In Defence of Social Democracy

3rd February, 2012 4:57 pm

Firstly, I would like to thank David Miliband for taking seriously the arguments which were presented in my recent article in The Political Quarterly, ‘In Praise of Social Democracy’ co-authored with Roy Hattersley. Obviously we disagree over the recent past and the future of the Labour Party, but this should be a debate over principles and not personalities.

What does David argue? The implication is that we are being intellectually complacent – lazy even – wishing to retreat into some kind of comfort zone, reassuring ourselves while failing to do what is necessary to win the next General Election. In fact it is the other way around, the complacency comes from David Miliband, and other Blairites in the party who wish to have more of the same, the ‘unfinished’ Blairite agenda of the pre-2007 era. It is this agenda which seems dated and irrelevant. David is correct, Britain and the world have changed – we are now in a ‘post-crash’ era – but it is the older Labour values that seem much more relevant now than Blairism.

I wish to make several arguments in response. Firstly, there is no trade-off between principles and power. We should not think, as some on the left have done in Labour’s past, that it is better to remain in opposition so as to be ideologically pure but nor is it necessary to sacrifice key principles in order to get into power. New Labour was incredibly cautious not only in the run up to the 1997 election, which is understandable, but afterwards. The feeling of most Labour supporters is surely one of regret. Labour did good things in power but overall the sense is one of a squandered opportunity. The fundamental purpose of a Labour government is to achieve greater equality. In this New Labour failed, if indeed it ever tried seriously to do so. Now the best hope for the Labour Party electorally is to be much more ideological.

Moreover, we should defend the central state. We did not argue that the state can do everything, nor is it perfect. There is plenty of scope for constitutional reform, for more effective central-local relations and for greater international cooperation between nation-states in a more global world. But what we should not forget is that the state is the only thing which can get us out of the economic mess and if there had been more effective banking regulation rather than championing a laissez-faire approach as New Labour did then the effects of the global banking crisis would not have been as severe as they were in Britain. New Labour left the British economy overexposed to financial services, lacking effective regulation and an absence of active industrial policy. This was surely the greatest failure of New Labour in domestic policy and we should never forget this. By saying that we should find alternatives to the central state David continues to miss this crucial point. It is the market – not the state – which should be the primary target for criticism and reform.

The contributors to The Purple Book and those associated with ‘Blue Labour’ share a commitment to extreme localism. David has re-emphasised that belief in his article this week. However, what is striking about this commitment is how pointless it is as a response to the major issues of the day. Few, if any, banks are based locally – perhaps they should be but they are not. It is incredibly difficult to see how effective economic regulation can be achieved by greater localism. Similarly, David wants to decentralise public services but at the same time fails to explain how this can do anything other than exacerbate the postcode lottery in welfare that Labour has historically sought to diminish. Greater powers can and should be given to local government but this also requires a compact between central and local government. The ‘big society’ is an attack not only on central government but also local authorities. An essential task for Labour is to defend the state, both central and local.

In the week that David chose to write his article Ed has effectively tapped into the sense of unfairness felt, legitimately, by the British people against astronomical bankers’ bonuses. We should have the confidence in our traditional values, not because we wish to retreat into our comfort zone but because they are both right and popular with the electorate.

Dr Kevin Hickson is Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Liverpool and co-author of “In Praise of Social Democracy”.

This was first posted at Next Left.

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  • Anonymous

    The OK what are labours traditional  values I use to know.

    Social housing,


    The Welfare State.




    Decent working conditions

    decent wages

    Well you could go and  people will know, so new labour and Browns labour saw none of this as important as banking, and keeping the middle class happy even saying we are all middle class now.

    I do not know what is Ed values, well not social housing, not education as he and his party agrees with the Tories, NHS well depends on what the public  says, wages are to be cut to the bone, Welfare  and the welfare state are all scroungers, work shy.

    So OK why the hell should anyone want to vote Ed Labour, David Labour or the Tories view because it’s all the same, Ed believes  if he tells all bankers are now under control the middle class will fall over it’s self to vote Labour.

    So the simple question which has been asked who are, what are Labour.

    I bet somebody will say  you have to vote Labour other wise the Tories will win, question is of course would we tell the difference answer nope

  • Anonymous

    In fact it is the other way around, the complacency comes from David Miliband, and other Blairites in the party who wish to have more of the same, the ‘unfinished’ Blairite agenda of the pre-2007 era. It is this agenda which seems dated and irrelevant.”

    Exactly: dated and irrelevant – and it will be even more so in three years time.

    • Anonymous

      The problem for labour now is getting back the people they have lost, the people who tried to stick with new labour hoping it would  change, sadly it did not and they walked away.

      Ed is not really striking me as being able to sell his idea of labour, it’s just to close to the new labour ideal.

