Politics for the twentieth century: Chuka Umunna’s third way

Chuka Umunna, What Are Progressives For? (Progressive Centre UK, 2019)

Chuka Umunna knows something is up: ‘we are a deeply divided country … and our politics is broken’.1 But the reader of What are Progressives For? will come away with a strange picture of just what broke British politics. Umunna is clear that Brexit is a ‘symptom, not a cause’,2 and he certainly has a long list of other symptoms including inequality, homelessness, the productivity gap, crime, and child poverty. Surprisingly, Umunna identifies division in the political parties as the ultimate source of Britain’s problems:

Political parties that cannot unify themselves cannot unify the country. A political agenda that cannot forge a degree of consensus is unlikely to be one that is capable of enduring or bringing together such a diverse nation as modern Britain.3

For Umunna, the problem is a crisis of leadership, or rather a crisis for the leadership—with neither Conservative nor Labour able to tame ‘the absolutism and tribalism’ which overwhelm their parties and restrict their thinking.4 Umunna frames his new politics as a centre-ground platform capable of commanding a broad degree of consensus, and an end to ‘one-dimensional politics’—a call, in short, for a new third way.5

How to have all the cakes and eat them too

There have long been two distinct and competing conceptions of the third way. On the one hand, the third way is conceived as a middle way, rejecting the extremes of right and left but accepting the insights of both and attempting to chart a compromise. An early example of this might be Harold Macmillan’s Middle Way, in which Macmillan opposed his vision of a state offering domestic peace through material security to the extremes of stifling state-planned socialism and disruptive, insecure laissez-faire.6 On the other hand, the third way can be presented as a truly distinct approach, transcending the left-right political divide with new, radical solutions. Friedrich Hayek presented this vision very clearly. He rejected the unidimensional political spectrum which put ‘socialists on the left, the conservatives on the right, and the liberals somewhere in the middle. Nothing could be more misleading,’ he went on. ‘If we want a diagram, it would be more appropriate to arrange them in a triangle’.7 On this conception, the third way is neither compromise nor fudge, but something independent, innovative and radical in its own way.

Umunna tries to have it both ways. He argues that his is not a project of ‘splitting the difference’: ‘Our politics is neither “moderate” nor “centrist”’, he writes in one of the more interesting sections of the essay, ‘but it seeks to radically change our country’.8 And yet for all this he never escapes the left-right framework, and certainly does not pose anything in its place: ‘We want our data privacy respected as a core property right – a right wing proposition – but to get the best rewards from the data revolution we need universal access to data, public platforms, and high accountability and transparency – left-wing propositions’.9 The even-handedness is forced, and puts paid to the suggestion that he is interested in transcending the division. In practice, this amounts to nothing more than a middle way: drawing from the best of both from the freedom of the centre. 

The problem with this is that he has no answer to people who charge that the language of the third way is just a cover for what he wanted to do anyway, which is tack away from the more ambitious programme Labour has adopted in recent years. One sees this clearly in the section on public control of utilities. Instead of engaging seriously with the case for public ownership, which works perfectly well elsewhere in the world, Umunna asks: ‘what does public ownership mean in the 21st century?’10 Why it couldn’t mean roughly what it did in the twentieth is not explained. Instead, the case for ‘old-school’ public control is dismissed out of hand as necessarily ideological and a complex hybrid solution is offered, according to which the government would require ‘key public services to write the provision of benefit into their constitution’. The main advantage here appears to be ‘shareholders retaining their shares’.11 Whatever one’s views on public ownership, it simply will not do to write as if the case can be dismissed by describing it as ‘traditional’. This tired trope of the third way belongs in the twentieth century.

The war of the centuries

Umunna’s ambiguous use of a modernising ‘third way’ discourse leads to a contradictory assessment of the past. On the one hand he praises ‘the Post-War Consensus’, which he dates from c.1939 – c.1979: ‘That consensus vastly improved the material economic and social conditions of all people with the welfare state, educational provision for all and substantially reduced inequality’. But in the very next paragraph he arraigns those ‘hard-right ideologues determined to turn the clock back to the 1950s’.12 What, on Umunna’s own reading, was so bad about the 1950s?

Umunna claims to want to supersede ‘ideology’ with policies for the twenty-first century. But his proposals are largely stuck in the twentieth century, and are ideological. His wonkish suggestions for tax reform, railing against ‘taxes that act a disincentive to work’, are a good example of this.13 His concrete proposals include a hypothecated NHS tax (to raise an unspecified sum at an unspecified rate) and equalising taxes on income and wealth. While one might agree with either or neither of these proposals, any genuinely twenty-first century politics would have its eyes fixed on the ecological crisis—taxes on carbon at a minimum, to confine ourselves the topic at hand—and not add environmental window-dressing to a set of proposals that could otherwise have been drawn from a mid-century economics text-book. One does not need to look to the fringes of the left for innovative ideas here—even some Republicans in the USA support a fee-and-dividend carbon tax, whereby the revenue raised by the tax would be transferred on a direct and equal basis to all citizens in the country, the advantage of which is that even a steep carbon tax could be progressive.14

That Ummuna’s repeated invocations of the ‘twenty-first century’ disguise a desire to relive the twentieth is seen most clearly in the section on ‘International engagement’.  His imperial nostalgia will be grist to the mill of Lexiteers who’ve argued that it is not they, but Remainers, who cannot let go of Empire. Praising Ernest Bevin’s appropriation of ‘Winston Churchill’s … three overlapping majestic circles’, Umunna concurs that they ‘are still the best guide to our geopolitical interests and so to the foreign policy we need’.15 Bevin’s three circles were ‘the United States; a united Europe; and the Empire and Commonwealth’.16 Although Umunna doesn’t quite have the nerve to title a subsection ‘Empire’, the heading ‘Global Power’ leaves no doubt: ‘east of Suez is once again of strategic global importance’.17 By way of concrete proposals, what Umunna offers is mostly hawkish, such as raising defence spending to 2.5% of GDP and criticising Labour’s ‘anti-Trump hostility’, but he also proposes expanding the UN Security Council to include India, Brazil, Germany and Japan.18 Those looking for a twenty-first century politics in which Britain has faced up to its imperial past, in which Britain finally resolves to settle down to life as an ordinary European nation-state, and most of all one which confronts climate change as the number one international challenge of our century, will be disappointed here too.

Forward into the past!

To support Renewal’s work promoting productive debate across the British left and get the whole journal every quarter, please subscribe.​

Chuka Umunna, What Are Progressives For? (Progressive Centre UK, 2019), 9, https://www.progressive-centre.com/publications.

2 Umunna, 13.

3 Umunna, 10.

4 Umunna, 11.

5 Umunna, 11.

6 Harold Macmillan, The Middle Way: A Study of the Problem of Economic and Social Progress in a Free and Democratic Society (London: Macmillan and Co., Limited, 1938).

7 F. A. Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1960), 398.

8 Umunna, What Are Progressives For?, 14.

9 Umunna, 13.

10 Umunna, 20.

11 Umunna, 20.

12 Umunna, 10.

13 Umunna, 30.

14 Martin Sandbu, “Winning the Culture War over Climate Change,” Financial Times, December 7, 2018, https://www.ft.com/content/82554450-f888-11e8-af46-2022a0b02a6c.

15 Umunna, What Are Progressives For?, 46.

16 Umunna, 46.

17 Umunna, 46.

18 Umunna, 48.