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Home Opinion The ends and means of social democracy
Centre-left • values • UK Labour Party

The ends and means of social democracy

Simon Griffiths - 16 July 2012

The centre-ground is there to be defined and claimed. A focus on abstract ends provides a way to cut through debates over market versus state

Tony Blair was fond of asserting that what mattered was what worked. Whilst New Labour was relaxed about the means it pursued, it was sometimes less clear in setting out what its ends were. As Labour re-examines its policies, after the economic crash and in the run up to the 2015 election, the authors of A Centre-Left Project for New Times have provided a clear and thoughtful synthesis of current debates in social democracy that is well worth reading. In this article I argue that their case would be strengthened with an additional discussion of the ends and means of social democracy.

The publication’s first chapter of sets out eloquently what are variously described as the governing values, core beliefs or ethical ideals of social democracy. The chapter argues for five guiding principles. Social democracy, the authors contest, stands for a market economy, the public realm, an ethical commitment to liberation; common citizenship and internationalism.

I would not disagree with any of this. However, I argue that there are prior questions about the ends of social democracy that might help to clarify the application of these principles. Social democrats need to paint a picture of the good life that they are seeking to achieve. Many of the principles set out above, such as belief in a market economy, are second to these more abstract ends.

The call to focus on social democratic ends sounds rather removed from day-to-day politics - too abstract to gain purchase in contemporary political debate. I would disagree with this. In the 1980s Thatcher was able to shift political debate to the right partly because she managed to claim an individualistic and entrepreneurial interpretation of freedom for her particular brand of Conservatism, and to construct a governing narrative around this language. By contrast, New Labour was often reticent about its ends, fearing perhaps that the centre ground did not share social democratic goals. Ed Miliband should be praised for realising that the centre ground is there to be defined and claimed – not simply to be accepted as others define it.

The distinction between ends and means is a perennial part of social democratic politics. It dates back at least to the German revisionist, Eduard Bernstein, in the 1890s. However, in the UK, it is Tony Crosland, in the 1950s, whose work is most pertinent. Crosland famously argued that in calling for a greater role for the state in the running of the economy, the Labour left confused ends and means. He argued that socialism was not about nationalisation (or ‘abstinence and a good filing system’ as he memorably put it) but about certain ends. The state was important to Crosland, but it was only important as a means of achieving a more equal society.

I argue that one end is crucial to a modern understanding of social democracy: freedom, including positive freedom understood as the ability to do or be something.  Putting this point another way (and drawing on the work of Amartya Sen) it is individuals’ capabilities that are crucial. Politics must be about giving people control of their own lives. But as the Labour peer Raymond Plant argues, it is creating greater equality of capabilities that social democrats should be striving for.

A greater focus on the ends of social democracy has important consequences. Seeing the state as a means to an end allows a more constructive debate about its role and scope. In response to a sustained ideological attack from the current coalition, some social democrats have fallen back on an understandable defence of the state, as the traditional means by which they were able to achieve their ends. Under this view the state is sometimes the embodiment of social democratic values. In contrast, a focus on abstract ends provides a way to cut through debates over market versus state. There are times in which the state is best placed to spread capabilities more equally and times the market or third sector are best able to do this. More importantly, the state is crucial in regulating and supporting other institutions that promote social democratic ends, such as civil society organisations.

The focus on ends allows a more considered pluralism of means. It eschews the idea that politicians and civil servants in Westminster and Whitehall are uniquely able pull the levers that create a more socially democratic society. The metaphor instead becomes the state as gardener, providing support for certain activities to flourish (for example, civil society groups that promote innovative responses to meeting social needs) and acting to control those that are more pernicious (such as concentrations of market power or failing public service providers). More prosaically, a variety of approaches must be taken to create more socially democratic ends. The state is sometimes involved directly, but often it facilitates, supports, nurtures or governs other organisations.

This approach straddles the fissures that have developed between liberalism and socialism over the twentieth century. It is obviously in the tradition of Labour’s socialist revisionists, such as Tony Crosland and Raymond Plant. But it also draws on the new liberals of the early twentieth century, many of whom were involved in the early Labour Party. A focus on the ends of social democracy involves progressives from all parties, allows a language to win popular support, and accepts a plurality of approaches to creating a society in which capabilities are spread as evenly as possible.

Simon Griffiths is lecturer in Politics at Goldsmiths, University of London

This article was in response to Policy Network’s publication A Centre-Left Project for New Times

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

Tags: Simon Griffiths , UK Labour Party , Tony Blair , social democracy , Policy Network , Margaret Thatcher , Ed Miliband , UK ,


10 January 2013 21:05

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07 January 2013 07:11

That's a sbutle way of thinking about it.

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