      When I speak about members, labour will say we have had  a  good period with Liberals coming over to join us, but will they replace the people  who are really Labour, will those Liberal  end up going  back to  their party once they know an election is coming.

      I think Labour still a long long away from making people think it’s changed

  • Anonymous

    A good article.  Labour should be the party of the democratic state.  Sensible reforms to make the state more democratic could include more powers for local authorities that would be elected by proportional representation (STV).  I am also gradually being persuaded that the British state should be federal with devolution for England and more powers for the other three nations.

    • Anonymous

      I Agree the other countries should have more power, then you would not need to have an English government because Scotland NI and Wales would not be allowed to vote in England, so you could have have Cameron and Blair and Milibands both of them.

  • Peter Smart

    Just recieved notification of increase to my Pension begining in April . the so called 5.2% increase the TORIES said us pensioners was getting turns out to be HALF of that. SO Dodgey Dave keeps on spurning out Lies after Lies. If any pensioner reads this this is what you will get 2.6% increase.

  • Daniel Speight

     There seems to be an acceptance among the followers of David Miliband of the Tory argument that big government and spending on the likes of welfare and the NHS caused the economic problems we now have. It’s a lie and we shouldn’t let it pass. No matter how badly money was spent, and the last Labour government was guilty of many spending failures, this isn’t what caused the financial crisis. The crisis was the result of the bankruptcy of the financial industry. No matter what the right says this wasn’t caused by ‘bad’ regulation, it was caused by the lack of any regulation. It was the result of following neo-liberal practice and allowing markets to regulate themselves. I just want to repeat that. It was the failure of neo-liberalism that gave us the crash.

    That David Miliband seems to still want to push the line of Blair’s third way puts him in bed with the Tories and their claim it was big government that caused what we have now. Whether big government is good or bad is by the way, whatever it did do it wasn’t the cause.

    If you want someone to blame go dig up Friedman or put Greenspan on trial. You could even blame any politician who didn’t try and turn back the neo-liberal policies that had been introduced, and that includes Clinton, Brown and Blair.

  • David isn’t forthcoming as to what will replace the central state as the only source of public virtue.  The talk of localisation and community suggests a role for cooperatives but if that is to happen on the scale necessary to build a new economy, as some are proposing, then it will be a revolutionary change.

    My guess is that beneath all the presentation, when it comes down to practicalities, we’ll end up with proposals for a minimal state via privatisation and services will be delivered by multinationals like Carillion.

    And the multinational’s only interest in community or localism will be in paying lower wages to those living in areas where the free-market has already failed to provide sufficient employment.

    Or as Liam Byrne recently put it: “devolve power to speed up new ways of doing business”.

  • John Tree

    Labour needs to find a new narrative, at the moment we seem to be torn between ‘Blair Unbound’ in the shape of David Miliband, and ‘Brown Watered Down’ as promoted by the two Eds.

    We need to help people articulate their desires for jobs, security, a decent health service, and a fair pension, this is not extreme left nonsense, it’s basic bread and butter politics, and it could be paid for by judicious targetting of funds and a slight rise in the top rate of income tax, while cutting VAT to boost spending.

    Mainstream economists and commentators are pointing out that the Tory-Liberal cuts are trashing our economy and driving up the deficit – why can’t Labour?

  • Anonymous

    This is wonderful- and it feels like some sort of validation
    for what so many of us have been saying for so long.
    So good to hear this articulated crystal clearly by Dr Hickson
    and R Hattersley- someone I’ve always admired and
    listened to over the years.

    I cannot understand why a view so in tune with
    Labour values and connected to purpose could be
    see as threatening in any way?

    As Dr Hickson implies- now is the time to bring
    back together all the elements and core values,
    during a time in prospect of far greater “austerity,”
    frontline and community services being cut,
    escalating unemployment- especially affecting the
    future generation- and years of entrenched poverty
    and disparity between whole sections of society.

    I think this is about getting back to basics;
    that has nothing to do with “reassurance;”
    but facing reality squarely in the face
    and being prepared to do something about it;
    bringing people on board- building communities;
    challenging the status quo in big business/financial
    institutions and vested interests.
    That requires courage and conviction-
    not platitudes or soundbites.

    Many thanks for this- one of the hilights of LL
    I think- and so great that ordinary members
    and the public can openly discuss and debate
    these issues in a democratic way.
    That’s the way Labour should be heading
    I think- and it probably costs very little
    to implement via initiatives like the Refounding
    But has to be carried through and done well IMO!


  • Dave Postles

    In the memorable, recently revisited, words of Nicholas Sibley:

    “Giving capital
    to a bank is like giving a gallon of beer to a drunk: you know what will
    come of it, but you can’t know which wall he will choose. I never thought
    that, this time, the banks would choose a hedge.” 


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