Can social democracy survive the 21st century?

Sunday 30 October, 12.30pm until 1.30pm, Courtyard Gallery

Last year’s catastrophic election results for Sweden’s Social Democrats raised the question: whatever happened to social democracy? British progressives used to point to the ‘Scandinavian model’ as something to emulate, but now the social democratic politics that gave rise to it seems to have lost its dynamism, in Sweden and beyond. Has a key current of European politics exhausted itself? Significantly, Britain’s Labour Party – long associated with social democracy in the postwar years – consciously distanced itself from that political tradition with its reinvention as New Labour in the 1990s. Those who have attempted to espouse social democratic values more recently, such as current Labour leader Ed Miliband, have only drawn attention to its lack of appeal. So is the rest of Europe just catching up?

We might ask why was social democracy so influential in the first place: why was the introduction of extensive welfarism, state education and healthcare in a mixed economy seen as a bright new dawn, largely accepted even by conservatives? The historical context was of course one of mass political movements. Social democratic parties across Europe spoke for the needs and aspirations of the organised working class, but also sought to contain these within the confines of a post-war consensus: social democracy was about negotiation and compromise, not revolutionary change. The effective demise of working class movements over the past generation, most clearly in Britain, has perhaps left social democracy without an historic role. It is telling that Britain’s own ‘Social Democratic Party’ was a relatively small offshoot from the right of the Labour Party in the 1980s, and arguably a harbinger of the centrism that prevails today.

Nevertheless, there was more to social democracy than welfarism and nationalised industries. Social democrats also championed equality, and emphasised the role of the wider social environment in determining people’s life chances, in opposition to the individualist focus of conservatives. After its peak in the 1960s, however, most government reforms were about undoing many of the measures social democracy had put in place. The so-called ‘big state’ was now blamed for a whole range of social problems, such as welfare dependency and social breakdown. Social policy advisers across the West, whether of the ‘left’ or the ‘right’, now understand social problems in terms of the individual family and educational environment rather than the bigger societal picture. So is there any way social democracy can make a return in 21st century Europe?

Johannes Busse
chair, London group of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD)

Rowenna Davis
Labour councillor, Southwark; prospective parliamentary candidate for Southampton Itchen; author, Tangled Up in Blue

Dr Michael Fitzpatrick
writer on medicine and politics; author, The Tyranny of Health

Paul Kelly
professor of political theory and head, department of government, LSE; author, Liberalism; editor, Multiculturalism Reconsidered and British Political Theory in the Twentieth Century

Peter Smith
director of tourism, St. Mary’s University College, Twickenham, London; co-author, Volunteer Tourism: the lifestyle politics of international development

Produced by
Peter Smith director of tourism, St. Mary’s University College, Twickenham, London; co-author, Volunteer Tourism: the lifestyle politics of international development
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