Progressive Futures

Fragments in the ruins

8 October 2018
David Coats

The last decade has been dreadful for social democrats across Europe.  A series of devastating election defeats, the rise of right wing populism, and the erosion of traditional sources of support for the left have all created an environment where many parties are questioning their essential purpose.

These difficulties have been compounded by the election of Donald Trump, the UK’s decision to leave the European Union and the assault on the international institutions that have sustained the world order since 1945. A conventional approach to social democracy has apparently proved a weak foundation for electoral victory.

It is a commonplace to argue that most of these difficulties are explained by two factors:  the continuing fall-out from the global recession of 2007-09 and rising hostility to migration.  Contrary to conventional wisdom, however, I would argue that both factors are catalysts rather than the causes of the mainstream left’s present difficulties. In the absence of other critical factors it would have proved impossible for the populist right to awaken an exclusionary politics of national identity.

The Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter argued that “creative destruction” is the essential characteristic of capitalism. Businesses with new products and services can outcompete those rooted in the old order.  Technological progress is responsible for the death of established industries and the birth of new sectors of economic activity.  It is creative destruction that explains the shift in employment from manufacturing to services across the developed world, the creation of “left behind” communities  and the reality that many regions of the UK have never recovered fully from the deindustrialisation of the 1980s.  Much of the present concern about the digital revolution and apocalyptic predictions of the end of work spring from the same source.  If social democrats have made a political mistake in the last two decades (or more) it is to forget that capitalism, left to its own devices, creates radical economic insecurity for far too many citizens.

Everybody on the left is proud of the achievements of the 1945-51 Labour governments, which established the NHS, the welfare state and enshrined the pursuit of full employment as a central objective of economic policy.  But what Clement Attlee and his colleagues did not and could not do was change the fundamental nature of an economy characterised by capital, markets and technology.  Concerns about industrial change and the impact on the social bonds that sustain stable, resilient communities  all proved resistant to the standard  prescriptions of orthodox social democracy.  Indeed, since the end of the 1970s, Conservative governments in the UK have systematically dismantled those institutions (a robust social security system, effective trade unions and widespread collective bargaining) on which the post war system depended.  Citizens are now exposed to more social risks than in the past, what had seemed solid ground is now quicksand and for many people the social contract has been broken.

Of course, the 1997-2010 Labour governments did much that was admirable – establishing the national minimum wage, investing in public services, making a determined effort to reduce child poverty – but little was done to remake the institutional legacy of Thatcherism.  All governments, of whatever political complexion accepted this legacy with distaste, hesitation or alacrity.

Perhaps the best starting point today is to recognise that social democracy, if it is to thrive in the future, requires a profound intellectual renewal. In large measure, this is entirely consistent with the revisionist tradition, established by the German theorist Eduard Bernstein at the end of the nineteenth century: if social democrats fail to pay close attention to social and economic realities, adapting the means we use in the pursuit of clear and practical goals then the left’s programme will ossify, become irrelevant and leave parties apparently committed to change as bystanders rather than participants. It is possible to go further and say that social democrats need to be realistic about the ends they seek.  Are we committed to some fundamental transformation in pursuit of an end called “socialism”, believing that society can be remade to match an ideological blueprint or are we concerned with the elimination of present evils recognising that, in Bernstein’s words: What is generally called the ultimate goal of socialism is nothing to me. The movement is everything?

If Bernstein was right (and I would suggest that he was) then social democrats must be both empirical and rational.  We should avoid the rhetoric of extravagant claims, new dawns, shining cities on the hill or any suggestion of an immutable, ideal social order. Utopia, strictly defined, means “no place”.  In other words, our stance must be ethical, rooted in values rather than particular policy prescriptions.

