Luke Akehurst: Is social democracy in crisis?

Luke Akehurst

Across continental Europe, social democratic parties are in crisis. In some cases – Greece, France, the Netherlands – they have already undergone an electoral meltdown, with vote share collapsing to under 10 per cent in a general election. This has primarily happened where parties of the centre-left were in government either as the leading party or a junior coalition partner during the post-2008 economic crisis and implemented austerity measures.

Both the coalitions inherent to the political system in most European countries with proportional representation and the fiscal rules of the Eurozone provided little scope for alternative economic approaches. The apparent hypocrisy of making cuts whilst having been elected with rhetoric and an ideological position miles to the left of the 1997-2010 UK Labour government have exacerbated the backlash.

This current crisis has just accelerated a decades-long decline in social democratic voting strength. The fragmentation of left votes to more left-wing challengers, such as the Greens, and populist right-wing parties has occurred for structural reasons – namely the decline in social structures that formed the basis of social democratic strength, including unionised heavy industries and mining. 

The Labour Party in the UK has broken that pattern twice.

First, Tony Blair was able to reverse the long-term decline in Labour’s vote share because he had an intuitive ability to feel the pulse of what the working class had become by the 1990s, what it aspired to be, and what the barriers to it voting Labour were. He addressed these first in 1997 by repositioning Labour to address deal-breaking positions on tax, crime and defence, while also implementing typically Labour increases in public spending and welfare transfer payments.

In 2005, Blair confronted a new set of issues around personal security, e.g. the ID cards pledge to address concern about illegal immigration and the “Respect” agenda around tackling anti-social behaviour. There were areas where his governments lost their way, such as marketisation of public services, but these were not substantial enough to push Labour into the kind of existential electoral crises now affecting many of its sister parties. Even the hugely unpopular Iraq War was followed by a third Labour election victory.

The second break from the wider European pattern came with Gordon Brown and Alastair Darling’s response to the 2008 financial crisis. Their approach was not constrained by the Eurozone rules or a more right-wing coalition partner, so they were able to respond with a bold Keynesian reflation of the economy. This had restored the UK to growth by 2010 and ensured that although Labour lost ground in that year’s general election, it avoided “Pasokification” (the meltdown of the Greek socialist party PASOK after it implemented austerity). They also avoided a party split along the lines of the 1931 UK model, when Ramsay MacDonald took a minority of his ministers into a coalition with the Tories to implement cuts.

Labour has traditionally managed to invent its own crisis every time it goes into opposition. The party does this by turning on its previous leadership and MPs and shifting sharply to the left, away from the swing voters who determine the outcome of elections. It happened in 1931, 1951, 1970 and 1979. Ed Miliband initially seemed to have avoided this with a more nuanced attempt to reinvent social democracy. But he failed electorally in 2015 and it became apparent he had only delayed the traditional internal crisis, and in doing so made it more severe when it arrived. 

Labour’s 2015 defeat had separate causes north and south of the border. In Scotland, it was clearly a backlash against the party’s role in the 2014 independence referendum. Scottish Labour saved the Union but in doing so temporarily destroyed itself electorally. In England and Wales, all the post-election polling showed Labour failed to make headway because it was perceived as untrustworthy compared to the Tories on immigration, the economy and leadership.

Labour members – or rather the influx of new members and registered supporters who joined in the summer of 2015 – decided to ignore the message sent by voters. Instead they channelled their own angst about the Blair/Brown period by shifting dramatically leftwards. The 2017 general election result shows Labour is not in the type of electoral crisis its sister parties in Europe are in, but it is in a crisis.

There have been positives that the whole party can agree on – engagement with the economic crisis faced by young people and clarity of message around opposition to austerity. In both cases Ed Miliband’s instincts were not dissimilar to the current leadership’s, but he lacked the political confidence to articulate them boldly enough.

Unfortunately there hasn’t been an honest discussion about the 2017 results. We have now lost for the third time in a row. Usually Labour asks after a General Election defeat “why did it happen?” and “how can we make sure it isn’t repeated?”, but this time there seems to be a lazy assumption that we will inevitably do better with one more heave next time.

It wasn’t just Labour’s vote that went up last year (by an impressive 9.6 per cent), the Tory vote also went up by 5.5 per cent. The swing from Conservative to Labour was an anaemic 2.05 per cent, whereas when we gained power in 1997 it was 10.2 per cent. It’s not clear whether we became more popular, or just picked up spare votes from the collapse of the minor parties. We did squeeze the Greens, but there were never very many of them; the Lib Dems have never recovered from the 2010 coalition deal; and Brexit means UKIP no longer has a raison d’être.

The new votes we got were hugely welcome yet distributed geographically in a way that is sub-optimal for a first past the post voting system. We piled up majorities of 20,000 or 30,000 in inner-city seats and university towns, but failed to make headway in many historic marginals in the Midlands and Thames Gateway. In terms of the relationship between votes and seats, it now takes Labour over 49,000 votes to get an MP, compared to 27,000 in 2005. We have gained 3 million votes since then but lost nearly 100 MPs! It’s as though we have forgotten how our electoral system works.

