About us

Leading international thinktank and political network


Register for all the latest updates in our regular newsletter

Home Opinion In praise of revisionism: the social democratic challenge today

In praise of revisionism: the social democratic challenge today

Giles Radice - 15 May 2007



It is entirely appropriate that we should be discussing the case for Labour revisionism this afternoon.

First, the party is choosing a new leader - a leader who everybody agrees will be Gordon Brown.

Second, with the poor election results a fortnight ago and the Tories well ahead in the opinion polls, it is obviously a difficult time for Labour. Above all, ten years after Labour’s election victory the world is changing around us. If there was ever a right time for reappraisal, it must surely be now.

I want to begin by arguing that social democrats should have confidence in the revisionist method. Revisionism has a rich intellectual history.

Over a hundred years ago, the German Social Democrat, Eduard Bernstein, in his ground breaking Evolutionary Socialism, refuted the Marxist theory that capitalism was about to collapse by pointing out that the working class was becoming more prosperous and that democracy was giving socialist parties throughout Europe the opportunity to win power through the ballot box.

Fifty years later, the Labour politician and thinker, Anthony Crosland, in his revisionist classic The Future of Socialism, stated that socialism was about improving welfare and promoting more equality and not about public ownership which he saw as a means.

He made a crucial distinction between ends and means – the ends are the basic values, the means are the institutional or policy changes required to promote those values in the real world.

According to Crosland, though the values remain constant, the means are open to modification in the light of changing circumstances. As Crosland said, referring to nationalisation “the means most suitable in one generation may be wholly irrelevant in the next.” In that sense revisionist social democracy is provisional, always open to reappraisal.

I define revisionism as a caste of mind, a critical way of evaluating human affairs and politics in order to develop strategies and policies which are both informed by values and, at the same time, take account of reality and change.

In today’s world the revisionist challenge is above all about combining globalisation and working with the market with social justice, security, and opportunity for all.

There is a further point which is highly relevant to the work of Policy Network, concerned as it is with the cross fertilisation of social democratic ideas and policies.

All the most consistently successful of the European Social Democratic parties are revisionist, in that they are prepared to examine their direction in the light of changing circumstances.

I refer particularly to the Nordic parties, especially the Swedish Social Democrats, the German SPD, the Spanish Socialists and, over the last few years, the British Labour Party. The result of the French Presidential election – a third successive defeat for the Socialists – is a reminder of what happens when parties of the left fail to modernise their approach.

New Labour’s Revisionism

In 1995, British Labour, under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, formally changed its strategy. In 1959, Hugh Gaitskell then leader of the Labour Party tried to rewrite clause 4 part 4 (which committed the party to common ownership) and failed.

Learning the lesson of four election defeats, building on the Kinnock Smith reforms of the late 1980s, and early 1990s, and drawing on international experience, Tony Blair finally succeeded in rewriting the clause. As a symbol of the party’s new approach, the new clause 4 made no mention of nationalisation and little of policies.

Instead it was expressed almost exclusively in terms of values. Over the next two years, New Labour proceeded to modify the party’s policies in the light of changing circumstances – which was, of course, pure revisionism.

New Labour also assembled a governing majority, adding to Labour’s northern heartlands crucial backing from aspirant voters in the south and elsewhere who had previously withheld their support because they did not trust Kinnock’s Labour Party.

They believed that Labour would mismanage the economy, increase taxes and waste public spending, and be at the beck and call of the unions. In a Fabian pamphlet which I wrote in 1992, I called it Southern Discomfort. Tony Blair made Labour face up to social change and succeeded in regaining the support of these floating voters.

The adoption of Labour’s revisionist approach has resulted in the party winning, for the first time in its history, three successive elections. It has a substantial record of economic and social achievement to its credit.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, has presided over the longest period of sustained economic growth for at least a hundred years. Living standards have risen considerably, employment is high and stable, and unemployment low.

Since 2000 there have been record levels in education and health spending leading to rising education standards, falling hospital waiting lists, and improved cancer, cardiac and mental health services. 700,000 fewer children live in poverty.

For the first time since records began, the proportion of pensioners living in poverty is less than the average for the population as a whole. Equally significant, the terms of the argument about social welfare and the role of the state have shifted in Labour’s favour.

The Conservatives, under David Cameron, now have to debate with us how to improve public services rather than, as under Mrs Thatcher, how to cut them back. The Tories have been forced to compete on Labour’s ground. 

The Return of Southern Discomfort?

However Labour cannot win on its record alone. Voters take increasingly for granted what has been achieved in the past and want to know how the next government will deal with the problems which they now face and are likely to face in the future.

Ominously for Labour, there are clear signs of voter dissatisfaction. Quite apart from the fallout from Iraq - which has dominated the coverage of Tony Blair’s resignation - an even bigger danger in the longer run is that it looks as if the coalition which has sustained Labour in power is beginning to unravel.

Labour must not allow these current concerns to distract it from the real electoral challenge that we now face. 

Southern Discomfort may now be re-emerging in a new form. At the risk of repeating the point I made in my 1992 Fabian pamphlet, Labour cannot win elections by relying on its performance in the north, Scotland and Wales alone. It has also to do well in the south.

Half of Labour’s most vulnerable seats are situated in London and the south east and along the M4 and M1 corridors. Yet from 2004 onwards, the party has been steadily losing ground in the southern part of the country.

Only 2 of the 89 district and unitary authorities in southern England - outside London - are still held by Labour. It is not so much Scottish Discomfort but Southern Discomfort which is the real threat to Labour.                                                                                                           

At the next election, Labour will have to win back aspirant families (the so called C1 and C2s) in the south and the midlands who are feeling the impact of higher interest rates and experiencing the relative insecurity and low pay of many service and manufacturing jobs.

