Social democratic politics in Britain requires compelling answers to three questions that Roy Jenkins posed in 1979, writes Patrick Diamond. He revisits Jenkins’s words by considering the prospects for ‘breaking the mould’ of UK politics in the time of Brexit and permanent austerity.
The year 2019 marks the fortieth anniversary of Roy Jenkins’ Dimbleby lecture, Home Thoughts from Abroad, which led indirectly to the formation of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), a major event in British political history that threatened to destroy the Labour party. Social democratic politics still requires compelling answers to three of the central questions that Jenkins then posed. Firstly, how to reform the British system of democracy to develop a culture of political participation and pluralism that leads to more equitable economic and social policies. Secondly, how to unite the centre-left parties to forestall long periods of Tory dominance in electoral politics, avoiding ‘blunders’ such as the 2016 referendum on EU membership. And, thirdly, how to cultivate an intellectual ecosystem on the progressive Left that generates radical ideas for social reform. It is all too obvious that liberal social democrats need a governing agenda and political strategy for the ‘new hard times’ of Brexit and ‘permanent austerity’.
Those who have identified with the British social democratic tradition have found themselves in ignominious retreat over the last decade. The conventional centre-left vision has at times amounted to little more than kneejerk repudiation of Brexit. There has been an astonishing reluctance to engage in serious thinking about the long-term consequences of the worldwide financial crisis. Moreover, little thought has been given to what is a viable national strategy for the UK in the aftermath of departure from the EU. Fundamental questions remain unanswered. What is the social democratic view of a fair capitalism, an effective state, a good society? Through what strategy should the centre-left address Britain’s broken system of democracy that produces outcomes so disillusioning for so many citizens? Social democrats need to cease justifying the status quo, becoming a radical movement of ideas again. The newly formed Independent Group of MPs now face exactly that challenge, as do those in the Labour party who still subscribe to the broad tradition of social democracy.
Labour has made strides in its thinking about the British economy in recent years. Yet the party’s ideas continue to be shaped by a nostalgic worldview centred on the revival of heavy industry, accompanied by a return to collectivist modes of trade union organisation. By emphasising a return to the orthodoxies of public ownership and state planning, Labour is attempting to revive the corporatism of the 1960s and 1970s. The social democratic vision of the economy should recognise the centrality of local communities, households and natural resource scarcity to future growth and well-being. Economies will be increasingly decentralised, shaped by a diversity of co-operatives, social enterprises and small businesses linked together through ‘anchor’ institutions. The centre-left has to address the digital and collaborative economy spanning global production, households, and local economies rather than retreating to the statist orthodoxies of the past.
Equally, the centre-left’s politics of redistribution is ripe for rethinking. On tax and public spending, the Labour leadership has been paralysed by ambiguity and indecision. The 2017 manifesto makes clear the party aims to tax the rich more aggressively. Yet we know little about what proportion of national income Labour believes is necessary to fund public services. Since Corbyn became leader, there has been little effort to develop an argument that high-quality schools and a well-funded NHS require all those of working age to pay more in tax, potentially through a reformed National Insurance system.
The elephant in the room of UK state spending is the sheer scale of resources consumed by the NHS: by 2023, according to Paul Johnson of the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), health spending will amount to 38% of national income. In relation to fiscal redistribution, Labour’s 2017 plans were judged by the IFS to be less progressive than those of the Liberal Democrats. The party’s thinking on welfare and poverty has not moved far since it lost office in 2010. Yet wealth inequalities have soared. Social democrats must develop programmes that strengthen the link between citizens and taxes; they have to devise imaginative schemes to effectively tax wealth, inheritance, capital gains and property; they need a strategy that declares a generational war on child poverty.
However, little progress will be made in addressing the politics of production and distribution without fundamental reform of British institutions and the state. In the Dimbleby lecture, Jenkins claimed it was time to ‘break the mould’ of British politics. Forty years later, it is clear that mould has begun to fracture. There has been a further weakening of traditional voter loyalties. UK territorial politics is in flux. The relationship between representative and direct democracy is under strain in the aftermath of the EU referendum. The electoral system no longer fits the transformed political landscape of Britain.
Yet a new politics is not just about reform of electoral systems, as Jenkins assumed in the late 1970s. Politicians of all ideological complexions are increasingly viewed as remote and professionalised. Ministers are grappling with complex problems which make them increasingly dependent on experts. The political class suffered a catastrophic loss of trust and disconnection due to its track-record of apparent incompetence. Bureaucracies are perceived as ever more remote and distant from citizens. The challenge for social democrats, whether in the Labour party or outside it will be to rediscover, as Jenkins foresaw, an improved method for doing politics that addresses the needs of a diverse and complex society.
Note: the above draws on the author’s published work in The Political Quarterly.
Patrick Diamond is Senior Lecturer at Queen Mary, University of London.
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