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Home Opinion Inequality takes centre-stage
Labour • Social Democracy • Revisionism

Inequality takes centre-stage

Steven Fielding - 08 June 2012

Labour must confidently step away from the mantra that political focus on inequality threatens the ‘aspirations’ of the majority

All political ideologies, if they are to remain relevant, are in a constant state of revision, social democracy possibly more than most: failure breeds change.

The Policy Network pamphlet A Centre Left Project for New Times highlights the acute dilemma faced by serious social democrats wanting to get back into office. What’s the point of social democracy, it asks, if it doesn’t have ‘distinctive values’; but what’s the point of those values if they do not resonate with people whose support is needed if they are to ever be applied in office? That this remains a vital question is due to one of history’s ironies: a movement explicitly designed to improve the lives of the vast majority has never won the support of that majority.  

In trying to solve this problem, since Eduard Bernstein, the original revisionist, put pen to paper in the 1890s, social democracy has been revised in the same unremitting direction, one that has seen it’s practical distinctiveness increasingly questioned. Thus, over the decades, revisionists have de-emphasised the importance of the state as a means of achieving their ends and placed less significance on the working class as their electoral constituency.  

Some will argue that this was simply because times changed, a pragmatic claim that will be familiar to many British readers. Of course, there is much merit in this view - to deny change would have condemned social democracy to the museum. But while means and constituency may be transformed, even the most radical revisionist asserted that equality remained their over-riding and unique end.

New Labour was the ultimate expression of such revisionism. Tony Blair even liked to assert that he was not interested in ideology, only in what worked. However, Blair also claimed his Third Way outlined a ‘modernised social democracy’, one that embraced new means – the market - to pursue traditional ends – equality. In truth Blair accepted most of the prevailing neo-liberal ideas of the day – because they seemed to work - and so in his hands, ‘equality’ was redefined, renamed and relegated to the back of the bus. Yet, even Blair appreciated, just about, that social democracy needed to remain true, in some sense, to its established and distinctive purpose.

One reason for Blair’s handling of the issue was the plentiful focus group evidence that key voters in the 1990s did not like ‘equality’, associating it with giving their tax money to the undeserving poor. As he claimed to have done with Rupert Murdoch’s dominance of the British media, Blair did not even try to solve this problem but instead ‘managed’ it.

New Labour consequently talked tough and loudly about welfare ‘scroungers’. This rhetoric however covered a few modest but well-hidden attempts to redistribute income and help some escape poverty through new kinds of partnerships with the state. But, even before the fiscal crisis, these efforts failed to make Britain significantly less unequal.

The irony was that New Labour’s caution was ostensibly meant to appease southern C1/C2 voters’ hostility to ‘equality’. But these were precisely those, on average incomes, who benefitted least from the boom years and were hurt the most when the economic tide turned. As a consequence in 2010 they continued to view ‘equality’ as an issue not for the likes of them – and still associated Labour with giving doles to the lazy.

In this respect, the New Labour period is a lesson in the importance of social democrats being more confident in what makes them ideologically and practically distinctive. The new has its place in social democracy but so does the old. Deemed a successful leader Blair was usually unwilling to challenge people’s most confused and prejudiced assumptions – and while as chancellor Gordon Brown was responsible for what little New Labour did to reduce inequality he was afraid of letting anybody know about it.

New Labour, in other words, did not explore the kind of intellectual space A Centre-Left Project calls on social democrats to do now.  Frankly we do not know what would have happened had New Labour been ideologically braver but we do know that (according to British Social Attitudes) in 1994 51 per cent of Britons believed government should redistribute from the better off to the less well off and that by 2007, Blair’s last year as Prime Minister, only 32 per cent did.  Some believe that this shift of opinion was precisely due to New Labour’s own anti-redistributionist rhetoric: had Blair wanted to shift opinion the other way, he possibly could have.  

This is all easier said than done – there were good and ostensibly practical reasons why New Labour did what it did – and Blair won two landslides. But in some ways, the last few years has made the case for equality more not less easy. There is certainly now scope for arguing that one reason we are in the mess we are is thanks to an unaccountable super-rich elite making selfish decisions unconnected to ordinary people’s lives. Populism currently is the preserve of the far-right, why not the centre-left?

Of course, some 1990s revisionists will fear that by asserting the importance of equality social democrats will be seen as threatening the ‘aspirations’ of the majority. The New Labour years certainly helped reinforce the idea that equality and aspiration were mutually exclusive. But one does not need to be a genius to make the claim that greater equality can help the majority achieve their aspirations, especially in these difficult times. Social democrats just need the will to start making the case, loudly, imaginatively and confidently. Let’s see what happens – after all, we know what happens when they flinch from the task.

Steven Fielding is professor of political history and director of the Centre for British Politics at the University of Nottingham. Twitter: @PolProfSteve

Related Policy Network publications: A Centre-Left Project for New Times and After the Third Way

This is a contribution to Policy Network's work on Globalisation and Governance.

Tags: Steven Fielding , centre-left , After the third way , social democracy , Labour , Eduard Bernstein , Tony Blair , Rupert Murdoch , New Labour , elections , Gordon Brown


Lesley McDade
18 July 2015 09:54

This article is supposed to be about "Inequality" - something you do to yourself via your own subjectivity. Unequal is what others do to you via their subjectivity. Be objective - be equal - its more than a state of mind. As for Tony Blair, he was a barrister with a third class degree - how did he get to become Prime Minister when his policy was to bring in compromise of the application of the rule of law - a non-legal concept is not law - so why bring in a polarising concept which does the opposite in effect and thereby create a two tier society. The application of the rule of law is supposed to be universally applied - it contains the standards by which society is governed. But we saw a complete breakdown of those standards in the press, in Defence, in banking, in youth unemployment, in hospitals - Midstaffs. All because we want something cheaper and quicker and to not honour our contracts, in that regard there was a complete undermining of the common law. Lawyers and barristers and even judges - our educated and trained professionals did this to us. Bankers who are also educated and trained did the rest. Does not say too much for our teachers either especially at academic level. They all appear to be numpties per se or were completely fooled or brainwashed. So now we need a solution ... but you don't pick the poorest student to run the country! That's inequality.

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17 July 2012 10:01

The big battle for Labour if the party can bring iltesf to address it will be to rest power back from corporations. We're all familiar with the rising number of companies amongst the worlds largest economies. But the real implication of this shift is that, unlike nation states, these economies are not accountable to anyone except their shareholders. Not accountable for their economic impact, not accountable for their social impact and not accountable for their environmental impact. They are not democracies and they do not observe a social contract. And as the ongoing News International scandal illustrates, some have even come to consider themselves above the laws of the countries in which they operate.Just as the defining challenge for the Thatcher government was to bring the Trades Unions to heel, so I would suggest that for a Milliband, Blue Labour' administration will be to curb corporate power. It will be a bloody and painful battle, but it is essential if democracy in Britain is to mean anything. After all, what difference does the right to elect a government mean when we are all increasingly dependent on unelected, private sector organisations for our quality of life? We may have legislation to determine a minimum wage, maternity and paternity leave, pension rights and so forth but does any of this mean anything when the private sector has so externalised their costs that we all end up as freelancers on short-term contracts?

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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.

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