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.

Photo: Getty Images
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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.