When does a social democratic party stop being social democratic?

by Kevin Meagher

“There is nothing right-wing about fiscal conservatism”, begins “In the black Labour: why fiscal conservatism and social justice go hand-in-hand“. The policy network’s much talked about pamphlet argues that to rebuild its reputation for economic competence, Labour has to learn to love big brother in the shape of embracing fiscal rectitude.

It is a hard-headed but reductive prognosis for a centre-left party. It seems a bit like having a car without any petrol. You can point it in the direction you want to travel in, but you have no means of ever getting there. So what, ultimately, is the point of the car?

That is, in essence, the dilemma this argument, elegantly and persuasively made by the authors (including our own Anthony Painter), presents Labour with. When does a party – a democratic socialist one (in the words of “new” clause four) – stop being the very thing it professes to be? How elastic are our principles, our thinking, and, most importantly, the trust of the people who vote for us if we embark on a self-denying ordinance on public spending?

First off, I agree wholeheartedly with the authors that Labour needs to respond to the current political and economic realities. Yes, the electorate is never wrong, and, yes, when they tell us they do not trust us as much as the Conservatives to run the economy we have to internalise that hard fact.

But a political party should not behave like a supermarket reacting to its competitors’ price cuts. Our economic policy must surely stem from our philosophical beliefs and the needs of the communities we serve. These are not factors that can easily be dismissed. Harold Wilson’s dictum that Labour is “a moral crusade or it is nothing” remains potent.

Nor can we forget that an active state and sustained social spending remains the main agency for bringing about a more just society; correcting the failures of a market economy that does not provide social goods or greater equality.

What are the advocates of “black Labour” really saying? Is fiscal conservatism (their phrase) primarily a ploy, a piece of nifty brand positioning? Is it a pragmatic recognition of the cold facts of life, medicine that just has to be knocked back before we can move on? Or is it, as the authors seem to suggest, to become an article of faith for Labour, something we are encouraged to believe in from first principle?

The first point is fair enough; Labour has to sound more engaged in tackling the deficit than perhaps it has been in the past. The second point will take some accepting, but lays the basis for an intelligent discussion within the party. The third, however, is nonsense. The assertion that fiscal conservatism and social justice go “hand-in-hand” is a claim too far; a clumsy splicing of two objectives that, while not always in conflict, are far from symbiotic.

It was the recognition of the gap between the two which led New Labour to the private finance initiative; an acknowledgement that massive capital investment in rebuilding schools and hospitals was necessary following the Tories’ two decades worth of systematic underinvestment in public services during the 80s and 90s. There was no time to wait until the public purse could pay for it all; change had to happen now.

Not to do a disservice to the authors, they rightly suggest that when spending alone is not an option any time soon, then reforming the state so that the government gets more bang for the taxpayers’ buck is the logical next step.

In fact “tough prioritisation”, ‘bold reform and well-targeted investment’ is more effective in driving social justice than public spending alone, they claim. They may be correct, but we have been here before. Tony Blair, insulated with a 179-seat majority, was reduced to complaining that he bore the “scars on his back” from efforts to reform the public sector. Were Tony Blair and Alan Milburn too soft? What makes that task of public service reform any easier in the future?

Would advocates of Black Labour scrap Trident? Means-test pensioners’ winter fuel allowance? Pay for the next expensive wonder drug licensed by NICE that extends a cancer patient’s life? The list of agonisingly difficult choices in government is endless.

This is not to say it is wrong to expect greater reform and value for money; in fact Black Labour is quite right to make exactly that case; I only point out that it is easier to wish it than to deliver it. Labour established over its 13 years in government a new, modern social democratic state combining public sector reforms and sustained extra spending.

As a result of trebling its budget, the NHS became one of the most efficient health systems in the world. Spending on education doubled, with school standards rising fastest in disadvantaged areas. Reported crime fell 43 per cent on Labour’s watch, thanks, in no small part, to an extra 16,000 police officers and 17,000 community support officers. In contrast, the Black Labour conception of the state is only vaguely sketched.

