Social democracy is dead. Now let’s move on
Across Europe, labour parties are reinventing themselves to stay relevant, but they’ve been redundant for decades.
At the Battle of Ideas in London on 29 and 30 October, Michael Fitzpatrick spoke in a debate titled: ‘Can social democracy survive the twenty-first century?’. An edited version of his speech is published below.
When I was first invited to do this talk, I thought a more appropriate title for it would have been ‘Did social democracy survive the twentieth century?’ The answer, I’m afraid, is no.
The other response I had was to go up to my loft and dig out a very old pamphlet that I wrote in 1978 called Who Needs the Labour Party? It was written in the moment before the 1979 General Election, in which Margaret Thatcher first came to power. It was actually published in September 1978 because, as people who remember that period know, then prime minister James Callaghan was expected to go to the country six months before he did. His great error was to delay the election; that delay contributed to his defeat.
But the point of that pamphlet was to call for an abstention in the election, an abstention from voting Labour, at a time when voting Labour would have been the traditional response among the constituency to which it was directed. It was about as popular as campaigning in favour of female genital mutilation. It’s hard to recollect just how profound that sense of loyalty, particularly on the left of the Labour Party and in the Labour constituency, was in that era. Certainly that’s something that has long disappeared.
The pamphlet came at the end of a turbulent decade which started around 1968, the annus mirabilis of the postwar period, the year when great eruptions took place. It was the end of the postwar boom, the collapse of consensus politics, the upsurge of trade-union militancy, radical politics across Europe, feminism, black power, national-liberation struggles around the world. It was the great upsurge, the return to significance of the Labour Party in national life after the postwar period when it had been pretty much marginal. Particularly, this time was about the rise of the Labour left.
William Wordsworth famously wrote of the period after the French Revolution, ‘What joy it was in that dawn to be alive, to be young was very heaven’. And that was what it was like in that decade between 1968 and 1978. It was a very dynamic and creative period, and the predominant sense – particularly among the young, the radical, the militant wing of the working class – was of the possibility of transcending capitalism. There was a widespread conviction that this was indeed possible, that it was possible to build an alternative social and economic system to the prevailing one. We were not talking about improving the safer neighbourhood scheme. That was not the objective of the youthful radicals of that period.
The problem that emerged towards the end of the Seventies was that the radical impulse had reached a barrier in the form of the Labour government that had come to power in 1974. It succeeded, through the mediation of its left wing, in containing that radical upsurge, particularly the militant wing of the trade unions, and it succeeded, through the form of the ‘Social Contract’, in making a deal which actually had the effect of containing wage demands, of winning the first round of cuts in public expenditure and generally creating considerable demoralisation on the left. The issue for the left was how to deal with that problem that the Labour Party manifested: that the party would become a vehicle for the containment of the radical movement rather than its advance.
One person who personified that problem in that period and after was Ralph Miliband, a man who has acquired some posthumous celebrity as the father of New Labour high flyers, Ed and Dave. At that time Ralph Miliband was well-known as a left-wing figure, an intellectual in the Labour movement. In 1961 he wrote a famous book called Parliamentary Socialism – Studies in the Politics of Labour. I notice there’s a lecture, if people are interested in this, commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the book next month at the London School of Economics, where Miliband was a lecturer.
The point of Parliamentary Socialism was to draw out the problem that the Labour Party had become a vehicle for containing the radical movement and the possibility of the transcendence of capitalism. How could the left deal with this? Ralph Miliband resigned from the Labour Party in the mid-Sixties and was part of a whole series of intellectual and organisational movements over the next 20 years to try construct some sort of alternative to the Labour Party.
One of the ironies of Miliband’s book is that it was republished in different forms every few years with a different introduction or a different foreword or a different afterword, all of which hedged around this problem of how the left could deal with the Labour Party. In 1976, he famously wrote that the ‘most crippling of all illusions’ was the idea that the Labour Party could be transformed into a socialist party. This was an illusion to which Ralph ended up being a victim. Because what happened in the succession of episodes through this period was that every time the Labour Party was perceived as a negative force, as betraying the forward-movement of labour, the attempt to create an alternative would emerge, and then an election would come along and the whole thing would be forgotten, which is what happened in the 1978-79 period.