Despite the usual grumbles they are prepared to pay taxes for public services provided they think they are getting value for money.

However, though they see improvements in health and education, they are still doubtful whether they are getting value for money – especially with the big rises for doctors – and they are sometimes confused by the purpose of the changes that have been introduced.

First time buyers are facing acute difficulties in the housing market because of rising prices. Almost half need a gift or a loan from relatives in order to be able to buy a house.

And many blame immigration for pressure on housing, public services and wages. The economic case for immigration may be a strong one but for social and political reasons there have to be strict limits - as well as tough action against illegal immigration.

On all these issues, aspirant voters need to feel that their concerns are understood.

This is not an argument for abandoning our traditional objectives, especially the fight against poverty and redistribution from rich to poor. At its best, the party has always been a marriage of compassion and aspiration. 

Labour’s record on social justice has been a creditable one. In a survey in the FT (2nd May 2007) Jon Boone and Nicholas Timmins conclude that overall poverty has been reduced, though we shall have to go further and faster if child poverty is to be eliminated by 2020.

Whether income inequality has also fallen is more debatable, depending on whether one relies on individual or household data.

It can be said however that the steeply rising inequality of the Thatcher years has been halted. But a question that Labour might now ask itself is whether or not the super rich ( the top 1% whose share in the national income has doubled from 6% to 13% between 1979 and 1999) should be giving back more to society.

After all, it was David Cameron who said “We must show that we will be a party that is for working people, not rich and powerful vested interests” ( Anthony Giddens in Over to you Mr Brown  P119)

Labour has also to demonstrate that it has credible solutions to the new issues which are shaping our world – globalisation, immigration, international security, environment and climate change.

These are all global phenomena but very often they become local politics as well – for example on issues such as labour market insecurity, migration and the environment.

Above all, British governments have to convince voters that economic change can continue to be combined with social justice and security; otherwise, there could be a political reaction, as in France, against globalisation and open markets. 

Revisionism in one country’ is out of date

In today’s interdependent world, Crosland’s “revisionism in one country” is clearly out of date. Labour’s new Prime Minister will have to review our international as well as domestic policy. Quite soon, a decision will have to be taken about UK troops in Iraq.

More fundamentally, we shall have to reconsider the basis of liberal interventionism, the doctrine which took us into Sierra Leone, Kosovo, and Afghanistan, as well as Iraq.

If there are good arguments for international intervention on humanitarian grounds, as set out in Tony Blair’s 1999 Chicago speech, the ill defined case for the Iraq war and the lack of planning post war has underlined the need to spell out more clearly the criteria for intervention and how to get international agreement for it.

Britain cannot go it alone. Already our armed forces are seriously overstretched. As a medium sized power of only 60 million people we do not have enough troops and resources to play the role of policeman around the world.

Since 1945 our alliances have always been vital to making our weight count in the world. Like his predecessors, Prime Minister Blair has tried to balance between our so called special relationship with the United States and our membership of the European Union.

The question that has to be asked is whether the Labour government has given too high a priority to its relationship with the US at the cost of its relations with fellow members of the European Union and without increasing British influence in Washington.

While the idea espoused by Jacques Chirac of building up Europe as a counterweight to the USA was both unrealistic and counter productive,

there is a strong case for working more closely with our European allies to build up a common European position, as over Iran. This could help both Britain and Europe reengage a United States which is rediscovering the merits of multilateralism.

Under Tony Blair, Britain has been more influential in Europe – on enlargement, increased cooperation on defence (especially with France) and economic reform – though to my disappointment the opportunity to join the euro was rejected, in retrospect as early as 1997.

But if the UK under Labour has played a more important role in Europe, it has failed to persuade the British people of the merits of EU membership.

Gordon Brown will have to make a new case for Europe. The essence of this case is that, without a strong and effective EU, Europe’s nation states will lose their chance to shape and manage globalisation.

The European Council this March recognised this for the crucial issues of energy and climate change, but the argument for a stronger Europe, coordinating more effectively the policies of member states, is equally valid in the case of trade, international development, Africa, migration and security.

Hopefully, a pragmatic alliance between Prime Minister Brown, Chancellor Merkel and the new French President Nicolas Sarkozy will be able to give the European Union leadership on such crucial issues as economic social and institutional reform to the benefit of both Britain and Europe.

It is to the interests of all Europeans that the crisis over the so called constitutional treaty, so firmly rejected by the French and Dutch voters in 2005, is resolved.

A sensible way forward, as proposed by the British and Dutch governments and also accepted by Nicolas Sarkozy, would be to retain only those parts of the original treaty which enable the EU to work more effectively – both internally and as an actor in the world. 


After 10 years as a successful Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown is highly qualified to be Prime Minister. As Chancellor he has shown himself to be authoritative, resilient and strategically far sighted.

As Prime Minister, he will be in a strong position to appoint a fresh and inclusive governmental team, unite the party and country and offer people new hope. 

He has a hard task in front of him. Labour has been in power for 10 years and, as the examples of Margaret Thatcher and Clement Attlee both show, it is difficult to regenerate a party while it is still in government. That is one reason why genuine fresh thinking – a new phase of revisionism – is now so vital.

What is needed is a carefully worked out reform strategy, linked to Labour’s values and building on Labour’s success in government, but acknowledging mistakes and weaknesses, learning lessons, where appropriate, from Europe and elsewhere, and, above all, taking account of changing conditions.

We can be proud of our achievements but we will only win again if we look to the future.

Add comment


Enter the code shown:

The Policy Network Observatory promotes critical debate and reflection on progressive politics. It is centre-left orientated but determinedly challenges social democracy. It is pro-European but restlessly questions EU institutions and practices.

Most read this month

Search Posts

search form
  • Keyword
  • Title
  • Author
  • Date posted