The concept of the social democratic party and what Labour should do next

Photo: CCL

By Sam Lewis – Regular Contributor

Social Democracy is a vague term that means a variety of things to a variety of different people. In its absolute simplest terms Social Democracy is the idea that ‘Socialism’ can be achieved through democratic (and therefore there is the assumption of non-revolutionary) means. Of course this is a vague statement which inevitably leads to a range of interpretations. Once again simplifying there is debate over what ‘socialism’ means and exactly how one achieves this through democracy. No place are these disagreements more apparent than within the Labour party. From the range of thinkers who have been involved in the party over time such as Beatrice Webb, Ralph Miliband, Anthony Crosland and Anthony Giddens there has been plenty of differing interpretations of what social democracy means and in particular how this relates to the party. Of course, as one can see from the age range of the writers, this is nothing new but the reason I have chosen to write about this is that at the moment the party appears to be stuck on this idea. It feels like Labour has not presented a fresh idea of its own identity since 1994, instead relying on the past for inspiration for what the party needs to do to move forward. What I am proposing is that to get out of this rut the party needs to look back at the term social democracy. It is only by looking at this idea and particularly what it means to be a socially democratic party in 2023 that the party has any hope of moving forward. It needs to present something, which I hope I will be able to articulate, clear and modern in order to step out of the Conservatives shadow and create a clear vision for itself that people can get behind.

As we are now in the 13th year of Labour being in opposition it is clear that the party feels stunted. In particular it has felt that no leader has been able to present a new vision for the party that people can get behind. Ed Miliband was certainly culpable of this. Whilst he attempted to distance himself from New Labour he never really seemed to present an alternative. His initial big idea of ‘One-Nation Labour’ was an idea explicitly taken from the Conservatives. More importantly this idea was quickly scrapped reflecting a leader who was deeply unsure about what direction he wanted to take the party. He adopted radical policies but ended up running in 2015 on a soft anti-austerity message. Corbyn would appear to be a striking alternative to this. It is fair to say he certainly had a vision for the party. He made the anti-austerity message clear with strong commitments to ending tax and spend. However, it was always difficult to shake the idea that his ideas came from 1983. Whilst it is certain the media overplayed this with Corbyn’s use of the internet a clear example of a party modernizing, the comparison to 1983 is striking in ways the media had not intended. As with 1983 the party was lost to infighting between two polarized factions leading to a splintering into a new, if unsuccessful, party. Importantly, whilst Corbyn brought back anti-austerity measures from the 70s and 80s he also brought back the dark side of this period in antisemitism. Whilst the specifics of the scandal deserve an article of its own, it is my personal opinion that Corbyn mismanaged the crisis. Furthermore, it was evident of a left wing party that was made up of an aging group, one that needed to be refreshed if it wanted any credibility. What is certainly clear is that Starmer has clearly not offered anything innovative. Whilst there is still a general commitment to nationalisation, what has been so striking about Starmer is how little he has said. Whilst the actions of culling the membership are reminiscent of Blair, he lacks the vision or charisma to carry it through and convince people it is worth it.

What this means is that Labour has left the door open for the conservatives. This is not simply important electorally but also ideologically. What has been striking to me is that Labour has allowed the Conservatives to define the two key ideas of class and nation. This was seen in the 2019 election when, due to Corbyn’s silence of Brexit, Johnson was allowed to define who ‘real people were’ (people who voted for Johnson). For any party that is meant to represent the people this is disgraceful. What is disgusting is Starmer’s desire to accept an uncritical version of Britain. When Starmer speaks of Britain it harkens to a traditional vision of the nation that was created by Disraeli in the 1870s, it is the vision of Britain that won Boris the election and he clearly hopes that if he can coopt it then he will win back the seats lost in 2019. The problem with this is two-fold: on a simple human level it has meant that the ‘inclusive’ Labour party is apologizing for racism and xenophobia, something no party on the left should do. The more analytical issue is an idea that was presented by Hay when he spoke of New Labour. If one adopts Conservative ideas to win elections then you open the door for them to win power again. 

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