Social democracy in the time of the virus

10 September 2020

Rather than worry about a Utopia that lies perpetually beyond the horizon, social democrats should be dedicated to the elimination of present evils and the expansion of practical freedoms.

David Coats

Rather than worry about a Utopia that lies perpetually beyond the horizon, social democrats should be dedicated to the elimination of present evils and the expansion of practical freedoms.

It is a commonplace on the left to say that economic crises create as many opportunities as challenges. We all, to varying degrees, believe that the state has a critical role to play in preventing mass unemployment and we all, perhaps with less disagreement, believe that the Right is either wrong or has nothing useful to say when confronted by the unprecedented conditions of Covid 19. What we also know from bitter experience is that strong convictions alone do not electoral victories make. No one can doubt the commitment of Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell to their particular conception of socialism. Yet only those with a deliberate desire to flee from uncomfortable realities can ignore the profound nature of Labour’s defeat in December 2019.

At the risk of alienating a good percentage of potential readers, a useful starting point is to understand how a tired Tory government was last ejected from power by a resurgent Labour Party – in the general election of 1997. Part of the explanation obviously lies in the fatigue and complacency that afflicts all governments after a prolonged period in power (Labour was equally exhausted in 2010). But Labour made a serious effort to win the 1997 election with a positive prospectus. It was not simply a matter of waiting for John Major’s government to engineer its own defeat. Careful and patient work had been done in opposition on the implementation of the National Minimum Wage, the introduction of tax credits, and the country’s new monetary and fiscal policy architecture. A limited number of areas for urgent action had been identified, consistent with Aneurin Bevan’s dictum that the ‘language of priorities is the religion of socialism’. Rejoining the mainstream of EU social policy by adopting the social chapter of the Maastricht Treaty, creating the devolved administrations in Scotland, and Wales, and imposing a windfall tax on the excess profits of the privatised utilities to fund the New Deal for the young unemployed were all rapidly implemented once Labour took power.

It should not be too controversial to say that Labour’s 2019 manifesto failed to meet Bevan’s standards. There was some grandeur in the vision, certainly, and the Corbyn leadership may have hailed the radicalism of the Party’s policies. But on closer inspection a “policy” was often little more than a slogan, an optimistic expectation or a narrow spending commitment. Free broadband, the abolition of the Thatcher-Major “anti-union” laws, the establishment of a ministry of labour, the Green New Deal and an end to tuition fees – there is something to be said in favour of each, perhaps. But together they made a pudding without a theme; not so much the longest suicide note in history as an indigestible dish prepared by a careless chef.

Nonetheless, it is equally wrong to believe that reviving the policies of the middle 1990s offers a route back to government. The problems confronting the UK today – including: the virus-induced recession, climate change, the ageing of the population, entrenched economic and social inequalities, the rise of nationalism and the consequences of Brexit – demand novel, radical and innovative policy responses.

A useful starting point is to recognise that, after a decade of electoral defeat, intellectual renewal is a precursor of political success. Labour is most likely to win a general election where there is clarity about the Party’s essential purpose, with this purpose embodied in a compelling policy prospectus. Contributions to this conversation should be welcomed from the full range of the Party’s traditions. My goal in this discussion, however, is to make the case for a revisionist social democracy – a once dominant current of opinion that has been much less influential in the recent past.

For many readers the term ‘revisionism’ may be more than a little opaque and difficult to fit into the usual interpretive lens of Blairites on the one hand and Corbynistas on the other. In straightforward terms, revisionists draw a distinction, for definitional purposes, between ends (social justice) and means (say, a commitment to public ownership). The routes to progressive advance are manifold and it is unwise to commit to one policy instrument above all others. More specifically, social democracy on this conception is an emancipatory philosophy. It is focused not just on formal freedoms but on what people can do with their freedoms. It draws quite freely on what is now described as the capabilities approach, as developed by Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum, which derives a notion of social justice from the belief that all human beings deserve respect and should be equipped with the wherewithal to choose lives they have reason to value.

The capabilities approach directs our attention to the consequences of policy, it enables us to identify precise benchmarks for progress and it allows the left to respond effectively to the criticism that we are more concerned with the pursuit of chimerical goals (an imprecise notion of equality of income or outcome) than with practical measures. Do people have real control over their lives? Are they subjected to unjustifiable inequalities or prejudices that restrict their paths through life? Can people make choices about what really matters to them?

This may sound somewhat individualistic, but the commitment is tempered by an understanding that people live in communities, that communities are collaborative enterprises sustained by shared experience and that, in the words of Chapter 1 Clause IV of Labour’s constitution, ‘by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone’. Roy Hattersley, in his important book Choose Freedom (1987), captured the essence of the idea more than thirty years ago:

‘Collective action is the means. Individual rights are the object – individual rights when properly defined as their extension to the largest possible number of citizens, and the provision, for those citizens, of the ability to make the theoretical rights a practical reality’.

Some readers may object that this notion of social democracy is too imprecise to be useful, or that it represents the abandonment of any commitment to economic transformation and the creation of a socialist society. The first objection can be dealt with easily because this approach is principally concerned with outcomes. It recognises the importance of evaluating policy effectiveness, embraces a willingness to experiment, and understands that failed experiments should be abandoned. The second objection is right, of course, but revisionism has, since the beginning of the twentieth century, rejected the notion that there is any end point to the road of progressive advance. Rather than worry about a Utopia that lies perpetually beyond the horizon, social democrats should be dedicated to the elimination of present evils and the expansion of practical freedoms. As Eduard Bernstein, former confidante of Friedrich Engels and the progenitor of revisionism, observed:

‘What is generally called the ultimate goal of socialism is nothing to me. The movement is everything’.

If we talk, therefore, as dedicated Corbynistas often do, about “the transition to socialism” or “transformational policies”, we fall prey to the temptation that rhetorical reach is preferable to policy grasp (a trap that was equally sprung on New Labour). There is an element of self-deception in the use of such language and we are misleading the electorate too. Even after five years of a Corbyn-led government, the British economy would have remained essentially capitalist, operating in an unavoidably capitalist world. The choice for the left today is not between socialism and capitalism but between the model of capitalism we have and the model of capitalism we want. Far from being an abandonment of principle, understanding the world as it is, having a resonant analysis of its deficiencies and accepting that there are limits imposed on practical possibility, can provide a strong foundation for a radical programme. Those countries with successful centre-left governments in power (New Zealand, Portugal, Denmark, Sweden and Finland) are all exemplars of this approach – and have to temper their ambitions to the demands of sometimes challenging and often improbable coalition partners. They are a practical demonstration that progressive politics cannot make the world ideal, but it can certainly make it better.