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LONDON — New Labour baffles just about everybody who comes across it. Is it “new” simply in the sense that a relaunched soap powder is new — essentially the same plus a claim to have stronger power to wash away sins? Or is it really new, with just the Labour bit being misleading? And what on earth is the “third way,” which apparently is the defining project of New Labour?

I think the third way means simply that the government will not count itself accountable to either of the two ancient class formations in Britain — capitalist and working — and as no other social group has ever come close to forming anything so cohesive and enduring as a class, that means no one. The New Labour government is constantly having to come up with new instruments of power and new ways of finding out where the hot spots in civil society are.

In the annual budget, Chancellor Gordon Brown announced substantial increases in state spending for the National Health Service, to be paid for out of increased National Insurance contributions — the tax charged on both employer and worker for every working person, including the self-employed. That lets off the unemployed, pensioners and those who sit on piles of property wealth. The budget was well received, for there is hardly a person in Britain who has not been convinced since New Labour came to power in 1997 that the public services, especially health, cannot continue without much more money being spent on them.

Is this Old Labour revealing its true self as the heart of New Labour? Which seems merely like the worn-out repetition of the 20th-century question — is a revengeful socialism going to end the world? New Labour and the third way were intended to lay this specter to rest. More than that, the party and its project were intended to claim the future.

This has been very appealing to the social democratic left. For instance, in one of his State of the Union speeches, former U.S. President Bill Clinton said: “We have moved past the sterile debate between those who say government is the enemy and those who say government is the answer. My fellow Americans, we have found a third way.”

This is a uniquely American take, as few in Europe have that citizens’ independence. Or is it paranoia that regards government as the enemy? The use of the third way in Belgium, Holland and Spain (all with monarchies, which may or may not be significant) was roughly similar to that in Britain.

In France, the third way seemed merely another pallid British version of full-blooded politics, until the shock electoral success of Jean-Marie Le Pen and the racist National Front. The stunning collapse of the leftwing vote has prompted a number of leading French leftwingers to wonder aloud about the third way, and whether French socialists should not hastily adopt this, interpreting it in their way as a form of modernization of a class-bound, cadre-bound, tradition-bound left. This is a third way between the inflexible juggernaut of party and the fluid anarchy of individualism.

For old, failing social democrat parties, whose dwindling membership want a return to the old certainties, the third way offers leadership a means of “modernizing” the party and a means of getting social democrat leaders back into power.

In all definitions, the third way must be defined by other things that it is not — and as such must always be a license for a free-floating leadership. According to the nexus Web site:

(1) The third way could be a middle way between two alternatives — for example, between systems of economic and social organization (capitalism and socialism); principles of resource allocation (market and state); models of capitalism (United States vs. Europe); or ideologies (old left and new right).

(2) The third way could be nothing more than a revised social democracy that offers a clear alternative to the neoliberal project of the 1980s through a fresh application of social democratic principles to current circumstances.

(3) The third way could signal the creation of a heterodox alignment of ideas that recognize a sharp break in political continuity, which may render many former political certainties obsolete.

Or alternatively, the third way could be a mantra for political elites to govern in any way they choose, feeling beholden neither to unions nor to employer groups.

In this free-floating world, the movers and shakers tend to be dynamic or rich, preferably both. They are not the anonymous masses of social democracy who presented their wishes and interests to governments through the time-honored channels of party and club.

To meet and deal with this new world of free floaters, a new layer of political cadres has come into being — special advisers, media advisers, fundraisers, consultants and so on, all of whom act as a medium between government, civil service, media and whichever star floats enticingly before a minister’s weary eyes.

The problem for the social democratic parties is if the hot spots of popular political feeling are energized by racism or xenophobia, government has the delicate task of responding to popular fears about crime, race and uncertainty — which French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin so obviously failed to do — without themselves being captured by powerful authoritarian forces demanding that discipline and punishment be enforced on a free-floating society.

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