The reform of social democracy is a character test - RSA

Blog: The reform of social democracy is a character test

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  • Leadership

As a former insider and now critic of mainstream politics I am, from time to time, asked by political parties to reflect on their fortunes and offer suggestions for reform. I have spoken to right, left and centrist groups. This short paper (now slightly updated) was prepared for a recent European gathering of social democratic parties but seems particularly relevant after the events of May 7th.…..

The picture for left of centre parties varies from country to country; from the disintegration of Pasok in Greece, defeat of UK Labour and fragmentation of the French left to the success of Matteo Renzi in Italy and German and Swedish Social Democrats squeezing back into coalition Government. But, overall, traditional progressive parties are on the retreat and lack credible ideas about how to restore their vitality and fortunes.

The unpopularity and electoral underperformance of these parties does not necessarily reflect a rejection of their values or even policies. The emergence of new forms of community and internet based collective action on issues including inequality, environmental sustainability and corporate (ir) responsibility demonstrate that progressive instincts are alive and well and can inspire people to act.

Social democratic decline is not inevitable; something is getting in the way of the message. But focussing on political communication sets a trap. It carries an implication: the problem is not what social democracy is offering, or citizens and their needs and wants, but the way the progressive offer is (mis) communicated to those who ought to be its grateful recipients.

While communication can be important if an election is close and the result significant, ‘we lost the communication battle’ can also be an excuse for not facing up to deeper failings. There is indeed a systematic tendency – no doubt encouraged by people who work in the industry - to exaggerate the significance of communication as an independent variable.   

The challenge of new (or newly resurgent) political movements

The problems affecting old progressive parties go a great deal further than a few electoral setbacks. Instead of its traditional enemy, the Christian Democrat or free market right, social democrats have in recent years been assailed by radical, populist insurgents from the right, left and even the centre. This insurgency taps into economic hardship, cultural anxiety and disillusionment with the political establishment. By articulating desires, fears and angers that the establishment has sought to marginalise, these insurgent movements claim, with some justification, to be more in touch with ordinary people.

These movements also tend to be organisationally innovative. They have the feel more of a social movement than a political party. Their leadership tends to emphasis authenticity and candour (in contrast to the controlled and stilted discourse of the establishment). Many (Podemos and the Scottish Nationalists, for example) have been able to recruit huge numbers of new members. With these new members they tend to be more open and egalitarian in their culture and internal debate. They are able to demonstrate an ability not only to engage people who have previously had little political engagement but also as new organisations can offer opportunities for fast progression for political novices and establishment outsiders.  In the recent UK general election a 20 year old student beat a former cabinet minister who was also Labour’s chief campaign strategist!

Arguably the culture and methods of some of these new style parties is fine for opposition and insurgency but unworkable for a serious party of Government (although in Greece in Scotland the new style parties are now running things). Perhaps these movements are by their nature destined to shine bright before either collapsing into disillusionment and factionalism or themselves become part of the despised establishment.

But unless they want to accept a situation in which oppositional movements are always much more popular and dynamic than those engaged in the democratic government, the mainstream parties have to explore what they can learn and apply from the best aspects of the new parties and movements. After all, it is not as if anyone would want to defend and preserve all the existing methods and cultures of the old parties.    

However, while policies and communication strategies can be adapted reasonably easily, changing the very character of large established institutions is a long term, radical and comprehensive process. Even if the old parties were inclined to embark on such a profound process of change it is far from clear that they are capable of doing so. The authors of such reform are unlikely to be its beneficiaries. Old parties like old people may choose managed decline over the exhausting process of self-transformation.  

Due process, authenticity and co-production

Traditional political parties aren’t the only ones out in the cold. As surveys and news stories tell us, large organisations of all kinds face declining trust and rising risks of reputational damage. The long list of humiliated hierarchies in the UK includes banks, the Catholic Church, the press, global corporations, the police, the House of Commons and various local health and council bodies. A combination of public resentment at under-performance, changing social expectations around transparency and accountability and the impact of technology (particularly social media) is exposing fault lines which organisations may previously have been able to hide or paper over.

Organisations – like people – tend to have a mobilising myth which comes into play when they face a conflict between social responsibility/public expectations, on the one hand, and organisational self-interest on the other. In essence the myth is as follows: ‘it is hard being me (an MP, a tabloid editor, a chief constable, a bishop, a company CEO) therefore I have little choice but to behave in this way or to try to cover up my dilemmas or past failures’.  But in the context of declining deference, greater real time scrutiny and instant social media storms organisations that mobilise this myth are increasingly exposed.

In the past the answer to this problem was seen to be communications; more press officers, more investment in reputation management, better PR agencies. But, in the words of the book title of an experienced PR insider, the view now is increasingly that ‘PR is dead’.