We also face a crisis about who we represent. We won affluent, student-crowded Canterbury, which is great (it’s my home town so I was particularly delighted it gained a Labour MP). However, we lost working class seats like Copeland, Middlesbrough South & Cleveland East, Mansfield, Walsall North, Stoke-on-Trent South and North East Derbyshire. You could draw a map showing former coal fields and in the 1980s these would have been the areas of strongest Labour performance by change in vote share – now they are the weakest. This is aside from the limited recovery in Scotland, where until recently we had 40-plus MPs.

Although we did best among young people, they still have the lowest turnout and the UK has an ageing population. 84 per cent of over 70-year-olds vote and only 19 per cent of them vote Labour. Failing to appeal to the elderly might make your party look cool, but it is a recipe for perpetual defeat. 

Class is no longer a great predictor of voting intention, as Labour got virtually the same vote share among each social class. This is great in terms of improving our position by 7 per cent with the professional middle classes (social class AB) since our 1997 landslide, but shocking in that we are 15 per cent down with the poorest (social class DE) and 10 per cent down with the next poorest (C2) groups since then, despite only a 4 per cent drop in our total vote share. If our purpose is to be the political voice in parliament of working class people and the least privileged, we are failing to do that.

There is a risk that we could see this trend continuing, and if we disappear down a rabbit hole of culture-war politics rather than addressing the core economic concerns of working people, we will end up like the Democrats in the USA or the French Socialists. We could win in the liberal cities and college towns but lose to the populist right in the Rust Belt, former mining and industrial communities.

In the opinion polls we are level-pegging with a disastrous Tory government when even Ed Miliband managed 10 per cent leads in the mid-term period, and we know from his experience that that isn’t enough. 

The party faces an ongoing internal crisis on three levels:

  • Absurd levels of factionalism, which are completely alien to Labour’s history and traditional culture. Selecting council candidates and branch secretaries on the basis of national factional alignment isn’t a recipe for a united party focused on taking on the Tories. The atmosphere in many CLPs is far from the comradely spirit that is Labour at its best. How does treating each other viciously indicate that we are well-intentioned people when it comes to running the country?
  • Conflict being deliberately stoked – over minutiae of procedural issues and confected outrage over minor policy differences, as well as genuine policy and ideological differences – between the leader and grassroots activists on one side and MPs and councillors on the other. This isn’t sustainable or attractive to voters.
  • A divide over Europe between the leadership (which includes some long-term anti-Europeans but is also making some shrewd tactical decisions to try to tackle the loss of working class voters highlighted above) and the vast majority of members, who are opposed to Brexit and prefer the softest Brexit possible if it has to happen.

Labour hasn’t addressed the concerns voters had about it in 2015, other than to try to tackle its weakness on immigration with an anti-freedom of movement policy, which is only deliverable with a hard Brexit and therefore anathema to most of our own members. It has added a fourth fundamental deal-breaker for many voters – defence and security. 

Labour has one type of crisis, and our European sister parties an even more severe one. But the underlying ideology of social democracy remains attractive, and even more historically justified now that both the socialist command economies of the Soviet era and the laissez-faire capitalist Thatcherite approach has been shown to have disastrous economic and social consequences.

What is not to like about the social democratic formula? 

  • We are not seeking to abolish capitalism but to promote social justice and greater equality within a liberal democratic political system and a capitalist economic system.
  • Markets should exist but be managed and regulated.
  • The economy should be a mixture of public and private sectors.
  • There should be strong public spending, particularly to reflate the economy when the economic cycle takes a down turn.
  • There should be a strong welfare state to redistribute wealth, and a strong health service.
  • Trade unions should be strong.
  • There should be a balance between freedom and equality – too much of either can damage the other, and the optimal society has high levels of both.
  • We should be as opposed to communism and other tyrannies of the extreme left as to fascism and other tyrannies of the extreme right, and retain the defence capabilities and international alliances needed to confront tyranny.

It is telling that many left-wing socialists and even Leninists, who until very recently scorned it and viciously attacked us as being insufficiently socialist, now embrace “social democracy” as a term. However, some give the game away about their real intentions with their stances on foreign policy. If you praise and defend tyrannies of the left like Cuba and Venezuela, act as an apologist for Russia or Iran or Middle Eastern terror groups or even North Korea, you ain’t no social democrat. 

We have also turned the page on the era when the memory of the treachery of the Social Democratic Party defectors meant that no one in Labour felt themselves able to describe themselves as a social democrat with a small S and small D. No rival party is now claiming to be the home for social democrats. It is only through winning back Labour to social democracy that we can get a social democratic government. 

There may be a crisis facing all the main social democratic parties but these are a set of ideas worth fighting to sustain. They represent the best hope of a future where humanity can live in peace, social justice, greater equality and freedom. The alternatives to the left and right are dystopian – worlds with no freedom or grotesque levels of inequality. The fight to rebuild social democracy is a fight we have to win for our children’s future.


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