The defining characteristic of socialism that differentiates it from liberalism, conservatism, populism and other political ideologies is that at its centre – its core concept – is equality. That is the fundamental aim of electoral socialism or social democracy, whichever you choose to call it.
The irony is that we are currently living through a period where people are seeing great unfairness – in the banking crisis, in massively increasing pay for big bosses compared with their workers, in an elite who are getting away with it while everybody else is being left in the cold – and yet the party of socialism, the Labour Party, is languishing in the polls, despite having a leader who is targeting inequality more than have any of his predecessors.
The truth is that people do want a fairer, more equal society in all kinds of different respects. However, they don’t want it at the expense of damaging the economy, and they don’t want to see money given away to people who they feel don’t deserve it – to ‘scroungers’, for want of a better term.
“The Attlee, Wilson and Blair governments didn’t ask ‘Do you want an equal society or an economy that grows?’ They wanted the two together.”
You have to look at what has worked in the past. There have been three major Labour governments – Attlee in 1945, Wilson in 1964 and Blair in 1997. Those three governments have something in common in that they talked about fairness, or equality, but they also talked about it as a means by which the economy could be made more effective. For them, it didn’t have to be ‘Do you want an equal society, or do you want an economy that grows?’ They wanted the two together.
When Tony Blair talked about socialism, which was only for a very brief moment when he was trying to become party leader, he put a hyphen in it so it was social-ism. And yet, although he was a more individualistic, market-focussed Labour leader than most, his was a classic socialist position. Throughout New Labour the primary aim always remained promoting a fairer society. Blair put equality at the centre of his agenda but he made it clear that the prerequisite for this was an effective economy, and he wouldn’t harm that.
“Blair knew that you don’t bang on about the term ‘socialism’… it can scare off people who told New Labour focus groups that ‘equality means taking money off us and giving it to gypsies’.”
In fact, he said that to have a productive economy, you need a fairer society. He didn’t talk about socialism but he did talk about making society fairer and unlocking people’s potential via the state and a far better education system. He knew that you don’t bang on about the term ‘socialism’ – that’s the easy bit, and it can scare off people who were telling New Labour focus groups that “equality means taking money off us and giving it to gypsies”.
At the moment, things look very dark in terms of securing a future socialist government. But circumstances change and Governments change. People were talking about the death of the Labour Party in the 1930s, the 1960s and the 1980s. In 1992, [political scientist] Anthony King said, “We have now entered the era of one-party government.” At the next election, the other party won a landslide.
To say there is no future for socialism is to say there is no future for striving for a more equal society, which at heart most people want. Maybe, by 2025, Britain will be in post-Brexit turmoil and a new Labour leader will be able to say ‘We need a new approach’ and win on a soft left agenda. Who knows? But, even then, they will have to reconcile their desire for a fairer society with persuading people that those policies are also in their own individual interests. Because that is what electorally successful socialist and social democratic governments do – they appeal to voters’ better instincts, but they appeal to their pockets as well.