What Will the Future of Social Democracy Look Like?

In the last twenty or thirty years, there have been many efforts to try to rejuvenate social democracy: that is, left-progressive politics and activism as embodied in parties such as the New Zealand Labour Party and the United Kingdom Labour Party. Social democracy has long had its pillars: support for social services (especially universal healthcare, primary and secondary education, and state housing), a commitment to justice in the workplace, and advocacy of progressive values (such as equality, security, dignity, and responsibility). But in recent decades there has been an attempt to work out how social democracy might be regenerated, in light of changing social conditions and in response to fluctuating electoral fortunes.

One approach to rejuvenation was to keep the ends of social democracy, but to change the means: this was the approach of Rogernomics in New Zealand, and to a lesser extent of New Labour in the UK under Tony Blair. In New Zealand in the 1980s and the United Kingdom in the 1990s social democratic parties kept a commitment to good education and sound healthcare as end-goals – but they became more open to alternative ways of delivering education and healthcare, for example through the partial privatisation of the National Health Service in the UK. The focus was on not ideology, but on “what works”, in Tony Blair’s mantra. The problem with this approach to rejuvenation is that in changing the mode of delivery of social services, social democratic parties often ended up ignoring progressive values – such as equality and dignity – which were trampled on in the delivery of such services, and in the outcomes achieved.

Another approach to approach has been to alter the social democratic position on what might be called borderline issues, on which progressives may not have always had such a settled position. The UK Labour Party, and the NZ Labour Party briefly under David Cunliffe, have experimented with adopting a more restrictive approach to immigration, for example; and the NZ Labour Party under Helen Clark and the UK Labour Party under Tony Blair took a harder line on crime. Some would say, of course, that immigration and crime are not borderline issues for progressives – and that progressive values such as equality and dignity point away from the restrictive, punitive policies that social democratic parties have at times adopted. However, regardless of this point, what is clear is that this has been a tactic tried by progressive political parties – and is one that has also contradicted progressive values like dignity and equality (although some may disagree with this conclusion).

One further nascent approach to rejuvenation, which has emerged only in the last couple of years, has been to champion technology as the catalyst of next-generation social democratic policy. Some have claimed that on social democratic pillars, such as education and healthcare, technology can revolutionise outcomes and produce new ideas. Progressive education theorists have claimed that ‘massive open online courses’ (MOOCs) and technology in classrooms may be the way that primary and secondary education are strengthened in the twenty-first century. And healthcare specialists have become excited about using Skype and video-links to guarantee quicker doctors’ consultations and to enhance the ability of people in rural areas to access healthcare. This approach, though, too, has proven a disappointment in the search for real rejuvenation on the Left. Questions have been asked about how the quality of education and healthcare might be compromised through the use of technology, and it is not clear that technology offers any real step-change in the policies and principles needed for a successful twenty-first century social democratic tradition.

So if the answer lies not in changing the means of delivering social services, or in switching the social democratic position on borderline issues, or in embracing technology, what does the next wave of social democracy look like? At a time when social democratic policy might seem as if it is stagnating, and failing to build on the successes of the past, what will energise progressive political parties and take them in a new direction?

At times it is helpful, in trying to think forward, to look backwards. In particular, it is useful to reflect on the founding thinkers of the social democratic tradition that we have inherited today. Their work may not provide specific solutions to the present-day predicaments of social democracy; but they may show us at least how we ought to go about developing the next wave of social democratic thinking.

I outline here some suggestions that arise indirectly from just one of these founding thinkers: R.H. Tawney. His work has come to the fore again with the publication of a recent biography of him by Lawrence Goldman, The Life of R.H. Tawney: Socialism and History (Bloomsbury, 2013).

Tawney was a public intellectual working primarily in the first part of the twentieth century in the United Kingdom. He helped to set up the Workers’ Educational Association (which I discuss further below), worked on the Royal Commission on the Coal Industry and another inquiry into agriculture in China, and wrote a number of rhetorically powerful books, including Equality and The Acquisitive Society. He was also well-connected to members of the Labour Party that would take power in 1945 as well as other leading progressive thinkers: he was well-known to Clement Attlee, later Prime Minister, and was married to Jeanette Beveridge, brother of William Beveridge, author of the Beveridge Report – which is often thought of as crucial to the establishment of the British welfare state. In between all of this, Tawney fought – and was wounded in – the First World War; spent some time as a diplomat in the United States in the Second World War; and maintained academic positions at the University of Oxford teaching social and economic history.

