Where next for social democracy in Britain?

I recently did some reflecting on the policy challenges facing the British centre-left during the next five years. A result is this post, which I should warn you up front is a longish read, but of interest I hope.

Of all the tricky issues facing progressives over the next few years, two stand out for me: the European question, and public disenchantment with mainstream politics.

Most readers of my blog will hardly need persuading that Brexit would be a disaster for the UK in every respect. It would challenge the country’s political cohesion and social cohesion. The quality of life for millions of Britons stands to be materially damaged. Many, many people will lose their jobs, the country (what’s left of it) will be poorer, services will suffer (further), people will be pushed (further) into poverty. Environmental, consumer, food quality, health, and employment standards would be weakened or abandoned. This would be a progressive nightmare. But so far the case for staying in the EU is being made primarily by the centre-right and by business groups. Business certainly has something to say but it should not be the only voice, nor even the loudest voice. There is a very strong progressive case for staying in the EU and we should be making it much more clearly. It’s about quality of life.

Whatever happens in the referendum, progressive politics will have to tackle the aftermath. An exit is going to bring a host of problems, not least working out what kind of relationship we have going forward with our neighbours; but staying in will also be a headache. Staying in what exactly? Variable geometry seems a given for the future EU, will we be at the centre or at the fringes? And when should we expect the next neverendum? The campaign for another one will start the moment we vote to remain in the EU.

But debate over the UK’s EU membership is in some ways just a subset of a much bigger bundle of issues relating to the way we allow ourselves to be governed. There is a crisis in our democratic system and social democrats are taking much of the punishment. There’s a lot to unpick here. In the UK, under our first-past-the-post system for national elections, both major parties must appeal to a broad church. Their core voters see their chosen party as representing their values. But elections are not won by appealing to core voters, they are won by appealing to floating voters who swing between the two major parties, and these voters are probably influenced mostly by what they see as their interests. As both major parties have increasingly gone after these interests, so they have begun to bleed core voters who feel that their values are better represented by parties like the Greens and UKIP who don’t much care for consensus or compromise.

New Labour arose from the ashes of a Labour Party which, many felt, had lost touch with the interests of ‘middle England’ (ie floating voters). In correcting this, New Labour may have gone too far in the other direction and alienated many people who came to feel that the party no longer represented their values. Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership is the result. What Labour ‘moderates’ need to do now is to reconnect values and interests; they need to make the case to their party members and to the wider public that they do represent progressive values while also delivering results for ‘middle England’. The Blairite solution – rightly or wrongly seen as embracing austerity, overly business-friendly, and amenable to if not openly advocating deregulation and small(er) government – has been roundly rejected by the party membership. Labour’s moderates need to get over their rejection and reconnect with their base. A disunited party will never get out of opposition.

I believe there is a way forward for progressives which recouples values and interests. Like the EU, it’s about offering people a higher quality of life. But to get there we need to break out of the mould of established British politics, and overcome some of Westminster and Whitehall’s mental blocks.

One of these is taxation (closely linked to austerity). For decades now, right and left have vied with each other to be seen as ‘safe’ on tax. Whatever they have actually done in government, campaigning on a platform of raising or even maintaining taxation levels has been taboo. This has simply become an accepted fact of mainstream British politics in much the same way that the Queen is a national treasure above criticism, poppies must be worn from late September onwards, and house prices must always go up.

Ah yes, house prices. The British property market is seriously broken – in ways which are too numerous to go into here – and this empoverishes millions of people in the UK. But who in Westminster or Fleet Street is pushing for meaningful regulation of the housing and rental market?

And here’s another mental block: the pre-eminent status of Westminster in our national political life. I have blogged about this elsewhere. Aversion to, disinterest in, and disrespect for, other tiers of government (local, regional, European) is hard-baked into British politics and it’s closely related to the similar aversion to/disinclination for serious electoral reform.

Really this is about reflexive thinking in our political culture. Sometimes, you have to be an outsider to see past a group’s collective assumptions. For example, when I was at the Foreign Office, I observed that many colleagues took it for granted that the UK’s historic advocacy of EU enlargement was a principled position which won respect if not always support from other EU Member States. As an outsider, I saw otherwise. I told my colleagues that the UK’s position was often seen as self-interested and hypocritical, hiding behind the reluctance of countries like Germany and the Netherlands, knowing that its bluff would never be called thanks to them. Sir Humphrey’s explanation is taken as the literal truth by many of our partners, it seems to fit the facts. Whether it is the truth is besides the point, the fact is that Whitehall and Westminster insiders were guilty of drinking the kool-aid. And this is also true when it comes to issues like taxation, property prices, and constitutional reform.

Other countries do things differently, even quite similar countries, like Germany, Belgium, Sweden, France, and Canada. As someone who has spent over half my life in some of those other countries, I can’t respect these sacred cows of British politics. I see that people in highly taxed countries like Belgium and France have a quality of life which surpasses a typical British person’s. Just because you pay a lot of tax does not mean that you don’t get to have nice things – often, it’s the opposite. Childcare, healthcare, transport, and other publicly subsidised services mean that monthly costs for many Belgians are much lower than they are for the British. Belgium is a highly regulated country, but those regulations often address issues which are a problem in Britain – for example, housing. Property is affordable in Belgium because the regulatory environment works against treating housing as an investment; and tenants and landlords both enjoy a high degree of protection. And having a written constitution, with a federal system of government, and proportional representation, can deliver very high performing governance which better represents people, is more accountable, and engages citizens.

