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Home Opinion Left parties have lost their way
Triangulation • Strategy • Progressivism

Left parties have lost their way

Patrick Diamond - 27 September 2012

Political parties on the European centre-left need to avoid been caught between instrumentalism (the practice of ‘spin’ politics and tactical manipulation); and utopianism (seeking to rediscover lost dreams and visions)

The debate following the publication of Policy Network’s programmatic statement, A Centre-Left Project for New Times, has been rich and inspiring. Nonetheless, the conclusions drawn about the state of social democracy have been notably pessimistic.

The authors are not alone in observing that social democracy has lost its way in the aftermath of the financial crisis. The third way, it seems, reached the end of the ideological road. In the ensuing confusion, Left parties have been caught between instrumentalism – the practice of ‘spin’ politics and tactical manipulation; and utopianism – seeking to rediscover lost dreams and visions. They have overlooked the importance of forging a distinctive political strategy - working out what they perceive is wrong with the world, and how they ought to go about changing it. François Hollande’s ascendency to the French presidency is a cause of hope, but the socialists face formidable governing challenges, and France has yet to confront the burdens of austerity.  

Meanwhile, the moderate ‘compassionate’ conservatism so beloved of David Cameron in the UK and Frederik Reinfeld in Sweden has merely intensified the electoral competition. This rendered the strategic triangulation of the third way against Left and Right increasingly obsolete. Social democrats have to develop a more compelling and arresting vision. The ambiguity of the third way and its tendency towards depoliticisation and technocracy denuded electorates of hope that Left parties were capable of safeguarding their interests and positively shaping the future of their societies.

This underlines the point that depicting modern social democratic ideology as an unproblematic adaptation to contemporary social and economic conditions is highly questionable. As Simon Griffiths has written, positing an unchanging relationship between means and ends is untenable. New Labour redefined the traditional relationship between social democracy and one of the Left’s most sacred ethical objectives – equality – in the process inverting the distinction between means and ends. As a consequence, equality of opportunity came to serve the goal of economic efficiency. New Labour learned to ‘love’ markets embracing notions of a thriving ‘knowledge society’. Steven Fielding similarly laments New Labour’s inattention to the core normative ideal of equality.  

On the other hand, an interpretation based on the radical discontinuities of modern social democracy is misleading. Social democrats have always grappled with thorny questions relating to the nature of modern capitalism and markets. New Labour and the leading revisionist parties in continental Europe were hardly exceptional. While social democracy has always been a ‘pro-capitalist’ doctrine, the third way has a different understanding of what drives growth and prosperity in a capitalist society.

According to Jenny Andersson, the third way suggests that the new economy is, ‘somehow detached from the logics of capital accumulation and there is something inherent in a capitalist order that works for the development of human potential’. But the emphasis on human capital acquisition and the commodification of knowledge changed the very meaning of social democracy.

An alternative approach employed in A Centre-Left Project for New Times is to consider the key constraints and dilemmas facing contemporary social democracy. Centre-Left parties have always faced an awkward strategic choice: should they transcend the capitalist system, or seek to reform it?

Answering this question has become even more important since the global financial crisis. Social democrats have had to choose between intervening in capitalist markets to ameliorate their destructive effects; and enhancing capitalist efficiency through social intervention by preparing children and young people for the information society through investment in education and knowledge.

While New Labour was orientated towards social interventionism, the Blair and Brown Governments sought to temper the worst excesses of markets by introducing the national minimum wage, strengthening employment regulation, and developing measures to tackle ‘in-work’ poverty. What they neglected was proper regulatory oversight of financial markets. The party quickly became identified in the public’s mind with the boom and lax regulation that had provoked the worst financial meltdown since the 1930s, as Anthony Painter makes clear.     

Jenny Andersson in her book on Social Democracy and Capitalism in an Age of Knowledge characterised the Swedish SAP and British Labour parties as, ‘both soul mates and opposites’.

One key distinction is that the Swedish SAP never sought to abolish capitalism, and so historically felt free to critique the dominant economic system. In contrast, the Labour party had a utopian strand which sought to eradicate capitalism and establish an alternative economic system no longer focused on private property and greed. This put the party continually on the defensive concerning its real intentions regarding economic policy and state management. Indeed, it may have led British Labour to overeagerly embrace the new capitalist politics premised on the shift towards a knowledge-based economy. It is perhaps hardly surprising that the party developed an excessively benign view of financialisation, along with the impact of the global integration of capital and financial markets on the historical aspirations of social democracy.   

An invidious implication of the third way was the notion that there was only one pre-ordained future, rather than a series of options and choices made possible by the exercise of skilled leadership. This alludes to an even greater challenge for the centre-left – the collapse of faith in liberal democracy itself.

As Adrian Pabst makes clear in his contribution, serious weaknesses in market liberalism and representative democracy have been exposed by the crisis. By encouraging the convergence of market and state, neo-liberalism created a damaging spiral of boom and bust, while the social bonds and civic ties on which vibrant democracies depend have been substantially eroded over the last thirty years.

Progressives hoped that the Obama presidency might serve as the catalyst for a wider revival, both of liberalism and the Left. So far, the signs are not encouraging. The President has established himself as a ‘problem-solver’ with little appetite for grand narratives and overarching ideas. Rather than merely accommodating themselves to contemporary realities, however, left of centre parties should rediscover enriching lineages and traditions of thought rooted in social democracy and social liberalism. They should draw on their past in order to map a fresh path to the future.

Patrick Diamond is senior research fellow at Policy Network and Nuffield College, Oxford

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

Tags: Social Democracy , Third Way , Triangulation , François Hollande , France Austerity , Compassionate Conservatism , Conservative Party , David Cameron , UK , Britain , Frederik Reinfeld , Sweden , Jenny Andersson , Steven Fielding , Simon Griffiths , New Labour , Labour Party , Market , Finance , Economy , SAP , Swedish Social Democratic Workers' Party , Sveriges socialdemokratiska arbetareparti , Adrian Pabst , Gordon Brown , Tony Blair , Barack Obama , Political Strategy , Progressivism ,

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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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