From this perspective if organisations want to protect their reputations there is no panacea in communication alone. Three more fundamental shifts have to be executed.

The first and most basic way is to put in place and observe proper processes in areas such as HR, governance, reporting and transparency. The 2008 crash was another blow against mercurial ‘great leader’s styles of management.

Second, there is a growing emphasis on authenticity. In a variety of ways organisations are trying to address a mismatch between stated mission and public purpose on the one hand and organisational logic and culture on the other. Indeed there is a plethora of initiatives claiming to address business ethics and to help align organisational values and business models.

Of course, there is tokenism and bluff in much of this but most large organisations with a public profile are at least asking themselves hard questions.

A third trend concerns the way organisations relate to their publics; shifting to a more two way, relational frame. Increasingly both corporate and public agencies are moving beyond the idea of the public as mere consumers or service recipients. Instead a variety of models including the ‘prosumer’ and ‘user innovation’ in the business world, and ‘asset based community development’, ‘the relational state’ (ippr) and ‘social productivity’ (RSA) in the public sector, see citizens as a vital source of value and innovation.

Although this is a very basic overview of how organisations are responding to low trust, poor performance and reputational risk, it is notable how little these ways of thinking seem to have permeated many traditional political parties.    

Progressive authenticity?

What if the modern problem for social democratic organisations is not values, putative policies or communication but their character? Do progressive parties too have a mobilising myth of victimhood which helps justify behaviours which fail to align with modern progressive values and popular expectations?

The fundamental question is whether the dynamic, open, devolved, emotionally engaging character of new parties and movements at their best can be reconciled with the disciplines and compromises of winning and holding executive power. This is a hard question but if social democratic parties don’t at least try to find a positive answer the outlook for them – and indeed for stable representative democracy more generally - may be bleak. 

More positively there is an urgent need to find ways of combining aspects of old and new power overcoming the legitimacy crisis of the first and the limited practicability of the latter. As Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms recently argued in the Harvard Business Review: 

Old power works like a currency. It is held by few. Once gained, it is jealously guarded, and the powerful have a substantial store of it to spend. It is closed, inaccessible, and leader-driven. It downloads, and it captures. New power operates differently, like a current. It is made by many. It is open, participatory, and peer-driven. It uploads, and it distributes. Like water or electricity, it’s most forceful when it surges. The goal with new power is not to hoard it but to channel it.

The battle and the balancing between old and new power will be a defining feature of society and business in the coming years

How might parties change?

It is easy to pay lip service to the need for profound culture change. Every newly elected leader promises to restore trust and there are no doubt examples of good practice to be found (and celebrated) in social democratic parties. However, a destiny-shifting change in organisational character requires a broad, concerted and radical programme of reform. Most social democratic parties still seem to suffer from what Robert Kegan calls ‘immunity to change’.

How might social democrats go about starting to combine new organisational models with the need to be credible parties of government?

In relation to character and organisational culture, new styles and forms are needed. Practicality need not be the enemy of idealism. Progressives need to exude intellectual and personal optimism based on a substantive and idealistic view of human potential (what Unger calls ‘the larger life’). And the values that leaders espouse for society need to be manifest in parties’ ways of working. Progressive leadership should be open, honest, inclusive and adventurous. And in terms of behavioural norms there needs to be zero tolerance of behind closed doors sectarianism or favouritism based on either factions or people. In an age that prizes authenticity for parties to espouse meritocracy and optimism about human character then openly contradict this in the Party’s own behaviours is close to suicidal.    

When it comes to governance the often sham internal democracies of parties need to be blown open aiming for alignment between real decision making power and formal democratic mechanisms through the reform of both. In more centralised systems there must be a devolution of power, maximising the space for experimentation and the systems to enable parties to learn quickly – as social movements do - from grassroots innovation. And on representation, parties must grow a leadership cadre truly representing the background and life experiences of the public and particularly those in whose interests social democrats claim to be acting.

Finally, in terms of activism, progressive parties needs to cultivate a politics of personal development and growth (learning here from the models of movements like Occupy, London Citizens, Ashoka, ‘Good for Nothing’ or even the RSA Fellowship). Instead of using technology simply as a transmission and fund raising tool its transformative potential is to open up debate, create platforms for new ideas and experiments and to personalise political engagement. Most of all, progressivism must be a model of politics that does not wait to win office to make change but is about doing the right stuff right now through partnership and collaboration.


The nature of power is shifting yet social democratic organisations continue too often to exemplify a model of hierarchical bureaucracy, tending to see power as a zero-sum quantity won or lost internally in factional battles and externally in elections.