Like the campaign to stay in the European Union, this is about quality of life. Shouldn’t a decent standard of living count for more to most people than whether their home appreciates in value and whether they save a couple of pence in the next Budget? Shouldn’t this be the rock solid baseline from which the centre-left builds its case to govern? But this message isn’t getting across to the people it should reach. How does one persuade Ms Middle England that her interests are not inexorably rising property values and low taxation but subsidised, guaranteed childcare, decent public services, affordable housing, protected rents, and yes, continued EU membership?

I think the answer has to be a twin approach, top down and bottom up. Social democrats need to show courage and leadership, telling a story which resonates with voters about their quality of life and how it can be improved. This story needs to draw on ideas and experiences from around the world to demonstrate that a better life is possible. It also needs to challenge these ingrained assumptions which stifle innovation in British politics. It needs creative, adventurous thinkers who don’t mind breaking taboos. But it also needs civic engagement. People need to feel that they have a stake, and a say. Civic virtue is something we associate with Socrates and Aristotle, it’s missing from our modern vocabulary. We need to find ways to reconnect people with their politics in a way which comes much more naturally to, say, Canadians, who seem (in my limited experience) to have a stronger connection to their communities and a better understanding that you get out what you put in. Some clever people are doing interesting work on this – Demsoc for instance. I’d like to see progressive think tanks forming alliances and coalitions with organisations like Demsoc in order to bring these strands together. An essential aspect will have to be building links between people in different countries. This is where the EU has already done a great deal, and why continued EU membership is so crucial for the UK: the people to people connections forged through programmes like Erasmus do so much to spread enlightenment and dispel ignorance. We should do much, much more of this.

In trying to tie up these various threads, I run up against a typical policy conundrum. There’s a virtuous circle there – creative progressive policy-making feeds public engagement feeds creative progressive policy-making, etc – but how does one get it started? I see two possible ways in.

The first is the discussion which has already begun in British progressive circles about “predistribution”. While I find that I dislike the neologism, I think it captures notions of social justice and economic fairness which are taken for granted in some of our partner countries where a higher tax burden is not about redistribution in the form of benefits so much as levelling the playing field up front and delivering high quality public services to all. This is an anti-austerity vision which can appeal right across the board, the challenge is how to communicate this to people.

Which brings me to the second potential entry point: devolution. The Scottish referendum in September 2014 shook things up. Levels of engagement soared. People saw that government doesn’t have to mean Westminster (or indeed Brussels). You might not hear about it from London-based news services, but devolution is happening. The localism being pushed by a radical government intent upon downsizing its place in our national life creates a vacuum which other tiers of government are willing to fill. And it’s exciting for politics right across the UK, including England. We have talented people working in local government who are pushing ahead with new engagement strategies to involve local residents in decision-making. We can only hope that, as local government takes up the slack and engages local residents, the British public will finally begin to take more of an interest in local politics as something of significance in its own right and not merely a proxy for the national two-way battle.

This post has already gone on for too long, but there’s one issue which I’ve only touched on tangentially: populism. Populism is what happens when this goes wrong. It’s the easy option when politicians lack the energy, intelligence, or creativity to treat voters like adults and persuade them to think differently. It’s why Cameron is going after migrants on benefits rather than pursuing meaningful EU reform. It’s why Labour went after migrants in the last election rather than challenge austerity. Politicians can’t blame the people if populists like Farage steal away voters when those same politicians haven’t offered a persuasive, positive alternative. No-one is saying it’s easy, but real politicians did not go into politics because it’s easy.

In Britain, it’s no exaggeration to say that the centre-left is in crisis. The road back to government will be a long one. It needs to begin with the campaign to stay in the EU and build from there. It needs to focus relentlessly on the interests of the many people in Britain who feel disillusioned with politics because their quality of life is suffering. It needs to show these people that there are alternatives to the Thatcherite vision of individualism and competition. It needs to reconnect with its values of collectivism and social justice without abandoning its valid claim to represent true aspiration and social mobility. And it needs to rehabilitate the old fashioned concept of civic virtue by persuading citizens to engage actively in civic life.

One thought on “Where next for social democracy in Britain?

  1. mal

    Taking the house price part of your argument, I’d argue it’s not an entrenched position to ensure prices never fall, it’s a continually reasoned one. Lots of those floating voters have mortgages, and aren’t interested in being out of pocket when they sell up. I suspect there aren’t yet enough people trying to get on the housing ladder proper to counterbalance their effect, but perhaps we’re getting close – I dunno.

    While I believe very few people aren’t able to delay gratification, the actions of the UK parliament actively discourage people from delaying anything, because they know that in four years there’s likely another party in power, and even if there isn’t, most (UK?) politicians are two-faced enough to change policy and to not grant payback in any meaningful form when the time comes. I’m not sure how that relates to the house prices problem to be honest; payback in that model is more that the system isn’t broken for other people, so for an individual voter it would be largely altruistic, but it is a general problem in trying to convince anyone to vote progressive.

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