“When will you bring back socialism?” Ed Miliband was asked in 2013 by one of Labour’s possibly erstwhile supporters at an event. Ed’s response was: “That’s what we’re doing, sir.” While his response wasn’t particularly true (price freezes and matching Tory cuts like for like wasn’t exactly a Marxist agenda), it was a perception Miliband was happy to have people buy into. The then Labour leader clearly wanted to project the idea that socialism was alive and well in Britain. He clearly felt that enough people in the country bought into socialism as a concept. And then the parliament concluded with a general election that saw the Tories gaining enough seats for a majority.
Most social democratic parties in Europe have essentially been wedded to the goal of protecting the state as constructed in the immediate post-war period. The problem for the Labour Party is that it is not a social democratic party in the truest European sense – it uses the term democratic socialist, which may just seem like a minor switching around of two words to a lot of people but is in fact a key difference. A classic European social democratic party, as I say, is dedicated to preserving as much of the post-war settlement as possible; a democratic socialist party is, in theory at least, dedicated to full nationalisation of industry. So really, post-Clause IV moment, is Labour a socialist party in anything other than rhetorical terms? And if the answer to that is no, then what is the point of it exactly?
The Blair years seemed, at the time, to have put this question to rest for good. However, we can now see that there was simply a decade and a half moratorium on the subject. Blair was a political triangulator: the essence was to accept that Thatcher probably had a point or two about the unions, about propping up moribund industry, about the role of the free market in British society while saying there was a nicer alternative to Margaret’s purism. The idea of Blairism was to turn Thatcherism on its head and say, yes, those things are political realities but we should do what we can for those most badly affected by it. This was exactly what the country wanted, which is why Blair won three elections.
The problem was, as we see now, the Labour Party never truly accepted Blair’s ideas of what it should be if it wanted to win without deciding what it really preferred to be instead (and Blair’s tainting via Iraq is an unfortunate factor which adds further to the confusion). However, an even bigger problem for Labour now is that even within the growing ranks of those disaffected with politics as they currently stand and approach this disaffection from a leftish bent, there aren’t many who are actually keen on socialism in high numbers. Look at the brief but notable Green surge earlier this year, or Russell Brand’s populist form of discontent. It’s low on serviceable ideas, but the ethos is clear enough. It is a brand of far-left liberalism, one in which the state acts as a sort of guarantor of freedom. Whatever you can say about this, and there’s plenty I can say in the negative about it, it’s definitely not socialism.
I suppose as a liberal I’m somewhat throwing stones from a glasshouse here: the party that best represents my ideology has been reduced to eight seats. And is probably about to have a grand battle for what the term liberalism really means. However, liberalism, like conservatism, is an essential political construct. Although its definition will always be fought over, it will also always exist. Socialism does not have the same right to life. We look set for one party to dominate the conservative v liberalism debate in Britain (thus why twenty years of Tory hegemony could be ahead of us), unless liberalism can be captured by the Left in a way that appeals to a large slice of Britain. But unless something unexpected happens and Liz Kendall becomes Labour leader, this isn’t a debate Labour seems even remotely interested in engaging with.
geoffrey payne says
“A classic European social democratic party, as I say, is dedicated to preserving as much of the post-war settlement as possible; a democratic socialist party is, in theory at least, dedicated to full nationalisation of industry.”
The Labour party has not believed in anything like that since 1983, over 30 years ago. So by your definition the party must be social democrat.
Christopher Ball says
We never were socialist. Our government is obviously keen to move further away from a collectivist society in favour of a free market, every man for themselves society. Depending on how you look at the voting figures this doesn’t reflect anything like how we feel as a society. Thanks to our electoral system we have a government that only represents a minority of people here. They’ll have the next five years, maybe ten but eventually they’ll be thrown out and another government will re-dress some of the balance and then the process will be repeated.
Labour has often described itself as a democratic socialist party – but even while establishing the post war settlement it never aimed to fully nationalise the means of production, and certainly in the post clause IV era it can’t be described as “democratic socialist”. Therefore, it’s idealogical core is one of social democracy – though in terms of policy and leadership these days it’s far from even that.
However, I don’t therefore believe that socialism – either in the form of social democracy or democratic socialism – is dead – the political consensus in this country is currently a conservative, neoliberal one, but the consensus has changed before, and with hard work it can change again.
This strange occurrence though doesn’t mean socialism doesn’t have a ‘right to life’ in the same way that conservatism and liberalism do. In fact, on most counts, it would seem that liberalism isn’t an ‘essential concept’ with a ‘right to life’ – it’s such a vague term, covering so many concepts, hasn’t had proper success in the UK since the early 20s and the current “Liberal” Democrat party isn’t really liberal on any sort of level, considering not only its capitulation to the agenda set by Thatcher but also its atrocious conduct in the coalition.
Thanks for finally writing about >Has the 2015 general election result killed socialism in Britain for good?
– nicktyrone.com <Loved it!
This is our chance to fllaniy force government officials to publicly explain, under oath, exactly why they need anything more than a stack of paper ballots, a pen and a wooden box to conduct a fair and honest election.”~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~I thank you and support this movement as I wrote before, Nashville, Tn. had someone recorded on tv, (husband was waiting for weather report) as asking for more time for paper ballots because 2010 was almost here .my mouth fell open..who is responsible and when did this occur paper ballots??About time.
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That is a great idea and I think we will have to try it! For some of our plants (peas in particular) I try to get them to grow up whatever is convenient – that seems to work for them, but the tomatoes not so much. zentMRS recently posted..