At the heart of social democracy’s existential crisis is not so much an ideological confusion as a moral void. Left-wing parties no longer defend the people they were set up to represent and protect.
On 7 May, the Conservative Party in Britain won an unexpected victory in the country's General Election. The Labour Party, which had been neck-and-neck in the polls and looked set to form a minority government, suffered a crushing defeat.
While the Tories can govern without the constraints of coalition, Labour is staring at the prospect of years in the political wilderness.
It was wiped out in its old bastion of Scotland where the Scottish National Party (SNP) took 56 of 59 seats, including 40 of Labour's previously held 41 seats - with a record swings of 39% per cent in Glasgow North East.
By the time of the next general election in 2020, Labour will need to win an extra 100 seats or so in England alone - something which even former Prime Minister Tony Blair failed to achieve in his 1997 landslide.
If Conservatives enact a reform of constituency boundaries, it will help them get another 20 to 40 seats and entrench their majority in England. Add to this the rise of the UK Independence Party (UKIP): it got 3.7 million votes and came second in 118 constituencies, many in the north where UKIP appeals to the English working-class who used to vote Labour.
In short, the Labour Party could be locked out of power for a generation.
A similar fate has already befallen other social democratic parties around the world or awaits them. In Europe, more than two-thirds of EU countries are ruled by centre-right parties, including the UK, Germany, Spain and Poland. Where the left rules, it is either deeply unpopular (as in France) or failing to transform the country (as in Italy).
In both Australia and New Zealand, Labor finds itself in opposition and struggling to offer an alternative that people embrace. The Democrats in the United States may occupy the White House, but they are a long way off recapturing Congress and indeed the imagination of America's heartland. Latin America seems the exception, but left-wing governments are either authoritarian (Ecuador), or corrupt (Brazil), or deeply divisive (Peru) or all at once (Venezuela). Thus social democracy is neither very social nor particularly democratic.
The left's moral void
At the heart of social democracy's existential crisis is not so much an ideological confusion as a moral void. Left-wing parties no longer defend the people they were set up to represent and protect. Around the world, social democrats and democratic socialists represent predominantly the affluent, secular and metropolitan middle classes as well as public sector workers and certain minorities, because the focus has been on equality and other abstract, formal values such as fairness, which do not resonate with ordinary citizens.
That is why the British Labour Party did relatively well in the inner-city parts of London, but had little appeal across the rest of the country. As Jon Cruddas and Jonathan Rutherford put it in a remarkable essay, Labour woke up after the election "to find itself a stranger in a country it did not recognize. Beaten in England, threatened in Wales and destroyed in Scotland, Labour has lost its place in the life of the people." No political party has a divine right to exist. Parties die and they are not resurrected.
In Scotland and Wales, Labour was hammered on its association with the austerity politics of Westminster. In the north of England, it haemorrhaged support to UKIP who speak to the concerns of traditional Labour supporters, especially older white working class voters who have been left behind by the collapse of industry and the impact of globalisation. In the south, it offered nothing to people who are patriotic and feel that English identity is under threat from Scottish nationalism and the EU's brand of abstract cosmopolitan utopia.
Common to all these woes is the lack of relating to people and their fundamental values: a sense of belonging, obligations to others, mutual recognition as the pre-condition of both social status and economic security. Labour has spoken too much about individual rights and entitlements and too little about the relationships that give these ideas meaning and content. People do not pursue some rational-choice maximisation of power, wealth and utility. They seek a role in society and the possibility of providing for their loved ones. Family, faith and flag; work, community, pride in place - both the locality and the nation.
The new divide in Western politics
The rise of insurgent parties such as UKIP and the SNP in the UK or the Front National in France heralds the emergence of a new divide in Western politics. Since the American and especially the French Revolution, politics was dominated by the ideologies of left versus right. Now the old ideological confrontation has largely given way to a cultural clash between liberal-cosmopolitan values on the one hand, and conservative-communitarian values on the other hand.
This divide is rooted in deep divisions that first emerged in the 1970s and have been growing ever since. There is an increasing sense that globalisation has brought about greater freedoms and opportunities for many, but that it has also generated for many more a new forms of cultural insecurity in addition to ongoing economic anxiety.
