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The potential of British social democracy

Ross McKibbin


First published in Renewal Vol. 15, No. 2/3 (2007)


The Labour Party in the last decade has mistakenly believed that social democracy and modern Britain do not fit. Social democracy is probably now better grounded than it has ever been.


Whether social democracy has a future in Britain has been long debated, though the fact that its future has been long debated implies that it has never actually died. That people have always thought it was dying was due to the relative electoral failure of the Labour Party – at least until the 1990s – and to often profound disagreements as to what social democracy was or should be. That we are once more debating its future suggests that it still exists but that such disagreements also still exist.

The usage ‘social democracy’, however, is in Britain a fairly recent one. Historically, as a label it was usually continental and adopted by Marxist parties – the locus classicus being the German Social Democratic Party – or parties influenced by Marxism. Before 1914 the only British political grouping to call itself social democrat was the Social Democratic Federation, the one significant British party to be consciously influenced by Marxism. The word conventionally employed to describe the policies of the Labour party was ‘socialist’; but even that was contentious. Any Labour candidate who stood as a ‘socialist’ as well as ‘the Labour Party candidate’ was likely to lose official endorsement: before 1914 certainly and thereafter probably. The tendency to describe the policies of the Labour Party, or what should be the policies, as ‘social democratic’ does not come until the 1950s and is associated with the Party’s ‘revisionist’ wing, roughly speaking the Croslandite wing – though even its house journal was called Socialist Commentary. In so far as it had international roots ‘social democracy’ became associated with Scandinavia – increasingly thought the desirable exemplar. Our use of the term social democratic as a description of the Labour Party’s political traditions as a whole is even more recent and is historically hardly warranted. Furthermore, in an unexpected turn, it has taken on a ‘left-wing’ character. It is now an oppositional term, on the whole used by those hostile to the dominance of New Labour within the Labour Party, and by those anxious to defend at least something of what they take to be the Labour Party’s historic traditions.

But if we want to establish whether social democracy has a future, whether there is something worth preserving of its traditions, we need to know what we are talking about. Is there a ‘core’ which all of us would agree is central to social democracy? I think there is, largely because social democracy, both here and in Europe generally, emerged from political movements which, though always social coalitions, were originally dominated by the industrial working class, both in practice and by accepted convention. This dominance produced a set of policies – perhaps aspirations would be a better word – which were agreed to be central.

One: there was a clear suspicion of ‘capitalism’, of the workings of the market and capitalist individualism. Even if the efficiency of capitalism was accepted, such acceptance was grudging. Furthermore, capitalism distributed its rewards unfairly. Those at the top did better than was economically or morally justifiable. And capitalism was thought to be inherently unstable – something argued by Keynes as much Marx. Both the power and the deficiencies of capitalism therefore demanded an active state. That state would not only redistribute income more fairly – by direct and progressive taxation – it would also protect the ordinary man and woman from the vicissitudes of life. Its capacity to take the ‘long view’, to correct capitalism’s alarming cycles, meant the state should be a powerful agent in economic management.

Two: suspicion of social individualism accompanied suspicion of economic individualism. Social democracy was thus committed to the public sphere. It believed in collective action as a matter of principle, not just as a way of redistributing wealth. Collective action was a guarantor not only of social fairness but also of social solidarity. Societies with large and vigorous public spheres simply worked better, so it was argued, than societies with low levels of collective action. Institutions which encouraged solidarity were themselves to be encouraged. It is this, for instance, which accounts for the hostility towards private or religious educational systems common to most social-democratic movements, and the assumption, for example, that a common education promotes social solidarity while a differentiated one promotes social dislocation as well as unearned privilege.

Three: the public sphere is conceived as democratic and most social-democratic movements have supported a democratic idea of citizenship and political action. That usually involved reformed electoral systems and the democratisation of the state’s institutions.

Hitherto – outside ‘welfare state’ issues – the extent to which the British Labour Party, our form of social democracy, has adhered to these principles has been limited. It has been reluctant to infringe individual rights when they conflict with social rights or if they are strongly defended. The educational system is a good example. Although the case for abolishing independent and religious schools is strong on social-democratic grounds the Labour Party has made no attempt to do so. Its reluctance to touch them has been due to a belief that individuals should be allowed to choose the manner of their children’s education and to a fear that the churches and independent schools are simply too powerful for the Labour Party to take them on. (Although most grammar schools eventually disappeared after 1965 no Labour government ever compelled local authorities to do away with them, which is why they survive in some counties.) In an older generation of Labour MPs there was probably also the feeling that it was not an important issue: a revealing case of how narrow the old Labourism could be.