But power is dynamic, fluid and positive sum (the same team of people can be powerless or powerful depending on how they work together). It can be generated – in whatever circumstances - through creativity, collaboration, integrity and generosity. The phrase  ‘in’ or ‘out of power’ may refer to control of the Government but it also speaks to a more fundamental problem with how the leadership cadre of social democratic parties think about change. 

In a global survey of private, public and third sector organisations with a strong record for talent, success and innovation, Charles Leadbeater concluded that they could all be described using a simple phrase combining values-based leadership, collaboration and the scope for autonomy and innovation: What would be required for established social democratic parties to become ‘creative communities with a cause’?

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  • I wrote in my comment on a few days ago: "I hope someone will write a popular Laloux-style book about 'Reinventing Politics and Policy', to showcase the most engaging and transformative practices, organisations, think-tanks, governments, movements etc."

    Since then Steve Hilton's book "More Human" has been published - I've not read it yet, but it looks rather as if it applies a Laloux-esque human scale approach to the realm of politics and government policy etc.

    It's been so popular that Amazon ran out of copies. And Newsnight gave him a prominent slot for his own film about the 'More Human' message.

    I've seen no sign that Steve Hilton has come across Laloux's work (though, like I said, don't have a copy yet to check), or the case studies in it, such as Buurtzorg - which has transformed one area of healthcare by removing the bureaucracy/management layer.

    Matthew Mezey

  • Democratic enlightenment has to be pursued to achieve progressive change in politics. Such enlightenment is only found in the balanced mind of the individual or group. Knowledge of the human mind has to be understood through study of the make up of the individual's values, to enable assessment to be made. Response from a statement allows values to be measured as to the level of enlightenment and open mindedness. The statement could be such as 'There are two types of capitalism in the world, one brings love and peace, the other creates war and human suffering'.  From the answer given such a statement gives an idea of the individual mind's ability to cope with change.     

  • Very interesting, and clearly written by someone who knows their stuff.  A bit of clarity on one part would be appreciated, though:  "Old parties like old people may choose managed decline over the exhausting process of self-transformation."

    Ummmm... Apparently the author thinks that old people choose managed decline rather than get their act together and reverse inevitable cellular atrophy?  I found that comment jarring and unnecessary.... or am I missing something?

  • Hi Matthew,

    You seem to have so far missed a potentially crucial connection between what you're saying here and the growing number of pioneering and egalitarian 'Next Stage' practices and organisations described in Frederic Laloux's 'Reinventing Organisations'. (ie Organisations that have successfully closed the current 'mismatch' you lament).

    You mention a need to "observe proper processes in areas such as HR, governance, reporting and transparency".

    But today's 'Proper processes' are not going to solve this 'mismatch' you mention - they are the CAUSE of the mismatch, not the solution to it.

    Making everyday use of 'Liberating Structures', for example, might begin solve the internal cultural mismatch by making all our meetings creative and engaging - or of the 'Technology of Participation' group processes that the RSA briefly* experimented with across the staff and Fellowship (*though successfully: they created the times I saw staff most come out of their silos and really come alive!).

    If you're feeling curious - and brave - you could request the RSA staff fill in this survey - - to uncover how engaging and creative their current meetings are.

    All social democratic organisations could do the same - and start comparing themselves. Where is the most authenticity to be found? Where is the mismatch actually being forced into retreat?

    The most progressive organisations have made a quantum leap forward in the areas of democratising, involvement, authenticity/wholeness etc - and places like Buurtzorg have entirely removed management! (Laloux and friends will document all these practices on a wiki, starting with a wikithon in a week or two. Based on his book, of course, but continuing to evolve).

    Surely these pioneering practices must be reaching deeply into the world of politics too, in a few places?

    I hope someone will write a popular Laloux-style book about 'Reinventing Politics and Policy', to showcase the most engaging and transformative practices, organisations, think-tanks, governments, movements etc.

    (I've not yet read 'From Arrogance to Intimacy - a handbook for active democracies' co-authored by Andy Williamson FRSA - I'm sure it's going a long way in this direction).

    My friend Indra Adnan has started to make the connection, in the 25th anniversary (god I feel old!) of 'New Times' position paper she co-wrote with Neal Lawson recently - mentioning a certain amount of Laloux's work.

    Final speculative thought: social democratic parties will win again - but only if they foster 'post-tribal' political leaders and 'post-tribal' political thinking in their supporters.

    Want to know how Post-Tribal you are yourself? Have a go at filling out my little 'Post-Tribal Political IQ' assessment:

    (It's more of a self-reflection tool, to be honest… Even mentions Jonathan Haidt).

    Warm wishes,

    Matthew Kalman Mezey

  • If not presumptuous to say so, I thought this was brilliant, thank you. Much to reflect on here, great ideas and observations. Thank you.

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