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Why have voters deserted social democracy?

Jim McConalogue, 17 December 2019

It is no secret that there has been a significant repositioning by many European social democratic parties in recent years towards the more radical left. In the past week, the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s brand of what he calls “democratic socialism” suffered a sizeable defeat in the general election, gaining only 203 seats compared with 365 for the Conservatives. Labour now has its fewest number of MPs in Parliament since 1935. Separately, Germany’s Social Democrats (SPD) have in recent weeks voted in a radical new left leadership in the form of new chairs Norbert Walter-Borjans and Saskia Esken. Their demands include seeking to (re)negotiate the current coalition agreement with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) – to raise the minimum wage, boost Germany’s climate-protection package, loosen the budgetary rigidity and free up cash for infrastructure and welfare. In Germany, there were early signs under their leadership that the SPD may not even wish to continue at all in coalition government with the CDU.

Some of those parties are undergoing a healthy yet agonising sense of redefinition, if not reclaiming their identities – as the various political crises (be it Brexit or the migrant crisis) are attended to by catch-all centre-right parties in government. This is coupled with the underlying tendency that they have drifted away from a moderate social democratic policy agenda. This all too often means they remain unelectable into government. Where that is the case, it might be asked why voters have deserted their regular social democratic parties, and how do they think they might win them back.

When British entrepreneur and economist John Mills spoke at Civitas this month on that very point (that is, why precisely have voters deserted social democracy) it would seem the policy challenges for the parties are significant. While we might like to think the social democratic parties recapturing their identities has become a part of a tortuous and difficult but necessary process prior to turning mainstream and gaining wider electoral appeal, Mills has been a lot more concentrated on rethinking the grand narratives which pose threats to recapturing moderate left-of-centre political parties across the western world – including the UK. His new book looks at how those leftist parties with their current key policies may struggle to regain power again in the foreseeable future. The reasoning, on Mills terms, behind voters deserting social democracy is part-economic, part-redistributive and partly due to political culture.

It is in part an economic challenge because the coming years look even more problematic for voters than the decade following the 2008 financial crash. As Mills notes, real incomes for most people are now about the same as they were in 2007, but not significantly lower. It has generated a rise of discontent, generating the onset in national populism which has taken place; although it might be important to add that a significant part of this trend stems from political grievances, not purely economic transformation.

For Mills, however, the specific extreme case of deindustrialisation in the UK presents a major drawback for the economy. The decline in many parts of the country in their capacity to support themselves seems to have led to large areas being heavily dependent on transfers from London but still facing stagnant or falling living standards. In that context, having large parts of the country unable to support themselves economically, and dependent on London, has left both local government and their electorates feeling powerless, if not unappreciated. This applies as much to the inheritance of Boris’ northern Tory challenge, as to the current Labour party.

There is also the redistribution challenge for Mills: the usage of the tax and benefit system to redistribute incomes from rich to poor has turned out to be difficult because of what he sees as the past ability of members of the middle class to manipulate the system to their advantage. The redistributive agenda, which had always underpinned the centre left’s appeal to those on relatively low incomes, has become increasingly undermined. It has also grown increasingly clear to voters that the capacity of public expenditure to redistribute wealth effectively (as promoted under a social democratic model) has been considerably less than many, including the disadvantaged, hoped it would be.

When Mills spoke at Civitas, he mentioned also how social democrats need to be better at achieving enough of a far-reaching kind of redistribution programme to stop the divisions in society being as wide as they are now. In his analysis, wage stagnation means, for many, real incomes are no higher now than they were in 2000 and for a large majority of the population, there have been no real increases in incomes at all since before the 2008 financial crash. Nor has the position after tax and benefits changed people’s outlook in any material way to offset these developments.

In his speech, Mills readily acknowledged the political cultural elements behind this challenge for social democrats. Even a glance at the results of the 2016 EU referendum shows that there is a high correlation, particularly in England, between the areas of the UK which have clearly done well out of globalisation and those which have, on the whole, suffered from it. London voted strongly for Remain while Wales, the Midlands and the North of England mainly had Leave majorities. It is perhaps not difficult to see why this happened, as Mills acknowledges, although the Brexit vote does not always cut so clearly between the globalists and the unglobalised, nor between Londoner ‘anywheres’ and the Northern ‘somewheres’.

There is some light at the end of the tunnel in his view. From Mills’ speech, I detect the centre-left’s political difficulties can be traced to its poor record of achieving adequate economic growth. His book further outlines that the critical requirement remains for social democracy to break away from some of the features of neoliberalism and embrace an economic stance enabling higher rates of economic growth than in previous years. There will be a lot more to it when it comes to potentially restoring the broad appeal of a social democratic mandate. Nonetheless, an interesting formulation Mills identifies may well turn out to be an ideal prescription for a post-Brexit economy: a rebalancing of the UK economy towards manufacturing which could in time address regional inequalities while leading to higher rates of economic growth.

To download or buy the book, click here

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