There was a time when social democracy felt like the coolest thing in politics. It was the populist idea of the late nineties, redefining liberal centrist politics, finding common ground and, importantly, finding a way to power for progressives.
After so many years in exile, Labour was back and new and different. Hatred of the market was seemingly replaced by a desire to gradually reform it and emancipate the individual as best as possible. The Party was still wedded to its principles of helping those at the bottom but avoided the dogmatic ideological narratives that had haunted it during the eighties.
Looking at the mess Labour Party is in, it’s astonishing to think that confidence in social democracy has dissolved almost entirely, replaced by a growing anxiety of the hard right stealing the liberal centre ground and the hard left dominating the platforms where they should be. There are two things that matter today in British politics and neither is owned by the centre-left: populism and principles.
For populism, you can look to the left-wing fanaticism growing around Jeremy Corbyn. It feeds into huge anger in a country where the gap between the rich and poor has been mushrooming, coupled with a decline in opportunities for those at the bottom. Anger creates desire for radical change however impractical and somehow, by allowing New Labour and the Tories to be conflated as part of the same package of elitist politicians, the social democrats and progressive centrists of Labour Party have facilitated a pathway for the hard left within the party to steal control.
They say we are living in the age of populist policies, and by that they mean when the radical becomes fashionable. But politics has always been based on populism: anyone who wins an election does so with the most popular set of messages and policies. Today the Labour moderates have forgotten how to make their ideas popular but not so long ago they did not have that problem. Today the centre-left doesn’t argue upon policies but rather party strategy, communication and management. These are things that are extremely important given the catastrophic failures of Jeremy Corbyn; but they don’t appeal to a lot of people today. To find our way to power, we need to harness the old creativity of New Labour in making our policies seem radical and refreshing. To his credit, during his first leadership election Jeremy Corbyn embodied that: he offered policies and messages that seemed to be bubbling with fresh energy.
Secondly, Labour moderates have allowed themselves to be smeared as lacking in principles. I voted for Corbyn during the first election but my favourite candidate, merely on the basis of personality, was Liz Kendall. She was getting hammered yet never wavered, confronted a maelstrom of abuse but remained dignified and extremely humble. She was principled. Yvette Cooper, who I should have voted for, is seen as pragmatic, but consider her passionate defence of refugees at a time when no one is offering a principled stance. Andy Burnham and principles? Well, maybe that’s a stretch.
Labour moderates sensibly recognise that principle without power achieves nothing. A socialist is ineffective without the means by which to change his or her conditions. Here that means parliamentary control. We rightly forsake dogma for pragmatism but at the same time, have completely abandoned any notion of appearing principled in the eyes of many. We have allowed New Labour to be cast as spin doctors, elitist liberals and greedy sell-outs: they gave us the minimum wage, Sure Start, increased NHS spending, lifted thousands out of poverty and did so much more. When we fail to defend our principles which are about a Labour government making a difference, again we cede the ground to a faction of the left not interested in genuine political change if it involves doing something beside a march.
Moreover, when we allow our opponents to define terms we found ourselves being defined by them too: certain labels are wedded to certain policies that disallow for any flexibility. A socialist has to believe in a certain policy or he or she is disqualified from being seen as a socialist. You’re only a socialist if you thought Tony Benn was absolutely faultless and that capitalism is completely corrupt. And if you’re not a true socialist, then why are you in the Labour Party? Ed Miliband is as much a socialist as Corbyn is: he just didn’t feel the need to persistently drum it out, and his socialism reflected the modern age we lived in. Tony Blair believed in social justice, otherwise he would not have introduced the positive progressive reforms that he had done so.
For us to reclaim the party, we need to stop allowing the hard left to claim the position of being the principled ones offering the popular, inspiring ideas. We need to stop them from exclusively defining what a socialist is in the 21st century. This is our party and it always will be. Long after many of the far left retreat back into the irrelevant corners of SWP, Left Unity and Respect, we will still be here. But the sooner our fight back begins, the better for the country.