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Corbyn’s critics must go back to their social democratic roots

Written by Steven Fielding. 

It is a year since Jeremy Corbyn unexpectedly denied Theresa May a Commons majority. According to his supporters the 2017 general election vindicates Corbyn’s leadership: had the campaign been longer, they argue, he would have ended up prime minister. Whatever its merits, Labour members have taken this interpretation to heart and given those closely identifying with Corbyn a majority on the party’s national executive committee. As Labour prepares for its ‘democracy review’ this body has the power to entrench Corbynism for a generation.

All this has left shell shocked those unconvinced by Labour’s new management. Immediately after the election, one they predicted would be disastrous for the party, most were struck dumb. But recently some have expressed concern over Corbyn’s response to the Salisbury attack, anti-semitism and Brexit. Such random acts of criticism have however not diminished the Labour leader’s support: in fact the more he is attacked the more Momentum’s membership increases.

If they are ever to win back the party Corbyn’s critics need him to fail to win power and the evidence is mounting that fail he will: most obviously the recent local elections suggest Labour has taken a backward step from 2017. But failure is only a precondition for their return. They need to build a bridge to members some of whom believe Corbyn’s opponents have more in common with Conservatives than themselves.

How might they do this? As Aneurin Bevan once said: ‘You don’t need to gaze into a crystal ball when you can read an open book’. To go forwards Corbyn’s critics need to temporarily go backwards, that is revisit the past, rediscover their social democratic roots and reset a direction of travel taken by their predecessors after the 1970s.

This means revitalizing in loud and clear terms their commitment to the primacy of the pursuit of equality. This was something Anthony Crosland, Cabinet minister and theorist of post-war social democracy, called in 1956, ‘the strongest ethical inspiration of virtually every socialist doctrine’. It is a defining purpose that Labour members share with each other and no other major political rival. Crosland established the essential social democratic case that greater equality – by which he didn’t just mean equality of opportunity but something that also addressed income disparities – could be achieved within capitalism. Social democracy’s relationship with capitalism was however conditional: equality not the maintenance of private ownership being their top priority. They were as a result capitalism’s critical friends: when Clement Attlee introduced policies such as nationalisation they were initially opposed by business but ultimately benefitted the whole economy.

The economic turmoil of the 1970s led many social democrats to question the viability of Crosland’s model. They believed in such circumstances the pursuit of equality should be suspended and the market given freer rein. In the process they ceased to be capitalism’s critical friends and became its emissaries, something especially true of Crosland’s contemporary, Roy Jenkins who formed the SDP in 1981.

But Crosland did not take this route. In 1973 he described a Britain of, ‘glaring class inequalities, which an appallingly weak economy makes it hard to tackle … of pessimism, lack of clarity, a flight into chiliasm and a loss of practical radical will-power’. It is a description many today might recognise. Despite this Crosland made the case for the continued pursuit of equality: instead of retreating social democrats required ‘a stronger will to change’, a greater faith in their own beliefs, and needed to adopt ‘a sharper delineation of fundamental objectives [and] a greater clarity about egalitarian priorities’. This meant more intervention, not less.

Crosland died in 1977 aged 58 and took his robust version of social democracy with him. Soon after, Thatcher’s dominance encouraged Labour leaders to reluctantly embrace the attenuated social democracy that emerged in the 1970s. Under Neil Kinnock few even dared speak of equality, in favour of a more voter-friendly ‘fairness’. For with capitalism unshackled, Thatcher’s logic of No Alternative seemed unanswerable. Tony Blair’s New Labour government tried to create a fairer society within this rampant capitalism. It has some notable achievements to its name but progress was modest, uneven and many were reversed by the austerity which followed the 2008 financial crisis.

In Opposition Ed Milband put equality closer to the heart of Labour policy and became capitalism’s critical friend by adopting an approach designed to help the ‘producers’ who ‘train, invest, invent, sell’ and punish ‘predators’ just interested in ‘taking what they can’. Many of Miliband’s parliamentary colleagues were however unhappy with his robust social democracy. Indeed all but one of the candidates who sought to replace him as leader in 2015 queued up to describe his emphasis on equality as ‘anti-business’. The exception was, of course, Jeremy Corbyn.

Corbyn’s critics, then, must be more than that: they need to have a positive view of Labour’s purpose which can appeal to Labour’s members. By publicly defining themselves as social democrats – they should disavow being called ‘moderates’, for who wants to be that? – they have such a purpose immediately to hand. A loud and principled emphasis on equality will give them a bridge across which they can engage with Corbyn’s supporters. Some have woken up to this imperative: Rachel Reeves and Stella Creasy have respectively proposed increasing wealth taxes and imposing a windfall tax on PFI companies. And equality is ground upon which Corbyn is surprisingly weak. In the 2017 election, the Liberal Democrats had the policies that would have most benefitted the poorest: Labour did not plan to reverse most Conservative cuts to working-age benefits. Labour’s commitment to abolish university tuition fees will also not make Britain more equal as it distributes income from poorer taxpayers to the better-off.

Social democrats have made a positive contribution to Labour’s past: without them at the helm the party would have achieved much less. Until they regain a louder voice in the party Labour will likely remain a vehicle for the expression of its members’ ideals but one unable to form a government able to put them into practice. In many ways Corbyn is a product of social democrats’ failure to live up to their own principles: it is now time for them to be true to their lost selves and proclaim as clearly and as frequently as possible their revitalised adherence to the pursuit of equality.

Steven Fielding is a Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham.A shorter version of this piece was originally published in the Times Red Box and accompanies Steven’s new paper for Policy Network, For the many not the few: Labour’s social democrats and Corbynism. Image credit: CC by Chatham House/Flickr.

Published inBritish PoliticsLabour

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