Book: The Future of Social Democracy: Essays to Mark the 40th Anniversary of the Limehouse Declaration. Edited by Colin McDougall, George Kendall and Wendy Chamberlain. Available here.
To mark the fortieth anniversary of the Limehouse Declaration a series of essays have been published by the Social Democrat Group in order “to grapple with the serious challenges the country faces in the coming decades” (p. xi) and “promote new social democratic thinking” (p. xvii). Dedicated to Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams, and Bill Rodgers, this book consists of nine chapters focusing on such diverse areas as electoral reform, foreign policy, and education, but mostly economics. The authors include current and former MPs, members of the House of Lords, and party activists.
What is meant by social democracy is never made entirely clear; it is, as Vince Cable observes, “difficult to locate the common denominator” (p. 4). The Editors’ claim that social democrats have a “determination to pursue policies that will work; a commitment to fight for the vulnerable; and a belief that for democracy to thrive, policies must work for everyone, including the affluent” is so broad that it offers little meaning. While Cable’s observation that the main appeal of social democracy has been that it, “offers the best of capitalism and socialism, both the economic effectiveness of the former and the fairness of the latter”, provides greater precision, it also raises the spectre of the dull, timid, middle-of-the-road thinking associated with the social democratic post-war consensus; more a synthesis, than a radical alternative.
Indeed, a nostalgia for Butskellism colours various contributions, particularly those addressing economics. Social democracy, we are informed, “has dramatically improved the lives of people across Britain in the last century” (p. xvii) and social democrats were “key to the post- war consensus that was instrumental in tackling” various problems (p. 2). Keynesian thought is recommended for today (p. 11) and various policies of the period, “such as a new towns programme like that of the post- war period” (p. 27), are resurrected.
Within this context, it is perhaps unsurprising that there is a strong statist dimension within various essays. Excessive faith in the ability of government is evident with calls for “large- scale and sustained public works projects” (p. 6), government “responsibility for ensuring that house prices through the cycle do not fall and do not rise too much” (p. 25), the effective nationalisation of the railways (p. 67-8), “stronger market regulation” (p. 68), and government inspection of more schools (p. 109). A better funded status-quo, with pay rises for certain public sector workers (p. 25) and a more “generous” Universal Credit is suggested (p. 8), while any radical reform to the welfare state and the public sector is absent. The assumption, for example, of the state provision of public services, only to be changed if found to be failing, rather than state provision being merely one option amongst others (p. 66), underlines the statist and conservative nature of various essays.
In addition to this statism, there are echoes of the post-war social democratic faith in corporatism. Despite attempts to provide some distance from the post-war model, we are informed that “a stronger emphasis on effective public- private partnership” (p. 68) is needed and “the Industrial Strategy, which provides a forum for public-private coordination and cooperation at a sector level to address long- term issues” should be “revived and strengthened . . . “ (p. 6-7). Such views, with their apparent conciliatory nature, are understandable if we judge politics along a spectrum of private versus public ownership, with Liberal Democrats favouring a middle position between the two.
However, contrary to this, Liberal Democrats should view politics via a spectrum in which, on the one hand, there is the diffusion of power and, on the other, its concentration. There is little to be said for escaping from “the public good- private bad or private good-public bad dialectics of the past” (p. 6), only to replace it with a new dialectic which favours ‘big’ interests, whether they be public or private, at the expense of the ‘small’ interests of the consumer and private businesses. Such sentiments are perhaps unsurprising when we remember that historically, and in contrast to liberals, social democrats, driven by an egalitarian-inspired commitment to uniformity, have tended to favour the large over the small; it is not an accident that E.F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful found a more positive reception within liberal than social democratic circles. Repackaged corporatism, however, remains corporatism: a system that prizes producer over consumer rights, erodes democratic decision-making, and undermines openness and transparency within government.
In contrast to this diet of statism and neo-corporatism, and with the Conservatives possibly embracing a faith in big government not seen for many years, there may be a window of opportunity for Liberal Democrats to recapture an anti-statist liberalism that was too easily relinquished by the Liberal party to Thatcher’s Conservatives in the 1980s and, in doing so, rescue it from its association with right-wing authoritarian and reactionary politics. Whilst there were, of course, semi- dirigiste aspects to the Liberal party before Thatcher, today a more sceptical attitude towards the state, and not an echo of what the two main parties appear to be offering, would not only be liberal, but distinctively so. The former is essential for the continuation of the Liberal Democrats’ historic mission, while the latter is necessary for a much-reduced party keen to achieve electoral success.
There are, however, significant departures from the post-war social democratic consensus, so much that it would be wrong to claim readers are merely being offered a ‘better yesterday’. Ideas far removed from the post-war social democratic consensus and historically associated with the free trade, distributist, and Georgist strands of the Liberal party are apparent in various essays and it is when contributors advocate these that they are at their most persuasive.