Eschewing public spending as a central plank of any social democratic offering leaves Labour in the position of making a vague promise to its supporters of “jam tomorrow” and the creation of a decent society in slow, uncertain increments. It simply will not galvanise members or voters behind the party. It is not enough to promise change is on the distant horizon; political trust is evidential. Progress happens or it does not. It is all very well hoping things will get better in the future and asking people to make sacrifices in the short-term, but as John Maynard-Keynes pointed out, ‘in the long run we are all dead.’

The bigger question that Labour needs to discuss first is whether you can have a credible social democratic programme for government which doesn’t involve sustained levels of state spending to make life better for people. In that respect, Black Labour puts the cart before the horse, demanding fiscal restraint first before answering the bigger question of how a Labour government arrives at its historic goals through new, more circumspect means. This is the bigger conversation the party needs to be having.

It is true Labour has made little headway in regaining its reputation for economic competence over the last year. But the reasons for that are both profound and mundane. The sheer scale of global economic uncertainty and the daily tales of unimaginable financial horror engulfing the world, are driving voters into the arms of the devil they know. When asked to stick or twist at this stage of the political cycle, it is hardly surprising that voters give the government the benefit of the doubt, a point Andrew Rawnsley made yesterday.

It will take Labour time to earn the right to be heard. Emphasising the failures of Osbornomics and articulating a plan for stimulating the economy must remain the core script for now. An abasing mea culpa will not restore trust with the electorate; it will simply see voters stick with the real thing rather than opt for Labour’s belated carbon copy austerity alternative.

If Labour abandons its social democratic moorings in order to hitch itself to George Osborne’s neo-liberal express, then the party is doomed. Yes, Labour needs to raise its game with business. Yes, it needs to build its credibility on deficit reduction and should, in due course, spell out its post-2015 spending priorities. And, yes, there will be some hard realities for the party to stomach over the next few years.

But amid all this, Labour must remain a moral crusade, committed to shaping a better world; a recognisably social democratic party.

Or it will be nothing.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut.

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14 Responses to “When does a social democratic party stop being social democratic?”

  1. Forlornehope says:

    You can be fiscally conservative and have high levels of state spending; you just have to raise the taxes to pay for it. If you don’t want to be a slave to the markets there is a simple answer, don’t borrow from them. If a future Labour government wants to have a robust approach to spending on benefits and services it must make it clear that this will be paid for by taxation.

  2. swatantra says:

    Thats an easy question to answer: When it gets elected.
    The key word is ‘pragmatic’ and pragmatic solutions must be found
    Labour can opine all it wants and talk about a moral c****e, but when it finds itself in government its has to start prioritising and thats when certain groups are going to miss out.
    The road to hell is paved with good intentions, is as good a phrase as a Wilson’s moral c****e

  3. Gary says:

    “The assertion that fiscal conservatism and social justice go “hand-in-hand” is a claim too far; a clumsy splicing of two objectives that, while not always in conflict, are far from symbiotic”

    Well no but yes but no.

    They are often in conflict in the short run, but in the longer run there is no conflict at all. Prudence is the neccesary but insufficient precondition to long term social justice. You can deviate a little for a little while, but not for long.

    Though of from a longer horizon, ITBL are right, although I concede they could have made the short run/long run distinction clearer.

  4. Ralph Baldwin says:

    It’s not a case of “reamining a moral cruade”, with Labour councils and Tory councils having little more than a wafer to divide them on policy it’s a case of trying to re-create a moral crusade but ideology has to tempered with pragmatism and the way to do this is to ensure constantly reptitive dogma is avoided.

    The labour Group here and morality have nothing at all in common and the rat race for positions that grant extra money by elected reps unpleasant to behold (hence I did not put myself frwards for anything) to say the least….Labour and Moral have to rediscover each other because what exists at the moment is a dysfunctional centralised self-interested platform that favours Conservatism and weakens community.

  5. Clr Ralph Baldwin says:

    I am printing this here as there seems to be a “hesitance” on the Labour Blogs to challenge Lobbying even when the Tories are at it….the PLP may be pro-corruption and unwilling to raise this issue but its anyone’s business if they place the public first to bring attention to it and maybe…be a little more “Social Democratic”.


  6. swatantra says:

    I get a bit worried when Labour people talk about ‘ c****e’ and ‘jerusalem’ in the same sentence. Its like the comment about the Order of Merit: no damned merit in it at all.

