British social democrats have generally taken one of two paths. The road most travelled appears the easier of the two and relies largely on the creation of a good society by stealth. Crucial to this route is economic growth. Taxing a growing economy enables the funding of a generous welfare state, good public services and even allows for some redistribution. The rich do not suffer, whilst the poor get a gradually larger portion of the ever-expanding pie.
The importance of growth to social democracy was stressed by Tony Crosland as far back as 1956. Whilst not being as explicitly redistributionist as Crosland, it was this technocratic approach that New Labour tended to adopt after it arrived in office, when tax receipts from a booming economy – including a lightly regulated financial sector – were ploughed back into schools, hospitals, the welfare system, and so on. The result is that British public institutions now no longer appear the shabby, outdated places they had become by the mid-1990s.
Yet relying solely on the first path leaves social democracy vulnerable when the economy falters or the left is out of office. This is the position in which the left now finds itself. New Labour tended to be reluctant to make the case that the state could enable a more successful private sector and a richer civil society. This meant that a government coming in with a very different view of what the state should do is now faced with no real coherent ideological opposition as they attempt to roll it back.
The second path to social democracy is less travelled. It involves painting a picture of what a good and fair society looks like and making the case for it. Ed Miliband seems more comfortable on this path than his predecessor. There is an element of this way of thinking in the work of Crosland too, when he calls for Britain to be a ‘more colourful and civilised country to live in’ as well as a fairer one.
There is a strong case for setting out the values social democrats believe in and showing how an active state is one way in which those values can be achieved. In the past Labour politicians have followed public opinion but have found that the ‘stealthy’ route to social democracy is not as quick or as easy as they had anticipated.
There is an assumption that the majority of the population do not share social democratic goals. Yet there is a role for politicians to lead public opinion (without leaving it behind) as well as following it: politics is famously the art of persuasion. For instance. It is possible to conceive of considerable support for a hypothecated tax to end child poverty. Hence, the case needs to be made to show that state spending is a necessary vehicle for good public services and a fair welfare system; that government must be involved in appropriately regulating different markets; and that the state can support civil society and enable citizens to achieve their aspirations.
The two paths social democrats now face head in roughly the same direction. The first would appear easier, but might not be as quick or painless as it seems, nor might it take you as far. Out of office and in an economic lull, social democrats can no longer rely on the economy to get to their destination by stealth. The centre left now needs to make the case for well-thought out public spending and an active and dynamic state that enables healthy markets and a rich civil society. It is time to make explicit the values that social democrats and others hold - freedom for all, fairness and community – and to show how an active, empowering state can help us reach them.