In particular, and despite not being as full-throated as one would have liked (the possibility of embracing unilateral free trade is not raised and the idea of government nurturing certain industries – ‘picking winners’? – reveals an unwarranted confidence in government), Sarah Olney defends free trade. Parallels with the 1930’s Liberal party’s demands for ‘Ownership for All’ are to be found in Ian Kearn’s call to “diversify and equalise asset ownership” (p. 42) as well as Chris Huhne’s aspiration for more people to own their own homes. Land-valuation tax (p. 29), something liberals have been advocating since the nineteenth-century is advanced and an idea with an even longer history, a universal basic income, receives cautious endorsement. It is, however, indicative of the collection’s moderate tone that support for this is qualified and restrained. Nevertheless, the spreading of greater ownership of private property and wealth is a theme Liberal Democrats should pursue with vigour. Wider property ownership not only acts as a bulwark against both the state and large, distant, private sector interests intruding on individual liberty and independence, but is especially crucial as the nature, and security, of work changes in the decades ahead.
The importance of the changing nature of work is reflected in that more than one essay in this collection addresses it. While there is certainly not the same focus on achieving full employment as there was for post-war social democrats and there is a welcome and sensible recognition that “technology has the potential to . . . reduce the burden of work” (p. 44), the emphasis placed on skills training by various contributors reveals an excessive attachment to our contemporary work-centric society that we should, and indeed will be forced to, move away from. Nor is this a new problem for social democracy. Ralf Dahrendorf recognised the difficulty that social democrats have in abandoning work-centric attitudes as long ago as 1980 in his ‘After Social Democracy’. However, a notable and much welcomed exception to this is Dick Newby’s chapter in which he advocates, amongst other things, replacing GDP with measures of well-being. Nevertheless, one cannot but help wonder if this marks more a departure from social democratic thinking in favour of liberalism, or at least a strand of liberal thinking – J.S. Mill rejected of the “gospel of work” in favour of the “gospel of leisure” – than a reinvention of social democratic thought in the face of new challenges.
One topic which does not signify any such departure and is reminiscent of the post-war consensus is the call for organised labour to be strengthened. “Trade unions”, it is argued, “should be encouraged and helped to grow their memberships” (p. 43) as the need for the “countervailing power of labour” is, we are told, essential in “a world of increased automation” (p. 44). However, rather than seeking to reinforce the class division between the two producer interests of capital and labour – a cause which, it seems to me, has enough proponents in both of the major two parties – Liberal Democrats should seek to challenge and overturn it by championing workers’ cooperatives and profit sharing, a cause long advocated by liberals and also raised in the Limehouse Declaration, but curiously and disappointingly absent from this collection.
Indeed, for a series of essays tasked with exploring future challenges there are other notable omissions. Although the dangers posed by private monopolies, in particular those of the big data companies are highlighted, the failings of public-sector monopolies are not. Most surprisingly, the subject of the NHS and what it should look like in a post-COVID-19 world is not addressed. Similarly, and despite the emergence of mutual aid groups throughout Britain in response to COVID-19, the role that voluntaryism can, and should, play in the provision of social welfare is similarly ignored. The subject of civil liberties is not addressed, although the call “to regulate abusive content” (p. 10) online raises questions and concern for anyone who values freedom of speech. Insofar as immigration is discussed, it is concern over its impact, and not a celebration of its overwhelming benefits, that emerges (p. xvi)). Finally, and in light of the Fabian roots of post-war social democracy, it is perhaps less surprising that, except for occasional nods to citizens’ assemblies, devolving some powers on industrial strategy, and granting councils more powers over housing, there is little in the way of challenging the suffocating centralised system of government in Britain or extending participatory citizenship. Away from the question of means, a chapter specifically dedicated to exploring the goals of social democracy – and consisting of more than vague generalities about social justice – would have done much to strengthen this collection.
Overall, the ideas and policies expressed in this collection tend to be of three types. Firstly, there are those which are admirable yet lack scale and ambition, such as providing greater support for small builders who have suffered from excessive regulation (p. 27). Secondly, there are those which are both attractive and ambitious, yet owe more to familiar staples of the liberal tradition, such as a land valuation tax, wider asset ownership, and electoral reform. In failing to offer much in the way of innovative solutions, separate and distinct from liberalism, the poverty of contemporary social democratic thought would appear to be, inadvertently, confirmed. Thirdly, there are those ideas that look back to the post-war social democratic consensus and, as such, have little to offer a radical twenty-first century liberal party. This is most apparent in the large doses of statism suggested and the echoes of corporatism. Although two Liberals, Keynes and Beveridge, did much to influence the post-war consensus, the Keynes who looked forward to a fifteen-hour week and the Beveridge of Voluntary Action (1948) did not. Today it is these particular versions of Keynes and Beveridge – less social democratic and more liberal – that Liberal Democrats should draw on and take inspiration from.
None of the above is, however, to suggest that social democracy has nothing to offer us today. Just as it is more illuminating to speak of liberalisms than liberalism, so the same may be said of social democracy. Accordingly, rather than echoing the social democracy of the post-war years, certain contributors would have benefited from focusing more on, in David Marquand’s words, the “new-model libertarian, decentralistic social democracy” of those that this collection is dedicated to, in particular the one member of the ‘Gang of Four’, David Owen, who this collection is notably not dedicated to.
Daniel Duggan is a Liberal Democrat Councillor in Gateshead, Chair of Gateshead Liberal Democrats, and a member of the Liberal Reform Board.
 In particular, David Owen, Face the Future (Jonathan Cape Ltd: 1981).