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Labour and the fear of ‘equality’


I was invited by the Policy Network to respond to one of their latest publications, A Centre-Left Project for New Times, which maps out how European social democrats might respond to the current political situation.

I decided to focus on ‘equality’ – an issue that is supposed to differentiate the left from the right but which New Labour was afraid of embracing too warmly for fear of putting off key voters.

As a result, as you can see from the above graph, not much was done to reverse the massive increase in inequality that occurred under Margaret Thatcher. Here are my thoughts.

Steven Fielding 

Published inBritish PoliticsEuropean Politics


  1. Mike Killingworth Mike Killingworth

    There’s an elephant in the room, Steven. If you ask nicely, I’ll show it to you.

      • wondrinfree wondrinfree

        Did I miss the elephant unveiling? Hey Mike don’t keep the elephant to youself!

  2. Mike Killingworth Mike Killingworth

    Sorry not to have returned to this thread – egalitarian politics (e.g. social democracy) is predicated on ethnic solidarity.

    • jim jim

      Its simply not true to say that egalitarian politics is predicated on ethnic solidarity, it relies on a construction of solidarity agreed, but there is no reason why that must be ethnic, either logically or historically. There are various historical examples which show non-ethnic egalitarian politics from Indonesia and India to Brazil and South Africa and even the American Democratic Party from the 30s to the 70s could be classed as a social democratic party which constructed a political (if not a social) solidarity which transcended a very powerful racial apartheid. The ideas about ethnic solidarity is fashionable amongst the oddballs of Blue Labour but it’s a politics grasping for an intellectual foundation rather than a coherent idea. Political identities are always constructed, to essentialise them in any terms is at least 50 years out of date intellectually and even then tended to come from the most impoverished intellectual traditions.

      • Mike Killingworth Mike Killingworth

        Jim: three of your examples may be subsumed under the heading of anti-colonial struggle – a social democratic political economy is very much secondary in each case. I admit that I was only thinking of western “core” societies, those sufficiently advanced for capitalism (i) to exist in a “pure” form and not as part of colonial exploitation & (ii) for that capitalism to be threatened by socialism sufficiently realistically for it to have to create a space for the political side of trade union consciousness to be accommodated.

        I do not consider the US Democratic Party to fit this template. Rather, I see it as a capitalist party which in certain circumstances introduces progressive legislation. Your account requires you to give an explantion of why the Party became social democratic at one point in time and then regressed to a liberal capitalist politics at a later point.

  3. jim jim

    Mike, Id agree that in those particular cases social democracy was founded on anti-colonialism, but my argument would be that this proves the point that social solidarities can be constructed upon other imaginaries than the ethnic. Equally we could take other non-western examples, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Mexico etc as examples of non anti-colonial, multi-ethnic societies in which egalitarian politics have long existed through constructions which are non-ethnic in character. The point is that in the Western countries which you were referring to the problematic for egalitarian politics is precisely the colonial legacy, the inheritance of certain ideologies of race which give rise to a sense of the “non-western” as alien. This can be seen very clearly in the United States, one of the most mult9-ethnic societies in the world, but its not the ethnic divisins between German, Anglo, Irish, Polish, Italian etc descendents which causes the problem (all of whom within a generation or so become “Americans”) it’s the Blacks (and to a lesser extent the Latin Americans). The Republicans always exploit this, telling working class whites (particularly in the South) that what the Democrats want to do is take your money and give it to the blacks, it’s a political articulation of racial ideology rooted in colonialism that problematizes egalitarian politics, not ethnicity as such. I get nervous when people use terms like “capitalism feeling sufficiently threatened” I dont think social groups think in abstract terms like that, they get threatened by the mob, whatever form it takes, whether that’s the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or the Bolsheviks in Russia, groups in power get threatened by groups outside of power.

    On the point about the Democratic Party, I think its slightly more ambiguous than you characterise it (though Id largely agree) it really depends on how we define social democratic, if we judge the Democrats by the European model, then no it was never really social democratic (it didnt articulate a socialistic vision, it wasnt built on a labour movement tradition). However if we understand social democratic as involving a significant involvement of the state in the economy, promotion of citizen rights, state mediation of labour relations etc, then there were strong aspects of all of this in the New Deal era. Explaining why the shifts occurred is fairly easy, it’s the economy, the crises of free-market capitalism in the 1920s and the crisis of regulated capitalism in the 1970s, much the same as Britain, which absolutely had a social democratic tradition and had minimal ethnic diversity in the 70s and 80s.

  4. Mike Killingworth Mike Killingworth

    Thanks, Jim – I think we have found common ground.

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