In Scotland, Labour faces replacement by nationalists. Photo: Getty
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Social democrats face irrelevance at best, extinction at worse

Labour could find itself in office come May, but without the power to act. Social democrats everywhere need to understand the crisis they are in and how much they need to change.

Is social democracy already dead and like the proverbial headless chicken are we simply running round the yard on instinct before we topple over for good? If social democracy is still alive, it’s hard to know how or why. Let’s look at the evidence.

No social democratic party anywhere in the world is on the front foot. Sure, parties may find themselves in government – as they do in Denmark, Germany and France, in their own right or as part of a coalition – but this happens by accident and tends to be down to the failures of the right. And in office, social democrats tend to follow austerity or austerity-lite measures.  No social democratic party has a strident and confident set of intellectual and organisational ideas that propel a meaningful alternative political project. The future looks incredibly bleak. Why?

The reasons are not hard to find.  Social democracy is a 19th-century construct that achieved some successes in the 20th-century but is hopelessly prepared for the 21st century. This is because all the forces that once made social democrats strong have disappeared. The collective experience of the war, the existence of a unified, organised and seemingly growing working class and the brooding presence of the Soviet Union – a threatening alternative to free markets that forced big concessions from employers who feared revolution happening in the West – all combined to ensure that capitalism momentarily made historic compromises with social democratic parties. 

With hindsight, this "golden era" should be viewed as a historic blip but social democrats have continued to mistake it as the norm. They then compound this error to devastating effect. Having lost their external sources of power, they focus almost entirely on electing ‘the right leaders’ who, they believe, will re-enact the ‘golden era’ from above. This is a technocratic politics devoid of movements, any understanding of historic context or the geo-politics that shapes the everyday actions of politicians and people alike. Social democrats are surfers without waves.

But time has not stood still. The 20th-century underpinnings of social democracy have not just evaporated, but have been replaced by other hostile forces. Globalisation and individualisation act as pincers to further restrict the possibilities of any social democratic renewal. Globalisation – the flight of capital and the downward pressure on taxes and regulation it engenders – signals the death knell of socialism in one county. Meanwhile, individualism and the culture of turbo-consumption make social solidarity difficult to say the least.  In such a world, not only have we thankfully lost the sense of deference that made much of the paternalistic social democracy of the last century possible, but the good life has become something to be purchased by the lone consumer and not collectively created by the citizen. The endless formation and reformation of our identities through competitive consumption destroys the very social fabric that social democracy needs to take root. Today, it would seem, there is no alternative.

The brief upturn in the electoral fortunes of social democrats in the mid 1990s around the third way, the new middle and Clintonism was won at the expense of the further erosion of an increasingly ignored electoral base. In the mistaken belief it had nowhere else to go, core support was traded for core values and reliance pinned on a dysfunctional financialised capitalism that backfired spectacularly in 2008 with social democrats caught with their fingers in the neo-liberal till.

This existential crisis of social democracy finds its ultimate expression in the continuing crisis of capitalism. If the historic goal of social democracy is to humanise capitalism, then the way in which public finances have been used to bail out the banks at the expense of the people who are capitalism’s victims, proves the paucity of the social democrat position.

Where the crisis hit hardest, the social democrats fell furthest and fastest. Today PASOK in Greece barely exists. The PSOE in Spain are fairing badly and have ben overtaken in the polls by Podemos – a party less than a year old! In Scotland, Labour faces replacement by nationalists. Everywhere else, social democrats struggle as populism and an anti-politics mood sweeps Europe.

All of this is obvious. But social democrats seem unable to do anything more than shrug and go back to the same orthodoxies. They push at the edges of fiscal and regulatory boundaries but never really break with the constraints of neo-liberalism. They act as if the same class divisions existed, still take their core voters for granted and behave as if the planet wasn’t finite. They vie for office, to pull leavers that have long since rusted and ceased up. The baggage of the past just seems too heavy to let go.  Adopting Einstein’s definition of insanity – they do the same thing again and again and expect a different outcome.

So what is to be done? Social democrats are going to have to be brave – really brave – or face irrelevance at best, extinction at worse. There are three key challenges.

