Re-building social democracy

By Robert Page

The rise of the populist right in both Europe and the United States poses a significant challenge to   democratic parties of the left, who have traditionally seen themselves as best able to promote the interests of the working class through a broad range of egalitarian initiatives.  This assumption has been challenged by the election of the Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump in the US, who proved adept at persuading a sufficient segment of the US electorate (most notably lower income white voters) that he could respond more positively to their needs, aspirations and fears than his Democrat opponent.  Similar stirrings can be seen across Europe

Geert Wilders’ far right Freedom Party is making strong headway in the Netherlands ahead of elections next year,  while  the run off for the French Presidency in 2017 might well involve a contest  between a candidate of the `right’ (François Fillon) and the `far right’ (Marine Le Pen).  There is also a possibility that UKIP may make further electoral gains particularly if its leading donor, Aaron Banks, is able to transform it into something akin to a `People’s Party’ that seeks to prioritise the position of  `just about managing’ (JAMs) white working class voters.  The far right Swedish Democrat Party (SD) is the exemplar in this regard.  The SD have made significant electoral advances in one of the cradles of social democracy by proclaiming that they are the only political party dedicated to protecting the `people’s home’ and defending the interests of `native’ workers.

What solutions do the social democratic left have to offer to the growing levels of inequality and related concerns?  In a collection of essays recently published by the Social Democratic Philosophy Group entitled Rebuilding Social Democracy some possible ways forward are sketched out by the various contributors in areas such as the public services, social cohesion, civil liberties, citizenship, the constitution and internationalism.  Pete Redford and I explore the themes of `welfare’ and equality respectively.   In my wide ranging chapter attention is given, firstly, to the changing approaches to equality within the British Labour party.  It is contended, for example, that the New Labour governments of both Blair and Brown diluted the party’s earlier commitments to greater economic equality and retreated from the party’s long-standing support for universalism and high quality state welfare provision.  Consideration is then given to some of the non-egalitarian aspects of the policy agendas of both the `Blue’ (represented by Maurice Glasman and Jon Cruddas) and `Purple’ (Progress/Policy Exchange) Labour perspectives.  The calls emanating from such groupings for greater `devolution’, diversity and personalisation are seen as highly problematic.  In charting the way forward it is suggested  that the Labour Party should seek to evoke `the spirit of 74’ by adopting the more uplifting narrative of the party’s  February 1974 Manifesto  Let Us Work Together. Labour’s Way Out of the Crisis which pledged  to `bring about a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of working people and their families’, the elimination of poverty both at home and abroad and the need  to attach for `far greater importance to full employment, housing, education and social benefits’.   In terms of specific policies, it is contended that Labour should consider some of the measures proposed by commentators such as Thomas Piketty, Tony Atkinson and Branko Milanovic including the introduction of a global capital tax and more progressive income tax bands.  It is also suggested that corporation tax and inheritance tax revenues should be earmarked for specific areas of social spending, such as a fully integrated National Health and Social Care service, as a way of signalling to both large corporations and those with substantial personal fortunes that they have social obligations to fund high quality welfare services for all.  

In his chapter on `welfare’, Pete Redford explores the `retreat’ from Beveridge’s social insurance ideas during the post-war era.  For Redford, the increased reliance on means-tested provision and greater degrees of conditionality has led to rising levels of unmet need and increased reliance on inhumane administrative rules and regulations.  Redford calls for a return to universalism and outlines the case for the introduction of Universal Basic Income (UBI).  Acknowledging that UBI has supporters (and detractors) from both the right and left of the political spectrum, he draws on the work of commentators such as Howard Reed, Stewart Lansley, Anthony Painter and Chris Thoung to sketch out a distinctive social democratic variant of UBI which he hopes will provide a `far-reaching solution to the problems of our current welfare system and wider society’. 

While there is unlikely to be unanimity amongst social democrats on the precise mix of policies that a left of centre political party should pursue at the current moment in time, this volume is a stark reminder of the vital importance of the need to engage in these broader debates given the portentous times ahead.

Note: Edited by Kevin Hickson, Rebuilding Social Democracy is published by Policy Press

Atkinson, A.B. (2015)  Inequality. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.
Fletcher, M. (2016) `The man who bought Brexit’, New Statesman, 14-20 October, pp, 25-33.
Frank, T (2016) Listen, Liberal: Or, Whatever Happened to the Party of the People?  London: Scribe.
Piketty, T. (2014) Capital in the Twenty-First Century.  Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.
Milanovic, B. (2016)  Global  Inequality. Cambridge MA. Belknap Press.
Painter, A. and Thoung, C. (2015) Creative Citizen, Creative State.  London: Royal Society of Arts.
Reed, H and Lansley, S. (2016) Universal Basic Income: An Idea Whose Time Has Come? London: Compass