Opinion Articles


Social democracy, Europe and the 2019 general election


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The politicians have been keen to stress that this is the most important election in a generation. The electorate has appeared somewhat unmoved by such imprecations, despite the offer to “Get Brexit done”, deal with the climate emergency or embark upon a radical socialist transformation. However, even in a post-truth world, the politicians may be right in suggesting that this election will be decisive, even if this is not necessarily in the sense which they suggest.

Take first the position of the Labour Party. Friend and foe appear to agree that its 2019 offer is the most radical and socialist since 1983 or even 1945. It is certainly a very bold attempt to swim against the policy tide which has been flowing so strongly since 1979 but, in Labour Party terms, or indeed in post-war British political terms generally, this is not actually a very striking offer at all.

Until 1979, and the rise of Thatcherism, the British political scene was dominated by social democracy, whether Labour or the Conservatives were in power at any given moment. This social democratic consensus, albeit never very precisely defined, coalesced around a broad set of policies: full employment as a central goal of macro-economic strategy; egalitarian and redistributive approaches to taxation and public spending; strong trade unions; a mixed economy; a substantial public rented housing sector.

Labour’s position in 2019 fits neatly within this tradition. The proposal to build 100,000 council houses a year, to increase taxes on the top 5% of income earners, to restore trade union rights and to return to a mixed economy, with the utilities held in public ownership, would not have struck most politicians in the 1950s or 1960s as remarkable in any way.

However, of socialist policies as envisaged prior to 1979 there is little sign. The fault lines within the Labour Movement then lay between a Left which argued for public ownership not only of the utilities but also of the “commanding heights” of the economy along with “socialist planning”, and a Labour Right which supported a mixed economy, with a substantial private sector. Divisions in the realms of domestic policy were, however, as nothing compared with the bitter conflicts within the Movement over foreign affairs, in particular unilateral nuclear disarmament, disengagement from NATO and departure from the Common Market. All of these the Labour Left supported and the Labour Right promised to “fight, fight and fight again" to resist.

Such policies, and the associated divisions, scarcely feature in 2019. The Labour party is united in its commitment to the renewal of the Trident weapons system, to spending 2% of GDP on defence and to continued EU membership. Indeed, most Labour supporters (although perhaps not the Leader) are positively bubbling with enthusiasm for Remain.

2019 is not, therefore, so much an opportunity for a socialist transformation as a chance to reinvigorate the social democratic tradition. As has been observed, the Corbynite position is not very far from that adopted by the SDP in the 1980s when they broke away from the Labour Party. After all, their point of departure was principally over the issues of nuclear disarmament and Europe, there being much less of a gulf in relation to domestic policy.

Turning then to Brexit, and to the Conservatives, this election may not see Brexit “done”. After all, even if the UK does move into a transitional arrangement in January 2020, a permanent trade treaty remains to be negotiated. This may prove a long and difficult exercise. However, this election may well conclude the process by which the Conservatives, the “party of Europe” in the 1960s and 1970s, have become a political movement with no room for even the mildest of pro-European sentiment.

This process has been ongoing for at least 30 years. In a sense, the ascendancy of Boris Johnson (who forged his journalistic career by penning anti-EU articles from Brussels in the early 1990s) may plausibly be traced back to the events of the autumn of 1988. In September 1988, Jacques Delors, a French Socialist, and president of the European Commission, received a rapturous reception at the TUC Conference as he argued for increased European integration and E.E.C.-driven social development (Social Europe). A few days later, Thatcher, in a speech at Bruges, denounced Social Europe and made clear her intention that Brussels should not be allowed to undo the changes which her government had implemented since 1979.

This intersection, with the Labour Movement racing towards Brussels as the Conservatives began to plan their retreat, nicely encapsulates the attitude of the respective parties both to social democracy and to Europe. To Labour, the EU began, from the late 1980s onwards, to represent the social democratic bulwark which had been demolished domestically by Thatcherism. The Conservatives, by contrast, had begun to distrust the EU precisely because it was too social democratic for their taste.

A decisive Tory victory in the present Election would, therefore, mark the end not only of the U.K.’s membership of the EU but of any hope of a social democratic revival. A UK which pivots away from Europe, and towards North America, scarcely seems set fair to embrace European style social democratic policies. Moreover, the Conservative electoral strategy is heavily reliant upon the perceived desire of working-class voters to embrace Trumpian deregulation and privatisation in preference to a European mixed economy and welfare state.

Finally, this election may well prove decisive in respect of the future of Scotland within the Union. The Scots never appeared unduly impressed with the Thatcherite counter-revolution. The SNP has proved electorally successful by offering a mixture of social democratic policies at home and a strongly pro-European approach to foreign policy, laced with a little anti-American rhetoric (on issues such as nuclear weapons). If the UK as a whole votes to make a clean break with the EU, and to reject the social democratic offer put forward by Labour, it is hard to see that Scotland will see very much future within the Union. And without Scottish votes, the prospect of a social democratic government at Westminster recedes.

All this suggests that 2019 could indeed be a turning point election like 1945 or 1979. Departure from the EU, a rejection of a social democratic alternative by working-class voters, and Scottish independence would all appear to be working in the same direction, namely a further shift of the balance of wealth and power in favour of capital. Or, putting it another way, one can see Britannia Unchained becoming a real possibility, not merely a figment of the imagination of those on the Right of the Conservative party.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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