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Social democracy • political parties

Revitalising social democracy

Matthew Taylor - 02 October 2015

How can social democrats go about reimagining a 21st century mass party – a response to Guillaume Liegey

The picture for traditional social democratic parties varies from country to country; from the disintegration of Pasok, to the Swedish Social Democrats squeezing back into power. But generally, traditional social democratic parties are on the retreat and lack credible ideas about how to restore their vitality and fortunes. The current situation of the Labour party, defeated, divided and potentially disintegrating, is another stark example of how things can go quickly from bad to much worse.

Guillaume Liegey has offered an interesting analysis of the challenge facing traditional social democratic parties. He sees the problem as fundamentally one of civic engagement. New political organisations, with the single-issue appeal of sites such as Avaaz or the radicalism of parties such as Podemos, have “created new civic engagement models that look more appealing to citizens of the 21st century”. The institutions and organisations which embedded Labour in the lives of working people in the 20th century are no longer relevant. Progressive parties must realise this, and pursue new ways of becoming “indispensable organisations that provide indispensable services to their people”.

Liegey proposes four ways in which progressive parties might be able to do this. First, they must promote a progressive agenda, starting with inequality and redistribution. This means building real relationships in communities, listening to how ordinary people perceive these issues, and constructing arguments which speak to these perceptions.

Second, parties must aim for a long-run increase in turnout, promoting sustainable and meaningful public engagement in the party.

Third, parties must become incubators for people who want to further progressive politics. This means engaging with activists and organisations outside of the party, “becoming an inclusive incubator for community organising projects”.

Finally, parties must train talents to lead the government of the future, diversifying the profile of their candidates, and headhunting interesting candidates who could be coached to run for office.

Liegey’s four identified issues are important aspects of progressive rejuvenation. However, I suggest there are other, arguably equally fundamental, issues that Liegey does not explicitly address.

Is the problem of old social democratic parties one of character – the organisational logics and conception of power woven deep into their culture? The preconditions for legitimacy in the 21st century are increasingly at odds with these logics. Legitimacy is now seen to require proper due process within institutions, such as meritocratic advancement and transparency; it demands ‘authenticity’ and alignment of stated and enacted values; it demands genuine and creative public involvement.  

The challenge of embracing new forms of power – horizontal, transparent, devolved, relational, and collaborative – must be reconciled with old, pragmatic ones – such as party discipline, policy negotiation and electoral compromise. It is essential that social democratic parties find a way to combine elements of old and new power.  

But changing the character of an established institution is a very tough, long-term process. Even if established parties were inclined to embark on such a profound process of change, it is far from clear they would be capable of doing so. Institutional logics run deep, and the process of changing them is unlikely to be beneficial to those with the power to do so.

How might social democrats go about reimagining a 21st century mass party? Here are some ideas:

Character and culture

  • Disposition – to tap into idealism progressives must be progressive; exuding intellectual and personal optimism based on a substantive view of human potential (what Roberto Mangabeira Unger calls “the larger life”). These values must be manifest in parties’ ways of working.
  • Leadership – must be open, honest, inclusive and adventurous. New models of leadership should learn from the huge literature on post-conventional leadership, a literature which seems hardly to have permeated traditional party organisations.
  • Respect – zero tolerance of internal factionalism or favouritism. For parties to espouse optimism about human character then openly contradict this in their own behaviours is deeply counterproductive.


Powers and organisation

  • Decision making – an alignment between real decision-making power and formal democratic methods (through reform of both).
  • Devolved working – a commitment to devolving power, maximising the space for experimentation and learning quickly from grassroots innovation.
  • Representation – a commitment to the leadership of progressive organisations truly representing the background and life experiences of the public and particularly those in whose interests social democrats claim to be acting.



  • Personal development – the development of a politics of personal development and growth for activists, as captured by Liegey’s directive to become incubators for future progressive leaders.
  • Technology – parties could use the transformative potential of technology not just as transmission mechanisms but to open up debate, create platforms and spaces for new ideas and experiments and to personalise political engagement.
  • Agency and responsibility – again in line with Liegey’s arguments, progressive politics is not about waiting to win office to make change but is about doing the right stuff now through partnership and collaboration.


In a global survey of private, public and third sector organisations with a strong record for talent, success and innovation, the future thinker and social designer Charles Leadbeater concluded that they could all be described using a simple phrase combining values-based leadership, collaboration and the scope for autonomy and innovation: what would be required for established social democratic parties to become “creative communities with a cause”?

Matthew Taylor is a former Labour party senior official and Downing Street adviser. He is currently Chief executive of the Royal Society of Arts but is writing in a personal capacity


This is a contribution to Policy Network's work on Party Politics, Government and Elections .

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Johann Herbst
05 October 2015 23:20

Some very good points, but speaking about revitalising, what about this: "The Tories have held Keighley in West Yorkshire since 2010, but there are signs that Jeremy Corbyn is dispelling the town’s disillusionment with Labour" http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/oct/04/they-all-know-his-name-jeremy-corbyn-reawakens-labour-loyalties-keighley-yorkshire

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