Book review: The Socialist Way: Social Democracy in Contemporary Britain

Carl Packman reviews The Socialist Way, edited by Roy Hattersley and Kevin Hickson.

The Socialist Way 
Edited by Roy Hattersley and Kevin Hickson
IB Tauris, 240pp, £14.99

It’s not easy to admit, but no other political party has done more to suck all the life out of social democratic politics than the Labour party. Under tutelage of Tony Blair it assumed that it could leach off both the left and the North for voting numbers while concentrating its efforts on the centre ground in the South – neither of which is any longer the case.

We’ve heard often enough that in the years covering 1997 to 2010 Labour lost 5 million voters, fragmenting to the Liberal Democrats (1.6 million), the Tories (1.1 million), the BNP (600,000), and a further 1.6 million who were classified ‘no shows’. But even if we recoup some of that back post-2015, after the disastrous coalition government, will Labour be able to return to its social democratic roots?

After Ed Balls committed to coalition spending plans, Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood said she wanted to see a “rainbow alliance for a rebalanced, re-industrialised future”, a response to the failure of the British political establishment, the lacklustre performance of the broad British left after the economic collapse, and the desire from some for her party to stand in England.

Maybe soon social democracy will have no home at all in the Labour party.

Roy Hattersley, writing in a new book edited by him and Kevin Hickson, The Socialist Way: Social Democracy in Contemporary Britain, points out: “when [we] wrote and spoke about the importance of doing ‘what works’, there was the clear implication [from New Labour] that the social democratic solution did not pass the test”.

But there has never been a time where social democracy is needed more. And it needs to be found on three terms: fundamental economic change, reciprocity as a response to state failure, and how we communicate.

Fundamental economic change

Stewart Lansley writing in the volume reminds us that real wages fell on average by 7 per cent in the two years from the end of 2009, while the income gap between the top and bottom continued to widen. Austerity has only increased that.

In the meantime we are told that cuts to the public sector are necessary to get the country running properly again and help future generations. William Keegan, providing a counter-narrative, points out that delayed consequences of cuts in public sector investment and missed opportunities on negligible interest rates are the real harmful elements of this government’s spending decisions (real budget responsibility anyone?).

So what is Labour’s response? A Telegraph byline put it bluntly: “Labour is preparing to keep George Osborne’s spending cuts after the next election”. Paul Hunter shows that even after Black Wednesday and interest rates reaching 15 per cent, Labour’s promise to stick to Conservative spending plans in the run up to the 1997 election still didn’t put them ahead in polls (that came only after 1 May).

Historically, sticking to what the Tories are doing economically is counter-productive. It makes no sense to do what Ed Balls is doing.

We must instead remember the adage “spending to save”. Jobs and growth are key, and cuts need to be reversed, otherwise we risk passing on a huge missed opportunity to future generations who will blame both Labour and the Coalition for a failed experiment that has cost this country dearly.

Reciprocity as a response to state failure

One of the criticisms I have of the book is the frequency in which it turns on Maurice Glasman, the Blue Labour thinker. Ruth Lister for example takes issue with Glasman’s labelling the notion of ‘freedom’ and ‘equality’ as too abstract. Instead he calls for relationships built on reciprocity, but Lister wonders why equality is any more abstract than reciprocity.

Without getting bogged down with word games, equality and freedom are fuzzy phrases we use to make ourselves feel better. They are terms fit for the philosophers. But the Labour party are not philosophers. And the people Labour want to talk to are not philosophers. The people Labour wants to talk to instead are failed by the state, and when the state fails in society that is when reciprocity, mutuality, and solidarity are most necessary.

These terms, widely espoused by Glasman, have concrete meanings, to restore what is lost in community when the state is hacking away at its glue. And the last Labour government are just as much to blame, as fixed on the South and economic globalisation as the Tories are to saying goodbye to the welfare state.

Of course there is a social democratic need for reciprocity as a response to state failure, even if social democrats are instinctively centralist with regards to how they feel the state is run.

This is why I also took issue with David Walker’s chapter. In it he calls for “standardization [and] strong central government”. But nothing sounds more Stalinist to me. Walker plainly slates the real impact of localism and community activity (he promises to level a critique of left communitarianism, but doesn’t end up doing so), saying it offers very little when we have Chinese capitalists to contend with. Though he is not comparing like for like.

Equality by itself is a little abstract, but focusing our attention on the pursuit of equality is how we get round that. That’s why redistribution, pre-distribution, and mutualism all matter, these are all pursuits for a better society. So criticising community’s responses to state failure should have no place in a social democratic revival.

How we communicate

The best chapter in the book (mostly because it doesn’t see local politics as a problem) is by Helen Goodman MP looking at how we communicate social democratic politics. In it she talks about Labour being a genuine one nation party, able to speak to a wide range of people – its people (only 5 per cent of people in the UK can afford to take themselves out of public services altogether) – in an intellectual and sympathetic way.

Whether we are talking about the over-complicated Rural Payments Agency or our moral obligations to the unemployed, Labour should be comfortable within itself to talk as a party of fairness and the many, not the few.

This volume for me presented the financial case against the Tories extremely well, offering a whole range of ideas to change the public sector for the better, and the lives of the UK workforce. Everything from health (written by Andy Burnham MP) and children and families (Lisa Nandy MP) to law and order (Helena Kennedy) and foreign policy (Peter Kilfoyle) is catered for.

It failed to convince me that localism and community are dead ducks. Centralism as an operation of government needs to coincide with mutualism, they’re not (mutually) exclusive.

Its main strength, however, was to show that by following in the Tories’ footsteps Labour risks losing its social democratic roots forever, which would be wholly horrendous, particularly as the coalition are set to leave so much damage.

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.