The first challenge is to redefine the meaning of the good society. Social democracy has focussed for too long on the material. Yes we want greater equality, but does that mean just more and more consumption in a race that can never be won? If the workers plasma TV can never be big enough then capitalism always win. The the treadmill of competitive consumption simply undermines any hope for social solidarity as much as it wrecks the environment. Instead of more things we didn’t know we wanted, paid for with money we don’t have, to impress people we don’t know, social democrats are going have to talk about more of other things – more time, public space, clean air, community and autonomy.  This suggests a politics of working time limits, workplace democracy and ownership, a citizen’s income and stringent carbon controls.

The second challenge is a radical shift in terms of internationalism. If capitalism has gone beyond the nation, then social democracy has no option but to follow. It needs to regulate and control markets wherever they do damage to people or the planet. Yes this is difficult, and yes it means surrendering sovereignty. But power is empty if wielded at the national level when economic decisions are being made in other countries and on other continents. The politics of this would start at a European level around issues like a continent wide minimum wages and corporation tax rates. 

The third challenge is cultural. Social democrats are going to have to let go. There is no place for elected vanguards, who do things to people and for them. Social democrats are going to have to know their new place as just one source of empowerment for citizens. Instead of pulling policy levers, the job is to create the platforms so that people can collectively change things for themselves. This is a more humble role, but essential and entirely possible in a networked society in which the internet has become the main nexus for human culture. Parties need to open up and out. They need to see themselves as simply part of much wider alliances for change, and not the sole repository of all wisdom and action. Parties are going to have to become really democratic, localising power and building platforms for collaboration around things like energy, loans and new media.

These challenges are huge and the scale of transformation enormous. Think of the sudden the fall of Kodak and the rise on Instagram. Can the challenges be met? We simply don’t know. While we mustn’t underestimate the scale of the transformation necessary to make social democracy relevant to the 21st century, neither should we underestimate our capacity for change. Decline is not inevitable. Energy is out there but social democrats are going to have to find out new ways to tap into it. Everything is down to the political decisions we make. A new political alliance can be built out of the resource poor and their time poor alter egos.  But the clock is ticking and we have been warned.

Neal Lawson is chair of the good society pressure group Compass. His most recent publication, with Indra Adnan, is "New Times: how a politics of networks and relationship can deliver a good society" 

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass and author of the book All Consuming.

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David Osland: “Corbyn is actually Labour’s only chance”

The veteran Labour activist on the release of his new pamphlet, How to Select or Reselect Your MP, which lays out the current Labour party rules for reselecting an MP.

Veteran left-wing Labour activist David Osland, a member of the national committee of the Labour Representation Committee and a former news editor of left magazine Tribune, has written a pamphlet intended for Labour members, explaining how the process of selecting Labour MPs works.

Published by Spokesman Books next week (advance copies are available at Nottingham’s Five Leaves bookshop), the short guide, entitled “How to Select or Reselect Your MP”, is entertaining and well-written, and its introduction, which goes into reasoning for selecting a new MP and some strategy, as well as its historical appendix, make it interesting reading even for those who are not members of the Labour party. Although I am a constituency Labour party secretary (writing here in an expressly personal capacity), I am still learning the Party’s complex rulebook; I passed this new guide to a local rules-boffin member, who is an avowed Owen Smith supporter, to evaluate whether its description of procedures is accurate. “It’s actually quite a useful pamphlet,” he said, although he had a few minor quibbles.

Osland, who calls himself a “strong, but not uncritical” Corbyn supporter, carefully admonishes readers not to embark on a campaign of mass deselections, but to get involved and active in their local branches, and to think carefully about Labour’s election fortunes; safe seats might be better candidates for a reselection campaign than Labour marginals. After a weak performance by Owen Smith in last night’s Glasgow debate and a call for Jeremy Corbyn to toughen up against opponents by ex Norwich MP Ian Gibson, an old ally, this pamphlet – named after a 1981 work by ex-Tribune editor Chris Mullin, who would later go on to be a junior minister under Blai – seems incredibly timely.

I spoke to Osland on the telephone yesterday.

Why did you decide to put this pamphlet together now?

I think it’s certainly an idea that’s circulating in the Labour left, after the experience with Corbyn as leader, and the reaction of the right. It’s a debate that people have hinted at; people like Rhea Wolfson have said that we need to be having a conversation about it, and I’d like to kickstart that conversation here.

For me personally it’s been a lifelong fascination – I was politically formed in the early Eighties, when mandatory reselection was Bennite orthodoxy and I’ve never personally altered my belief in that. I accept that the situation has changed, so what the Labour left is calling for at the moment, so I see this as a sensible contribution to the debate.