Does the social democracy I have outlined above have a future? In my view it does. What is no longer at issue, however, is capitalism. That a social-democratic economy will be predominantly capitalist and market-based seems unquestioned – if it ever were seriously questioned. What is at issue is the kind of capitalism we want. One model is the neo-liberal one: largely unregulated, determined almost exclusively by a particular conception of the market and one whose favours go disproportionately to the rich. The other is broadly social democratic: one where the state remains an active agent, which has high levels of social expenditure, has a clear redistributive function and where the market is defined as a social institution rather than as a casino. What is hard to see is such a state becoming once more a large-scale owner of the country’s assets. It might be better if it did – see Britain’s railways and water supplies – but the political will plainly is not there, even though the population would cheerfully see railways and water renationalised.

But that they would is important. However superior the values of a social democratic society might be, however much social solidarity it encourages, it is not much use of if the majority of the electorate dislikes it. But all we know of public opinion suggests that the social-democratic model is the one preferred. Opinion polls can be misleading and people might be reluctant to admit that it is capitalism red in tooth and claw they want; but if that is so a century of polling will have to go out the window. There is no inherent conflict between capitalism and social democracy so long as we know what kind of capitalism we seek, how we wish it to be shaped and for what purpose.

Popular attitudes to wealth are also almost certainly not neo-liberal. There is not much hostility to the rich as such, and the rich – especially if they are people like Richard Branson – are often admired. But there is now much more scepticism about their claims to superior wisdom and virtue. Throughout much of the twentieth century people justified voting Conservative on the ground that it was the party of the wealthy and the wealthy were more fitted to rule because they were wealthy: wealth was a mark of their competence. Very few now think this. Very many, however, think there is only a fine line between wealth and sleaze. Once the Conservative Party became openly the party of plutocrats it lost its traditional reputation for fairness, for a capacity to rise above sectional interests, with disastrous electoral consequences. The Labour Party’s relaxed attitude to wealth, the pleasure that Tony Blair plainly finds in the company of the rich, or in the houses of the rich, has done Labour no good either. People believe that you need the rich, that making money is legitimate; but they are suspicious of them, doubt that they all deserve their wealth and assume that the rich in their approach to society are driven as much by selfishness as anything else. To describe that as a social-democratic view is perfectly reasonable.

The same is true of ‘choice’. The intellectual domination of both the Conservative and Labour Parties by market politics has led to policies – or would be policies – that are often simple fantasies. The analogy between ‘choice’ provided by a supermarket and ‘choice’ to be provided by the health or educational systems is wholly spurious. The notion that the population will spend all its time on the internet worrying about league tables and trying to discover which school is best for the particular needs of their children whatever they might be and which hospital (and where) is best for arthritis is simply absurd. In fact, people are reluctant do it even at the supermarket, where there are high degrees of neighbourhood loyalty. There is nothing surprising or reprehensible about this. People do not have the time, the energy or, in many cases, the expertise to be constantly making ‘choices’. Nor, of course, do they have access to informed and cunning financial advisers. The fiasco over private pension provision demonstrates what happens when people are forced to make choices while they are not in a position to do so. Bush’s proposals for privatised social security in the United States were largely killed by a recognition of this. What experience suggests and what people have repeatedly said is that they want reliable public-sector provision – good local schools, good local hospitals, good state pensions. They do not want the treadmill of ‘choice’. Here the social-democratic view of society simply corresponds to reality. But people will be driven on to the treadmill if politicians keep denying that reality.

Those who are sceptical about the future of social democracy argue fairly that historically social democracy has been associated with large industrial working classes. As they decline so will social democracy. And the industrial working class has declined in Britain more spectacularly than anywhere else. When the Labour Party was founded about 75 per cent of Britain’s workforce were manual workers. Today the figure is closer to 35 per cent and falling. If social democracy is indeed ideologically and electorally dependent on the manual working class then its future is grim. But there is no reason to suppose that there is such an identity. In the 1930s, for instance, when the proportion of the workforce who were manual workers was twice that of today and the Conservative Party was triumphant the future of social democracy seemed much bleaker than it does now. What made a successful social-democratic politics possible during the second world war was not more workers but the fact that people changed their minds and their political allegiances: most were working class but many were not. There is no inevitable connection between what people do and their political beliefs.

But there is a clear relationship between trade union membership and supporting the Labour Party and the social-democratic policies it has usually espoused. And that points to an apparent paradox: that the Labour Party’s greatest successes have occurred at a time when the industrial working class has never been smaller. Much of the now very large middle class has voted Labour in the last decade, or has voted tactically, i.e., anti-Conservative. New Labour has no explanation for why this has happened. Indeed, it has no explanation for why the Conservatives lost at all in 1997 since its view of the contemporary electorate was essentially Mrs Thatcher’s view. The electorate, according to this view, is individualist, devoted to ‘choice’ and hostile to collective action and the public sphere. As I have suggested above, however, if we examine modern public attitudes we find that this is rarely true.

