Daniel Esson discusses social democracy in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The COVID-19 pandemic has, at least temporarily, reshaped the relationship between the state and the economy, with even parties of the right now using the power of the state in the market. Social democracy has long been the proponent of such intervention, but with the right now adopting these policies out of necessity, the left should reassert its ownership of them.
Once one of Europe’s most successful families of parties, social democracy originated as a form of revisionist Marxism dedicated to socialism through parliamentary means. It later morphed into a cross class coalition, building the welfare state across Europe, then further reinventing itself in a shift to the centre to sustain itself amid the turbulence of globalisation – a trend seen across Europe.
Respected historian Donald Sassoon pointed out that most social democratic parties underwent makeovers post-war, attempting to broaden electoral appeal in the face of the revelation that their core vote - industrial workers - could not deliver majority governments alone. Most centre-left parties in Europe flirted with the Third Way, an evolution of the attempt to expand their vote share in the wake of a declining industrial working class.
This approach didn’t have the desired effect. Whilst social democratic parties were at the peak of this attempt to hoover up support from the entire political spectrum, their vote share fell into an ongoing decline, which some consider to be terminal. There is sound evidence to argue that social democratic support has collapsed alongside the percentage of workers employed in industry, and due to the decreasing voter turnout in their core support.
The 2008 banking crash put the nail in its coffin, as millions suffered the wrath of liberalised financial regulations, often backed to the hilt by supposedly progressive parties. This has left a scar across the legacy of social democracy. This damage is particularly felt by the Labour Party, once a shining example of social democracy but ejected from office in 2010 and having a rough time ever since. Because of the Third Way and its consequences, on much of the modern left, social democracy is a term more associated with Blair than Brandt, with PFIs rather than social ownership and the welfare state.
The Third Way is finished, but what’s next?
The ongoing pandemic provides an opportunity for British and European social democracy. As conservative governments like the UK's intervene and invest in the economy, uncharacteristically but out of necessity, the left should take the initiative in an argument they have effectively won. The social democratic governments of Denmark and Finland are starting to do this; with both implementing highly targeted economic support measures, whilst making clear an alternative vision for the post-COVID economy. But the European left should aim higher. As the economy recovers from the COVID shock the left could set the terms for the economic debate of the future through a reinvigorated call for public ownership and accountability throughout the economy.
The Third Way is mostly dead and buried. In trying to please everyone, it ended up pleasing few. Returning to the politics of pre-2008 is about as viable an argument on the left as reopening the coalfields, modern social democracy scarcely advocates these things, and nor should it. The left needs to position itself as a serious force for government. The 2010s’ wave of “left-populism” has proven not so popular; breaking upon European shores hard and fast but not supplanting social democratic parties as some had hoped.
In Europe, the decline of social democracy may yet prove non-fatal; in Spain the social democratic PSOE is back in government as major partner in a left-wing coalition. In Denmark the social democrats have been returned to government, with their new immigration policies widely seen as part of the reason.
The challenge for the left, and for the British left in particular, is to take advantage of the political and economic change the pandemic will bring, and to own the argument. This needs to be the start of a new chapter for the left. If social democracy is to reassert itself, this opportunity shouldn’t be wasted.
This article was shortlisted as one of twelve finalist pieces in the Young Fabians Political Writing Competition 2020.
Daniel Esson is a third year politics student at the university of kent, and an aspiring writer, he also does work for the student newspaper.
He tweets at @dannyesson.