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Study Notes

Social Democracy (Socialism)

AQA, Edexcel

Last updated 15 Jun 2020

Social democracy is an ideological view that wishes to humanise capitalism in the interests of social justice.

Social democracy is the strand of socialism closest to the centre of the political spectrum. In terms of economic policy, social democrats believe strongly in the virtues of co-operation between the government, the unions and management. The level of wealth created within society should be reallocated via a combination of progressive taxation, an extensive welfare state programme and a significant role for both the public and private sector. With regards to education, social democrats endorse comprehensive schools because they educate children of all abilities and social backgrounds as opposed to the divisive and elitist system generated by selection. Most importantly, social democrats favour a gradual approach to social change. Unlike revolutionary socialists, they firmly reject the view that the means towards a better society is one that necessitates political violence.

Unlike other strands of socialist thought, social democrats stipulate that capitalism can and should be humanised. The creation of a society built around social justice and equality does not therefore require a mass programme of nationalisation and state control as advocated by democratic socialists; nor the revolution predicted by Marxists. Instead, an economic system based primarily upon private ownership can be civilised via an extensive set of left-wing policies. These include a national minimum wage, health and safety legislation, full employment, anti-discrimination laws, employment tribunals, paid maternity leave and meaningful negotiations between unions and management over pay and conditions. This combination of policies ensure that the owners of capital cannot exploit those who work for them, particularly when the power of the trade unions is strengthened via collective bargaining.

Social democracy has long been the dominant trend both within the Labour Party and to a lesser extent within the labour movement. Trade unions, co-operatives, socialist societies and think tanks such as the IPPR have largely adopted a centre-left position aimed at converting the hearts and minds of the electorate. Historically, many of the leading figures within the labour movement are classed as social democrats rather than democratic socialists. Moreover, the Labour Party has been at its most successful in electoral terms when it has tempered its socialist ideals with a dash of realism about what a government of the left can achieve (given the constraints of global finance and the level of taxation voters are prepared to accept). This observation also applies to their equivalents in continental Europe such as the German Social Democrats, the French Socialist Party, the Swedish Social Democrats and the Democratic Party in Italy.

The predominance of social democracy within the UK may also be due to the persuasiveness of their arguments against the alternative pathways towards socialism. Those further to the left of the political spectrum are still tainted by past electoral failures; notably that of the 1983 General Election manifesto memorably described by a Labour MP as “the longest suicide note in history.” A policy platform of unilateral nuclear disarmament, abolition of private schools, mass nationalisation, withdrawal from the European Community and other fervently left-wing proposals proved a disaster for the party and one that was roundly rejected by the public.

Revolutionary socialist parties such as the SWP and the Socialist Party of Great Britain have even less electoral appeal. However, the main problem with a Marxist position is that revolutions are inevitably associated with bloodshed and chaos. It seems inconceivable that the agents of the state and other powerful forces with a vested interest in the status quo would simply step aside and accept the inevitable victory of socialism. In terms of the Labour Party and to a lesser extent the labour movement, social democracy is the dominant strand of thought amongst those who wish to substitute capitalism with something better.

Those further to the left of the political spectrum have claimed repeatedly that social democrats have sold-out the core values of socialism to placate powerful capitalist interests. Within the labour movement and particularly the Labour Party itself, there is a habit of vilification between social democrats and those further along the left. At times, this has led to open divisions within the party and a considerable degree of rancour. During the Blair/Brown years those on the left were dismayed at the party’s drift towards the centre of the political spectrum. The surprise election (and re-election) of Jeremy Corbyn as party leader was to some extent a reaction to the perceived ideological drift away from socialism during the era of New Labour.

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