The Socialist Way is the most intellectually compelling attempt yet to define Ed Miliband’s “one nation” Labour project. The red thread running through the book is that while “Third Way” social democracy made modest improvements to the social and economic fabric of Britain, it was ultimately a profound disappointment. In the view of the editors, Roy Hattersley and Kevin Hickson, Labour under Tony Blair traded principle for power and abandoned its historic commitment to greater equality. When the financial crisis struck, the moderate achievements of New Labour were washed away as easily as they had been enacted. The Socialist Waysuggests that it is time to reclaim the mantle of social democracy. The British electorate, it says, has shifted irrevocably to the left in the aftermath of the financial crisis: a new egalitarian settlement is, at last, within our grasp.
The book has an aura of The Spirit of ’45 about it – Ken Loach’s film about the rise and fall of the postwar social contract. Nevertheless, the authors appear divided as to whether Miliband is a latter-day Clement Attlee, a “Thatcher of the left” forging a new egalitarian consensus in British politics or an altogether more centrist figure in the mould of Harold Wilson and his “white heat of technology”, rejuvenating British capitalism for an age of heightened global competition.
The best chapters in the book urge Labour to strike out boldly and rediscover the courage of its ideological and intellectual convictions. As Hattersley exhorts in his stirring introductory essay, “Principles are the way back to power.” In his essay, Bill Keegan entreats the party to develop a Keynesian response to the post-2008 crisis, avoiding the trap of coalition austerity. Stewart Lansley makes a persuasive case for economic equality: a future Labour government should incorporate pay ratios into its macroeconomic policy as a bulwark against instability. Ruth Lister urges a renewed commitment to a more equal society through a redistributive strategy that drags public attitudes in a progressive direction. Robert Page examines the underlying tensions between centralism and localism in the welfare state: any move towards greater localism inevitably entails a trade-off with equity. Michael Meacher, meanwhile, contributes an incisive essay on environmental sustainability.
Other chapters engage lucidly with the complexities of governing in the contemporary world. Raymond Plant contributes an outstanding essay on public-sector reform, although the conclusions do not sit easily with the overall tenor of the book. As Plant contends, social democrats will always maintain a distinction between the state funding of public provision and a pluralistic approach involving private, voluntary, as well as public, providers. What matters are safeguards ensuring equity of access that sustain common citizenship alongside community and user involvement. In an erudite essay, Andrew Vincent affirms the status of social democracy as a “hybrid” ideology with “a sober, but realistic, understanding of the possibilities and limits of politics”. This lays down a significant challenge: can there be social democracy without the centralising state?
Throughout the book, various authors insist that New Labour lived too much in the shadow of Thatcherism. While there are many reasoned proposals put forward, the contributors appear afflicted by the same caution and moderation they discern in New Labour. If Miliband wants genuine outriders, they aren’t generally to be found in the pages of The Socialist Way. For instance, the most significant driver of inequality in Britain is the division between those who own productive assets and those who do not, alongside the ability to hoard wealth and advantage across generations. So why not call for a wealth tax combined with a reform of inheritance tax?
If the book’s proponents want to achieve a more equal society, what about a “citizen’s income” that guarantees every individual a decent standard of life and supports the growing numbers no longer in paid work but who exercise other responsibilities such as caring? And what about a Nordic-style universal “cradle-to-grave” care system, which not only gives parents the choice as to whether to work or not but raises the female employment rate and improves outcomes for the most disadvantaged children?
No one is more conscious than Miliband that he is leading the Labour Party during a period in which the left is at a perilously low ebb across Europe. That does not mean social democracy belongs in the past. The agenda of the next decade will be dominated by such issues as the growth deficit, the costs of economic restructuring, climate change, an ageing society and sustainable pensions – all of which require the kind of collectivist institutions and public-interest politics ably articulated in The Socialist Way.
There is no reason why social democracy should be an ideology whose best days lie behind it, as long as its advocates face up to the tough choices integral to any bold, egalitarian strategy.
Patrick Diamond is a research fellow at the University of Manchester