There is, furthermore, another apparent paradox: that the weaker are the links between declining trade unions and their working-class base and the Labour Party the stronger is the political support for social democracy. One of the major impediments to the Labour Party’s continued expansion after the second world war was the dislike many people, particularly women, felt for the unions and the whole antagonistic masculine world of Labour politics. This dislike was felt almost as much in the working class as in the middle class. And it was felt by people who in general supported the policies of the Labour Party. They just would not vote Labour to secure them: because Labour meant trade-union bullying. It can hardly be said that the Labour Party today represents trade-union bullying; other forms of bullying, but not trade union. This has had a remarkable influence on women’s voting. Historically, one of the main props of the Conservative Party’s predominance has been its command of the women’s vote. Its lead among women always exceeded Labour’s lead among men. That gender difference has largely disappeared. In the last three general elections at least as high a proportion of women voted Labour as men, and possibly more. That can partly be explained, perhaps, by the entry of women into the workforce (a higher proportion of women are now ‘economically active’ than men) but as much because the Labour Party has now ceased to be off-putting to women. And women, despite their tradition of supporting conservative parties, are, in a sense, probably more natural social democrats than men: they, for example, prefer health to war and social responsibility to social conflict. (See what the Iraq war has done to Labour’s female vote.) We should also note that this is an international phenomenon: 48 per cent of women voted Socialist in the recent French presidential elections compared with 46 per cent of men. In the United States the extent to which the Democrats have become a ‘women’s party’ is thought a matter of course. None of these things were true fifty years ago.

In this case, social change has favoured rather than inhibited social democracy. British politics is now replete with paradoxes. Not least has been the role of Thatcherism in promoting social democracy. Mrs Thatcher set out to destroy ‘socialism’ politically and one way was to destroy the working class both physically and as an attitude of mind. This had a number of unintended consequences. One was almost to destroy the old Tory working class – historically the largest part of the Tory vote – the effects of which are to be seen in the almost non-presence of the Conservatives in Britain’s principal cities (London partially excluded). The second was, as I have suggested, to free many people, particularly women, of their fear of the Labour Party. The third was to undermine the old class structure and its ideological and deferential underpinnings. The huge middle class which has emerged in the last thirty years or so is much more ‘democratic’ than (say) the middle class of the 1950s: less respectful, more sceptical, no longer much attached to the view that certain people (usually Conservative) have a special right to rule, more fluid in their political allegiances. And not in fact hostile to the public sphere.

Even within what were once the old professional classes – lawyers, doctors, teachers, dons, clergymen – there have been profound changes in political allegiance. In 1997 more people in these professions voted Labour than Conservative; something once inconceivable. In 1987, for the first time, the majority of those with university degrees did not vote Conservative. Since then that majority has simply increased. There are no doubt many reasons for this but one almost certainly lies in attitudes to the state. These are now professions which all have a vested or ideological interest in the state. We might compare the attitude in the medical profession today to the NHS with its attitude in 1948. In education the privatising proclivities of both the Conservatives and New Labour have been strongly opposed by most of its practitioners. Legal aid, notoriously, forms an important part of the legal profession’s income and its levels always therefore contentious. It is arguable that the remarkable decay of the Conservative Party in Scotland is primarily due to its desertion by the professional middle class: always in Scotland a class which had a close relationship with the state. In practice what has happened is that the ‘public’ middle class, which has always tended to support a loose social democracy, has been greatly augmented by people who in the past never thought social democracy had much for them.

There remains the question of constitutional and electoral reform. Traditionally, this kind of reform has not mattered much to British social democracy as represented by the Labour Party. Unlike most continental social-democratic parties and unlike earlier periods in Labour’s history, the Labour Party has shown little interest in reforms to our political system and indeed has often been suspicious of them. For many of the continental parties political reform was often the first step; for Labour it usually has been the last step. Labour’s suspicion of such reforms has been partly calculating – in a winner takes all system if you win you can take all – and partly a result of intellectual inertia and a reluctance to admit that the historic British political system was seriously imperfect. That has now changed; but once again Labour has balked at reforms of the ‘imperial’ parliament at Westminster, at establishing in Britain what it has established in Scotland and Wales. Once again it has been ready to risk long periods of powerlessness rather than negotiate with other parties in order to stay in power. This is bad politics – but also undemocratic politics. Electoral reform is not essential to the future of social democracy – we can continue without it – but a more representative electoral system should be a part of any democratic society.

The Labour Party – which is still a sort of social-democratic party – in the last decade has squandered many of its opportunities and the potential of British social democracy by refusing to accept that when people say they are fed up with ‘choice’ that is what they mean, as they mean it when they tell the pollsters that crime and immigration are not the most important issues for them at a general election; by misinterpreting the attitudes of Britain’s now immense middle class; and by mistakenly believing that there is a necessary ‘fit’ between social change and particular ideologies – that, for example, social democracy and modern Britain do not fit. They do, or can, fit. For the reasons I have suggested social democracy is probably now better grounded than it has ever been. But it requires political will to realise its potential.