I wonder why selection and reselection are such an important focus? One could ask, isn’t it better to meet with sitting MPs and see if one can persuade them?

I’m not calling for the “deselect this person, deselect that person” rhetoric that you sometimes see on Twitter; you shouldn’t deselect an MP purely because they disagree with Corbyn, in a fair-minded way, but it’s fair to ask what are guys who are found to be be beating their wives or crossing picket lines doing sitting as our MPs? Where Labour MPs publicly have threatened to leave the party, as some have been doing, perhaps they don’t value their Labour involvement.

So to you it’s very much not a broad tool, but a tool to be used a specific way, such as when an MP has engaged in misconduct?

I think you do have to take it case by case. It would be silly to deselect the lot, as some people argue.

In terms of bringing the party to the left, or reforming party democracy, what role do you think reselection plays?

It’s a basic matter of accountability, isn’t it? People are standing as Labour candidates – they should have the confidence and backing of their constituency parties.

Do you think what it means to be a Labour member has changed since Corbyn?

Of course the Labour party has changed in the past year, as anyone who was around in the Blair, Brown, Miliband era will tell you. It’s a completely transformed party.

Will there be a strong reaction to the release of this pamphlet from Corbyn’s opponents?

Because the main aim is to set out the rules as they stand, I don’t see how there can be – if you want to use the rules, this is how to go about it. I explicitly spelled out that it’s a level playing field – if your Corbyn supporting MP doesn’t meet the expectations of the constituency party, then she or he is just as subject to a challenge.

What do you think of the new spate of suspensions and exclusions of some people who have just joined the party, and of other people, including Ronnie Draper, the General Secretary of the Bakers’ Union, who have been around for many years?

It’s clear that the Labour party machinery is playing hardball in this election, right from the start, with the freeze date and in the way they set up the registered supporters scheme, with the £25 buy in – they’re doing everything they can to influence this election unfairly. Whether they will succeed is an open question – they will if they can get away with it.

I’ve been seeing comments on social media from people who seem quite disheartened on the Corbyn side, who feel that there’s a chance that Smith might win through a war of attrition.

Looks like a Corbyn win to me, but the gerrymandering is so extensive that a Smith win isn’t ruled out.

You’ve been in the party for quite a few years, do you think there are echoes of past events, like the push for Bennite candidates and the takeover from Foot by Kinnock?

I was around last time – it was dirty and nasty at times. Despite the narrative being put out by the Labour right that it was all about Militant bully boys and intimidation by the left, my experience as a young Bennite in Tower Hamlets Labour Party, a very old traditional right wing Labour party, the intimidation was going the other way. It was an ugly time – physical threats, people shaping up to each other at meetings. It was nasty. Its nasty in a different way now, in a social media way. Can you compare the two? Some foul things happened in that time – perhaps worse in terms of physical intimidation – but you didn’t have the social media.

There are people who say the Labour Party is poised for a split – here in Plymouth (where we don’t have a Labour MP), I’m seeing comments from both sides that emphasise that after this leadership election we need to unite to fight the Tories. What do you think will happen?

I really hope a split can be avoided, but we’re a long way down the road towards a split. The sheer extent of the bad blood – the fact that the right have been openly talking about it – a number of newspaper articles about them lining up backing from wealthy donors, operating separately as a parliamentary group, then they pretend that butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths, and that they’re not talking about a split. Of course they are. Can we stop the kamikazes from doing what they’re plotting to do? I don’t know, I hope so.

How would we stop them?

We can’t, can we? If they have the financial backing, if they lose this leadership contest, there’s no doubt that some will try. I’m old enough to remember the launch of the SDP, let’s not rule it out happening again.

We’ve talked mostly about the membership. But is Corbynism a strategy to win elections?

With the new electoral registration rules already introduced, the coming boundary changes, and the loss of Scotland thanks to decades of New Labour neglect, it will be uphill struggle for Labour to win in 2020 or whenever the next election is, under any leadership.

I still think Corbyn is Labour’s best chance. Any form of continuity leadership from the past would see the Midlands and north fall to Ukip in the same way Scotland fell to the SNP. Corbyn is actually Labour’s only chance.

Margaret Corvid is a writer, activist and professional dominatrix living in the south west.