In Defence of Social Democracy

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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