Theme: Parties & Elections | Content Type: Digested Read

Social Democracy’s Muted Revival

Liam Byrne


Jeremy Yap

| 6 mins read

Social democracy is back. After a long malaise in which the creed appeared to be in retreat, social democrats in Germany and Australia have scored significant victories at the polls. In Britain, where as recently as 2019 it seemed Labour had no pathway back to government, the party has accumulated commanding leads.

What is the place of social democracy in the political and economic order that is emerging from the Covid-19 pandemic, and the economic crisis that has followed in its wake?

Swimming against the tide

Social-democratic parties in each of the countries mentioned above underwent ‘modernisation’ projects in the 1980s and 1990s. Australian Labor’s modernisation came during the long-term governments of Bob Hawke and Paul Keating from 1983 to 1996. Tony Blair’s ‘New Labour’ famously reconstituted the party before its election in 1997, spearheading the new Third Way. The German Social Democratic Party (SPD) under Gerhard Schröder led coalition government from 1998.

There was a broad coherence of thought across the parties as part of this modernisation. This involved a repudiation of nationalisation; a prioritisation of educational opportunity within a knowledge economy; the conviction that workers should elevate their status by individually leveraging themselves into the ranks of professionals; and an emphasis on more punitive forms of welfare distribution.

An essential element of the Third Way was its emphasis on the individual, rather than collective, rights and experiences of the working person. The result was the further atomisation of the labouring classes and their exposure to a rapacious, often deregulated market for labour. In their zeal for reform, the Third Way governments often ended up undermining the social position of much of their own base.

Changing party electorates

It can be argued that Neoliberalism fractured societies, displaced traditional industries, atomised communities and forced geographical dispersion. It is unsurprising, then, that traditional electorates have also frayed.

Commentators have widely noted that there is now a correspondence between tertiary education and voting for the left. Some accounts of this phenomenon go so far as to suggest that this indicates that the ‘working class’ has split from the left entirely. Many of these analyses rely on outmoded understandings of the composition of the working class, with some going so far as to define class according to educational attainment.

However, this fails to account for the fact that many of the ‘essential workers’ lauded during the Covid-19 pandemic – nurses, healthcare workers, teachers - are tertiary educated. But they also bear the historic markers of the proletariat: they collectively toil, sell their labour power on the market for a wage, and are demonstrably capable of undertaking collective actions to advance their social interests. This is precisely the type of constituency that modern social democracy should be cultivating to ensure it retains connection to working class concerns.

The ‘gig’ economy has been notoriously difficult to conceptualise within the bounds of a social democratic political economy, and just as difficult to mobilise. This is particularly the case with the younger, precarious workforce, for whom the world of work is just one of many sites of contested inequitable encounters.

When class experience is refracted through other identities in the media and intellectual ecosystems these younger workers inhabit, it is unsurprising that politics is as well. Hence, large numbers of these swathes of the working class are voting for ‘progressive’ parties in forms available to them: green parties, liberal parties and independents. Alignments with the traditional parties of social democracy are frequent, but often temporary, suggesting a dearth of long-term congealing of identity and interest.

Does the traditional working class vote social democratic? General trends indicate that the success of social democrats in Germany and Australia has been on the basis of a core vote from working-class elements, with a strong correlation between union membership and voting social democrat. Nevertheless, the traditional class base of support is withering and the number of loyalists dwindling.

Social transformation in an era of fiscal constraint

Centre-left parties have sought to distinguish themselves from conservative administrations by their loyalty to fiscal orthodoxy and fidelity to correct parliamentary process. But without an alternative political economy to draw upon, social democrats have accepted the terms of government established by self-interested social forces and attenuated their own agendas.

In an era of endemic low growth, declining productivity and wage stagnation set against the rising cost of living, bold action is required to stave off a drastic decline in living standards among the social democratic constituency. Are social democrats still capable of offering substantive programmes for change?

A lack of ideological coherence

Historically, social democracy maintained a coherence around a vision of the future society it intended to create. Today the creed retains appeals to concepts such as equality and social justice—but what is the precise meaning of these terms? Rather than concrete pledges to transform the social order to achieve systemic solutions to systemic problems, such as shifting the balance of power in the labour market, these promises tend towards the abstract and rhetorical.

Social democratic forces must develop a coherent alternative political economy that reflects the interests of a social constituency of labouring people as they exist today. It is insufficient to retrofit an economic agenda suited for a class structure that existed forty years ago. The challenge for social democracy is to utilise government to undercut disillusionment through practical and immediate changes which also compose a larger picture on social change for general betterment.

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    Liam Byrne

    Liam Byrne is Honorary Fellow, School of Historical and Philosophical Studies, University of Melbourne.

    Articles by Liam Byrne
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