Tawney’s life and work gives us three possible pointers about the future of social democracy today. First, Tawney worked tirelessly to forge new and creative connections with unions and working people. As mentioned, he set up in 1903 the Workers’ Educational Association, a partnership between universities, trade unions, and working people. This Association organized for emerging academics to teach tutorial classes to interested workers, often in the workers’ homes around the UK, on subjects such as political history, economic theory and local government (see p. 64 of Goldman’s book). Tawney taught the classes with enthusiasm and humanity, and himself learned about the British working-class from his teaching at the same time as the students in the class were able to draw on his knowledge of history, politics, and economics. He sought an ideal where education was supplied not by “churches, philanthropic institutions, and a group of benevolent officials at Whitehall”, but rather “by the people for the people” (p. 80). And it is apparent that the Workers’ Educational Association created a sense of collective consciousness and solidarity that paved the way for social democratic policy successes in the 1940s and later. The wider point to be taken from this is that the future of social democracy today will depend on new coalitions being built across progressive actors – and in particular, attempts being made to rethink and renew the relationships between unions and others.

Secondly, Tawney spent a considerable part of his life theorizing and thinking deeply about the place of education in society – and he, according to Goldman’s biography, helped to ensure that good primary and secondary education were key planks of Labour Party policy in the years following 1945. He famously wrote Secondary Education for All in 1922, which became Labour’s education policy and set out a programme for educational policy change. “The case being made,” writes Goldman, “depended on both the economic benefits to society and the enrichment of individuals that would flow from more and better education” (p. 204). And Tawney was practical, too, in focusing on the need for building and upgrading school accommodation, and the school-leaving age. When the 1929 Labour Government of Ramsay MacDonald failed to take forward Tawney’s recommendation, he continued to make the same arguments, with a 1934 pamphlet (The School Leaving Age and Juvenile Unemployment), and this led to the 1944 Education Act as well as later changes to the British educational system. The message to be taken from this narrative is that social democratic planks and principles require deep thought and ongoing advocacy. We now take free primary and secondary education for granted as core aspects of progressive policy (and indeed, most conservative political parties around the world support free primary and secondary education, too). But these policies are only accepted because of the hard work put into making the case for them by people like R.H. Tawney. The planks and principles that will form part of social democracy in the twenty-first century – whether those relate to an approach to prisons and criminal justice, or a new approach to citizenship, or something else – will also require hard work and deep thought.

Thirdly, Tawney was very strong in tying politics back to ethics, and this was central to his method as a thinker. He was a Christian as well as a social democrat, and his religious commitments meant that values were never far from how he justified his policy prescriptions. The industrial problem – the way that working people were treated – was, for Tawney, “a moral problem” (p. 170). Social issues were not just about the distribution of income and wealth; they were about “the moral justice of … [our] social system” (p. 170). And social justice, for him, was about not “efficiency and mechanism” but rather “morality and individual regeneration” (p. 171). This does not mean that a social democracy of the future has to be Christian. What Tawney’s thinking reveals is that social democracy in the future may be stronger if it is tethered to a firm ethical base. If social democratic values can be crystallised with clarity, in other words, it may be easier for policy-makers and politicians to develop concrete ideas as outgrowths of these values. These values may provide an ethical and intellectual reserve for those working and campaigning on the Left to draw from. Perhaps, then, work should begin on truly clarifying these values, new and old – a “politics of love”, perhaps, to suggest just one idea – as a way to generate policies for the next wave of social democracy.

These are just a few pointers, from merely one historical social democratic thinker. And much more work remains to be done to develop even these ideas from Tawney – about coalitions across progressive actors (especially involving unions), theorizing policy planks, and finding a more ethical politics. But what is clear from this brief analysis is that if we all want real rejuvenation in social democracy, we need to go beyond the false promise of deregulation, or punitive populism, and technology. We need to develop planks and principles and policies – and that may require reflecting on the past first in order to find a social democracy fit for the twenty-first century.

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4 Responses to What Will the Future of Social Democracy Look Like?

  1. I like this, Max. I especially liked the discussion of values – of course. And the reminder that universal education is a relatively recent development should encourage us as we work to achieve change.

  2. Jan says:

    What a great article. I’ve read the Acquisitive Society in the last few months and in the first pages he nails the obsession with productivity and he has a lot to say about the role of managers and business leaders arguing that maximising prpofits for their enterprises is far from an adequate social role. 2020 will be the 100 Anniversary of its publication and 2015 the centenaryr of the WEA in New Zealand. Both events deserve celebration.

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