Simply expressed, social democracy is an emancipatory philosophy which seeks to give practical effect to the notion that all citizens are deserving of equal concern and respect. We want to enlarge the practical realm of freedom for all citizens, recognising that a wide range of inequalities (income, class, race, sexuality and faith) can all operate as forms of coercion, preventing people from acquiring the capabilities they need to choose lives they have reason to value.  A left critic may say that this sounds more liberal than social democratic, but what makes social democracy different is the commitment to collective action, to the notion that individuals can only thrive in stable, inclusive communities.  In Roy Hattersley’s words:

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.

For most of the twentieth century social democracy could have been reasonably associated with the Brexiteers slogan:  take back control.  The idea that people should be able to shape the course of their lives, especially in the workplace, was the core purpose of Labour and its sister parties in Europe. It is a hallmark of our relative political failure that the populist right has purloined our words. The route to success for the left remains signposted by our commitment to give people real power and agency.

Precisely how social democrats should go about this enterprise remains an open question, but at this stage, given the left’s political difficulties, it is entirely appropriate to offer more questions than answers.  What is needed, more than anything, is an inclusive, pluralist, fraternal discussion between people with shared values.

A dispassionate observer might say that what passes for debate in today’s Labour Party is more about the organisational politics of factional victory than a serious effort to develop a new ideological synthesis.  Options are to be closed down and some ideas simply treated as illegitimate because their supporters can be so readily stigmatised as “Blairites” or “Red Tories”.  Experience teaches us that factional division is a recipe for defeat rather than victory.  Labour is successful when it recognises the multiplicity of (sometimes contradictory) sources contributing to the progressive stream and brings diverse opinions into alignment behind a programme that is both radical and practical.

No doubt some on the left of Labour would argue that there is no cause for concern because this is the position of the Party’s leadership – both Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, despite their previous political trajectories, have expressed support for an open discussion.  But there is a strong case for saying that the current prospectus owes more to the left populist than to the social democratic tradition and that the 2017 manifesto was a systematic evasion of the most pressing problems facing the nation.

For example, it is by no means absurd to argue for the renationalisation of the energy utilities to restore democratic control and prevent the price gouging of consumers, although there is a case too for more effective regulatory oversight should the industry remain in private hands.  In reality, however, both possibilities avoid the more important (and existential) question, which is how does Labour develop an energy policy that guarantees achievement of the carbon reduction targets specified in the Paris agreement? In this context the issue of ownership is secondary.

Moreover, despite the pervasive rhetoric that income inequality is a problem, the 2017 programme would, over five years have left the bottom fifth of the population in a worse position, with middle class incomes rising somewhat.  This is the result of the commitment to abolish student tuition fees and silence on whether the Conservative’s benefit cuts would be reversed.

Recent developments suggest a continued turning away from the realities.  Of course, there is a case to be made for the Universal Basic Income, at least in theory, but would Labour’s energies not be better spent in developing the case for an insurance based system of social security with a strong element of universalism, most notably in the payment of child benefit?

Perhaps the best way to characterise the task ahead is to say that the 2017 manifesto proved surprisingly popular but would have proved difficult to implement in practice.  Leaving aside the fiscal realities, the nationalisation programme alone would have consumed a vast amount of parliamentary time, allowing little space for progress on other priorities.

If social democrats are to recover from the last decade then persuasive answers are required to the following four questions:

Why is the world the way it is?

What’s wrong with the world as it is?

What do we propose to do about it?

Why should the electorate trust us to make the right judgements?

That Labour is failing to produce a resonant response is reflected in current opinion polling, with the government enjoying consistent small leads and a much larger advantage on questions of economic policy competence.  In normal political circumstances the principal party of opposition should be much further ahead of a weak, divided and tired government.   Social democrats must understand the causes of their own weakness if progress is to be made.  The left wins when it is optimistic, credible, practical and has a programme matched to the needs of the times, which draws on all the legitimate strains in the progressive tradition.  Openness, pluralism and a willingness to experiment are all essential for electoral success.  It remains to be seen whether the left (broadly defined) can rise to the challenge.