It is time to ditch the third way and start a renaissance in social-democratic thought.
When social democrats write about the future of social democracy, there is often a conspicuous absence of any sense of ownership. People make references to an elusive ‘social democracy’ or ‘social democrats’, without ever referring to themselves.
I am a social democrat, avowedly so. This paper offers my final cry on the future of our ideology.
Our ideology is in need of an intellectual renaissance. When the first and second ways of our ideology faltered, we created a third way, branded it ‘new’ and sold it, en masse. However this was a momentary lapse in judgement. This third way has now failed, and its intellectual foundation is in tatters. It is imperative that we, as social democrats, dispose of this third way and sweep it into the dustbin of history.
Much has been written about the recent European elections, with one eminent scholar bleating about the conservatives winning the elections using our ideas. What this scholar forgets however, is that the conservatives won the elections using the ideological programme that we, as social democrats, stole from them in the early 1990s and called the Third Way – and we did it to win elections then. But winning elections while at the same time bastardising our ideology is meaningless. In doing so we have won nothing.
Simply in order to win elections we became enamoured of financial capitalism and liberal policies and values, whilst degrading our own. At a recent conference of the PES in Dublin, a question was posed to a panel: ‘what distinguishes us from the Liberals?’. The response: ‘we may have similar approaches, but different goals’. I propose that a distinction based on the sharing of a similar methodology while seeking a different end is a matter of descriptive interpretation rather than of prescriptive difference.
In neglecting our alliance with trade unions and progressive social movements we have lost our identity as social democrats. By not being fervent promoters of legislation promoting equality we have given credence to the ‘Animal Farm’ defence. By not taking a stand against critics who paint us as ‘politically correct’ we are slowly being obliterated. By refusing to fight for migrants and refugees, and for not standing up for international human rights, we have failed in our international commitment as social democrats. Let it be known: there is no such thing as an illegal refugee or asylum seeker.
Our social-democratic political parties have lost sight of our ideology and basic truths. We need to force our parties to reconnect with them, in order to distinguish themselves from the liberals and the conservatives. We must also face head-on the challenge from those on the hard left and right, especially when they put forward political fantasies of inward-looking decision-making, or a nationalism that is dripping with vitriol.
We must never falter in our understanding that our future is international, and that the European Union is our collective future – it is much more than a simple association of sovereign countries. It is the best solution that we have for the safeguarding of our fundamental rights and the preservation of our social solidarity. But the Union has to be reformed: allowing legislation on economic but not on political issues is counterintuitive. This division between economics and politics is a false one.
Stoking the fire of the ‘white working class’ as opposed to the other ‘colours’ is dangerous. What we social democrats have to communicate to our political parties is that there are no prescriptive differences emanating from the colour of one’s skin. Our failure to convey this message gives credence to those who would divide our working classes along fictitious racial lines.
The time is now ripe for change – and yet change always offers us social democrats both opportunity and danger. There currently exists a thought-vacuum, created by the inadequacies of the Third Way and contemporary social democracy. The Third Way is broken, and out of tune with social reality. The answer is not to abandon universalism, but to think of a better universal idea of social democracy; to look for truth, order and harmony in a more open, democratic way. We need to revisit the core ideas of social democracy, whilst looking at how the world has changed. And as we do so, we need to reinvent our categories and theories. Our task is not simply to dismantle the Third Way, but to stay true to our values and principles and reinvent our ideology.