  7. aragon says:

    Labour surrendered some time ago, when New Labour by accepting neoliberalism. Black Labour just want to maintain the status quo, by accepting the way the Tories frame the debate.

    Labour needs to be a moral crusade, and to do so, requires a re-framing of the debate. Labour does not need to be credible on deficit reduction, that is to play into the Conservatives hands.

    ‘Jobs and Growth’, is an aspiration that should appeal more than ‘Cuts and Deficit reduction’.

    Labour needs a different solution, but there is not much prospect with ultra-orthodox neoclassical economics and neoliberalism of the current leadership.

    There is an alternative, to ‘There is no alternative’ do not concede the debate to the Tories agenda.

    ‘In the Black Labour’ is to surrender and a potential economic disaster.

  8. Kevin says:

    Swatantra – its easy to say ‘certain groups will miss out’ – but which ones? Proponents of fiscal conservatism need to spell out where their contractions in public spending will take place. To be fair, this is a debate we all have to join in on…

    What do we think of the following ideas (examples where big chunks of cash can be saved, not necessarily my choices, I hasten to add):

    Scrap Trident upgrade?
    Means test pensioner benefits (free bus passes, Winter fuel allowance, free TV licenses for over 75s etc)?
    New top rate of income tax?
    Cut defence spending by reducing projection of British strength in the world?
    More outsourcing and privatisation of local governnment services?
    Raise pension age to 70?
    Time limit certain benefits?

  9. AmberStar says:

    An excellent critique of In the Black.

  10. Roger says:

    We could indeed invoke the spirit of Stafford Cripps and offer a real left-wing austerity programme which stopped the plundering of the public sector by its managers and the private sector firms that are asset-stripping it – and really attacked the tax evasion that is the real cause of our fiscal black hole.

    But Black Labour’s paper contains not a single reference to either issue and is thus probably no more than laying groundwork for that surely not to be long delayed day when the dregs of New Labour will join a ‘national’ or ’emergency’ government.

  11. Roger says:

    I am deeply puzzled by swatantra’s aversion to the word ‘crusade’.

    Does he belong to some ultra-Islamist sect which finds any word relating to crosses blasphemous? (in which case why is he using as his monicker the Sanskrit for ‘freedom’? – Sanskrit being of course the language of the evil Hindu polytheists and their demonically-inspired scriptures).

    I will never get over the weirdness of internet commenters.

  12. swatantra says:

    Kevin, I’d go along with all those suggestions like Scrapping Trident, Cutting Defence Spending, Means Testing benefits etc, except for raising the retirement age.
    I don’t know about you but the average person whose worked hard throughout their lives is pretty worn out by the time they reach 65, and its even more onorous on women, who in my opinion work twice as hard for propably half the money. That doesn’t mean 65+ stop living altogether, but they should be encouraged to do part time work or voluntary work.

  13. swatantra says:

    you have to accept that words sometimes change their meaning; just like ‘gay’ for example, ‘crusade’ is a no-no; and so is ‘jerusalem’ bound to upset a lot of people; anyway, the party is no longer ‘the methdists’ at prayer as it was in the last century. we are multicultural multifaith, and just multi’.
    however, the red flag is a stirring anthem and still deserves to be sung; its a lot better than the tepid ‘god save the queen’.

  14. Ian says:

    “……….But amid all this, Labour must remain …… a recognisably social democratic party………..”

    Social dmocratic?

    Um, we had one of these. It was called the SDP. 1981 or thereabouts, I think. Did more damage to Labour than a few newspaper sellers ever did. Came to nothing and got swallowed by the Liberals.

    Once upon a time Labour was a DEMOCRATIC SOCIALIST party. It had orators. With fire in their bellies.

    Then the leader, Lord somebody or other, let the miners down and spent a lot of time shouting at Liverpool city council……..and it started there and it ended up with the war criminal Anthony Blair. The operation was a complete success, but the patient died.

    Show us some advocates of humane, libertarian, democratic socialism, who feel it in their hearts and souls and bellies, who don’t give a fig what the Daily Mail or the bankers or the gnomes of Brussels or Cameron’s Etonian friends think, who care passionately for the lot of the ordinary man, woman and child AND SHOW IT. They will be hated. And they won’t care. They will be fearless, happy, and usually in trouble.

    Where are they?

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