Futures for social democracy: the potential of British social democracy.

AuthorMcKibbin, Ross
PositionFeatures - Report

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...

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