As part of our November Events programme, we organised a panel discussion on social democracy today. Among the speakers were David Marquand, renowned academic, Hans Schattle, professor of politics at Yonsei University, and Neal Lawson, chair of Compass. There was a degree of consensus that Social Democracy is out of fashion, but can it make a resurgence?
On Thursday we sat down for a civil discussion on the state of social democracy. The RSA’s (newly refurbished) Durham Street Auditorium felt like a bunker, providing respite from the political storm unfurling in Westminster. It seemed an appropriate day to discuss the rise and fall of one of the most influential political movements of the last century with one of its leading proponents.
David Marquand has been a key voice in progressive politics for a good half-century. While his ideas are distinctly social-democratic, he cannot be placed neatly into any Britain’s political tribes – he has been a member of the Labour party, the Social Democratic Party and Plaid Cymru, and supported the Liberal Democrats in the 2010 general election. His ideas helped lay the ideological groundwork for New Labour, even if he would eventually disavow Tony Blair.
Speaking at the RSA yesterday, Marquand was similarly agnostic towards the current Labour leader; praising Jeremy Corbyn for capturing the youth vote, while blasting him for his limp-wristed handling of Brexit. Writing in Prospect Magazine in 1998, Marquand described a ‘Blair paradox’ – 20 years on he is just as perplexed by Corbyn’s ability to win the hearts and minds of young people, despite apparently aiding and abetting a Conservative Brexit.
Social democracy, therefore, has not had a champion in Blair or Corbyn. Its decline has been felt globally, as Neal Lawson was keen to point out. Every country bar Portugal (due to ‘particular circumstances’, says Lawson) has seen social democrats trounced in elections, as progressives flock to the left. According to Lawson, this problem is existential, not cyclical. The culture and technology of today no longer supports classic incarnations of social democracy, and social democrats are left to figure out how they can interpret its values to an economy and society far different to that of the movement’s heyday. Hans Schattle, taking a global perspective, puts this down to the rising power of the market. The political power of the global economy has grown exponentially in the last several decades, without the formation of necessary democratic checks. The decline of social democratic parties has been coming for some time.
However, Lawson doesn’t see recent electoral failures as a cause for despair. Rather, social-democratic movements have become decentralised and people-led. In keeping with current populist trends, these new movements have not been initiated by elites. Technology is empowering people to organise and make change in ways not possible for the social democrats of yesteryear. These ideas have strong parallels with the RSA’s 10 foundations for a 21st century enlightenment, published earlier this week. Progressive values are alive and well, even if the instruments and institutions it once relied on have suffered a blow.
These new movements will be distinctly international. They will reject the resurgent economic protectionism visible on the right and left, and crucially, they will reject Brexit. In the short term, this is the most pressing issue for Marquand. Rephrasing Blair’s famous position on crime, he calls for progressives to be “tough on Brexit, tough on the causes of Brexit.”
Social democracy isn’t dead. But its proponents are looking to new ways of communication and organisation to carry it forward. Despite the chaos and polarisation endemic in contemporary politics, David Marquand has hope for the future: “I think we can win… I am still an optimist.”
Will Grimond is part of the Media and Communications team at the RSA. He has a History & Politics degree from Oxford University, and writes on UK and international politics.