Social democracy, party of values.

AuthorJobelius, Sebastian

From class mobilisation to social compromise

To become parties of values, social democrats must leave behind their current strategy of catering to coalitions of social groups and claiming to build a compromise between them (the 'social compromise model'). This would be a considerable transformation--the social compromise model has defined social-democratic politics since it replaced class mobilisation in the second half of the twentieth century--but social democracy has already proven its capacity for fundamental change. It has shifted gear twice before in its long history on an equally large scale, with positive results each time.

First, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, social democracy embraced class mobilisation during a time of intense and confusing competition between many alternative ideas for left politics. Social-democratic parties decided to mobilise industrial workers through class-based networks and identities, and they did this successfully whenever they managed to tailor the general principle of working-class mobilisation to national circumstances. (1) For instance, the German SPD used revolutionary rhetoric to instil hope for long-term change and motivate activism in a repressive environment, while the British Labour Party made good use of the existing instruments of parliamentary politics to achieve socialism through the legislative route.

Second, after 1945 (and sometimes earlier), economic growth, increasing prosperity, and access to democratic institutions reduced the popularity of class politics and its radical vision of sweeping change. Social-democratic parties adapted by embracing a cross-class appeal to coalitions of workers and other social groups. The SPD codified the social compromise model in 1959 in its Godesberg platform, the same year in which Labour first considered revising Clause 4 of its constitution--although it took until 1995 to formally abandon class mobilisation. However, both parties had already started to act like social compromise parties on many occasions before the model was sanctioned as the official party line. The social compromise model facilitated a long period of electoral success for social-democratic parties in Britain and Germany and many other European countries. (2) The electoral coalitions established by the social compromise approach also sustained a progressive policy agenda of welfare state extension.

The social compromise model was a success story for social democracy during the post-war era, just like the model of class mobilisation was a success story during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. However, as a result of fundamental political, social and economic changes (explained below), the social compromise model has ceased to be useful. It should therefore be abandoned in favour of a value-based approach, just like class mobilisation was previously abandoned in favour of the social compromise model when circumstances changed.

Social-democratic parties should become parties of values because the value-based approach offers convincing responses to new circumstances. Becoming a party of values means not only to hold values, but to make values the decisive rationale for all aspects of party behaviour. Value-based social-democratic parties would stop fashioning themselves as representatives of merely nominal social groups that exist only in the minds of party strategists. They would derive and justify their policies in reference to universal social democratic values.

Value-based policies

Economic and political change during the last few decades has rendered the national organisation of social compromise materially impossible. Specifically, globalisation, digitalisation and regional integration (even after Brexit) severely reduce the effectiveness as well as the popularity of measures that traditionally facilitated the legislation of national social compromises and the establishment of so-called welfare state support coalitions. This is why the social-democratic rhetoric of national social compromise (even or maybe especially when it is adorned by vague invocations of 'Europe') frequently sounds shallow. The social compromise model is not a viable point of departure for social-democratic policies anymore

By contrast, the party-of-values approach offers a promising foundation for developing social-democratic policies that respond in a convincing way to new challenges. Value-based social-democratic parties design, select, and implement policies based on a realistic appraisal of whether and how different policies advance social-democratic values such as freedom, justice and solidarity. This offers a real opportunity to devise universal and feasible policy agendas. For instance, the best way to establish health care that is comprehensive, high-quality and accessible to all citizens is to scrutinise new policies with a critical eye and judge them based on whether they truly advance social-democratic values of solidarity and social rights. This approach to policy-making is...

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