring greater access to health care.

In the area of security the declaration condemned terrorism and pledged that they would work together to tackle this threat. The leaders called on all states to comply with the international treaties regarding weapons of mass destruction, and urged progress in the long-term scaling down of conventional armaments.

Regarding the domestic agenda the declaration identified eight main challenges: progressive strategies for growth; ensuring an equitable distribution of wealth: reform of public services to improve their quality; raising investment in children; guaranteeing community safety from crime and violent conflict; ensuring social cohesion by promoting tolerance and respect; improving democracy and ensuring greater transparency and accountability; and bringing about full employment.

Where to now?

One of the chief ideologues of the Third Way was Anthony Giddens. Currently the director of the London School of Economics, he wrote an essay for the Financial Times on July 11 expressing confidence in the future of this movement. When the Third Way was launched six years ago, center-left parties were in power in 11 of 15 European countries and Bill Clinton was the U.S. president.

The subsequent losses for the center-left in the United States and Europe have been offset, Giddens maintained, by electoral gains in countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland. And other governments are now following program “heavily influenced by Third Way ideas and policies,” he contended.

He did admit that the right has enjoyed a number of electoral victories in recent years. But he accused them of winning due to the exploitation of populist themes. “Its successes have been largely opportunistic,” he claimed. In contrast, he said that Third Way thinking has a lot more content and that “our discussions will have a practical impact and may shape left-of-center thinking and practice for years to come.”

Such optimism was not shared by all. A number of the news stories on the London conference commented on the political difficulties facing Blair and the other leaders present. How much the champions of “progressive governance” can influence the future is still a big question mark.

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