The whole of the left argued that the Labour Party had all these negative characteristics, but still it was the lesser evil to the Conservative Party and so everyone should succumb and vote for Labour. That was what my pamphlet Who Needs the Labour Party? was a challenge to. It provoked a very negative response because it posed very directly a political challenge to Labourism, beyond the challenge of Miliband, in terms of its understanding of the whole Labour Party but particularly organisationally. It said, look, what’s really important here is that we need to build an alternative to the Labour Party rather than endlessly try to exist within it. The entire rest of the left, and there were different factions and fragments and movements of the left, all supported the Labour Party in the election.
Everybody knows what happened next. Thatcher triumphed. The 1980s was the decade of Thatcher. Her government went from strength to strength. The Labour Party had a brief flowering in the 1980s before it all collapsed at the end of the decade with the demise of the Soviet Union. This marked the end of class politics and, in a sense, the end of an era which opened in 1848. It was not just about the throwing back of the Russian Revolution, but of the whole gains of the previous 100 years.
In retrospect I think we can see that the period after 1968 was the last gasp of that time, when the dominant tension in world politics was between capital and labour, between the left and the right. Francis Fukuyama famously argued his thesis that this marked the ‘end of history’. Obviously it didn’t, but it did mark the end of politics in the old form. Particularly, it marked the end of the historic role of social democracy because its very existence was dictated by its relationship between the poles of capital and labour, between left and right, between the working class and the capitalist class, in terms of the working out of politics. And when that polarisation no longer existed then traditional social democracy no longer had a role and the parties of labour became redundant. A parallel process afflicted the right. The Conservative Party also disintegrated following this period, but that’s a separate, although related, story.
So the question is whether social democracy can survive this sequence of events. The answer is only by fundamentally reconstituting itself. The model for that of course is New Labour, which is a model that existed not only in Britain but in the rest of Europe as well. In other words, by negating its history as a party of the working class or as a party of the labour movement, as the party which had the goal of socialism, all these things were abandoned in quite explicit terms.
That movement had a transient success in the context of the whole Tony Blair phenomenon, and that had a very a short life expectancy with the instability of the current political world. And so you see all sorts of new alternatives now proliferating, interestingly colour-coded ones.
So now you’ve got Green Labour, and this is one option that has emerged in Europe where old parties of labour have gone into coalition with green parties. We’ve also seen Rainbow Labour, the idea of Labour being a multicultural party, which was quite successful for a period in London when Ken Livingstone was mayor of London. In a way, this foreshadowed the politics of celebrity as an alternative – Livingstone was the Arnold Schwarzenegger of British politics before Schwarzenegger had become successful in California. And that, too, has been a busted flush.
Then we have Blue Labour, which is close to my heart because it is represented by, among others, Baron Glansman of Stoke Newington and Stamford Hill. But Blue Labour also has some striking familiarity to me as someone who was brought up in Sheffield. It’s like the section of the Labour Party that related to the more conservative sections of the working-class population in terms of a general communitarian, socially conservative, anti-immigrant, anti-welfare outlook. There’s a constant reworking of the old themes out of the old locker.
We’ve also got Purple Labour. I don’t know if people have noticed Peter Mandelson’s attempt to create a Labour Party which is more responsive to the needs of the banking and financial sector. I can’t see that having much success.
There’s even a role for Red Labour and you see this throughout Europe, with rumps of old Stalinist, Trotskyist, old left, socialist parties coming together with varying degrees of electoral success. Because such is the incoherence of the political realm throughout Europe in the recent period that anybody can launch a campaign – look at the Pirate Parties now on the rise in Scandinavia and elsewhere, look at the Irish presidential election. The interesting feature of that is that, basically, anything could have happened. And that’s the state of the current political firmament. Virtually anything can happen in the world of politics due to the incoherence and instability that’s come into it, and so scandals and celebrity involvement and so on take priority.
Virtually anything can happen, that is, apart from a return to classical social democracy – that is not a possibility. The historic role that social democracy played is over. In a sense its heyday was a very long time ago, between 1890 and the First World War. It’s had a prolonged, posthumous existence since then, but it really is history.
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