Voters who fall into the conservative-communitarian category feel that ordinary workers are not receiving their fair share and that big business is not on their side. Of all the voters, they are the least likely to benefit from the recovery, now or in future, which in large part explains why they are not enthusiastic about centre-right parties. If they vote for them rather than the centre-left, it's with the head and a heavy heart. They think the left just doesn't get it: the economic precariousness that was exposed by the financial crash combines with long-standing feelings of social dislocation and cultural disorientation to produce a dread of abandonment. The left bangs on about inequality, but it doesn't talk about quality of life and relationships, and it has no liking or sympathy for people who do not share its own liberal outlook.
Similarly, conservative-communitarian voters feel that ordinary people have been ignored by urban, metropolitan elites and that big government is not on their side either - especially in relation to marriage, immigration and Europe. While the mainstream parties use the managerial language of cost-benefit analysis, insurgent parties such as UKIP speak to the fears and concerns about how ever-faster social change is undermining the values, way of life and identity that such voters cherish.
All this adds to the support for populist forces on the radical left and the radical right such as UKIP, the Front National, Golden Dawn in Greece, the Danish People's Party, the Sweden Democrats, the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, Jobbik in Hungary, the Freedom Party in Austria or the True Finns. One might describe such movements as the crude, parodied versions of a post-liberal politics that nonetheless answer to some of the same exigencies, notably a popular revulsion against three liberal excesses: first, against the success culture that operates at the expense of most people; second, against the amoral and narrow criteria that define this success; third, against cosmopolitan contempt for embedded identity and the need for security and belonging.
So since it first emerged at the end of the nineteenth century, social democracy faces its worst existential crisis. The left has abandoned ordinary people, and now they are abandoning the left. Compared with the resilience of centre-right support, current levels of disaffection with the centre-left really could spell its end.
Roads to perdition
In the aftermath of defeat, the left is tempted by two equally misguided paths, which would lead social democracy down the road to perdition. The first is a return to the post-war settlement of central welfare, state paternalism and Keynesian economics - including public works and a commitment to full employment. Quite apart from the need for fiscal discipline and the need to pay down the national debt, this ignores the growing popular backlash against the large institutions of both big government and big business, and the desire for greater accountability through local control and civic participation.
The second is a reinvention of the 1990s "third way" politics. Advocates of this avenue argue that ours is a similar situation compared with the 1970s when the post-war settlement became sclerotic and gave way to the neo-liberal revolution of the 1980s, of which centre-right austerity, welfare retrenchment and narrow nationalism are today's analogues. Following a number of electoral defeats, the left finally found a response in the idea of a "third way" beyond communism and capitalism, as championed by Paul Keating, Bill Clinton and Tony Blair.
But it was a false dawn then, and does not offer a transformative future for social democracy now. The reason is that a vision of national renewal was quickly lost in a spectacle of spin, PR, focus groups and private polling. What was left of social democracy became debased in an ugly mix of state paternalism and market managerialism, dictating policy from the top down and (in the words of Cruddas and Rutherford) "doing politics to and for people, but never with them."
The "third way" ended up producing the fusion of social with economic liberalisation under the joint aegis of the bureaucratic state and the global "free market." The underlying secular ideology promotes little more than the pursuit of freedom of choice, utility and short-term pleasure. No wonder that this has alienated ordinary people across class and creed.
In the case of Britain, Blair's "third way" would offer nothing to traditional supporters in Scotland and Wales. It would further antagonise ex-Labour voters in northern England. And it would like a pale imitation of the Tories in the south of the country, and people always prefer the original to the copy.
And those, like the Times lead writer Philip Collins, who say that Blairism is not about looking back but instead about "permanent revolution" clearly haven't understood that the people of England are much closer to Edmund Burke than to Tony Blair in opposing revolutionary politics and defending a politics of virtue. In a review of a book on Burke by the influential Tory MP Jesse Norman, Cruddas praises Norman as one of the few true Conservatives for recovering the notion that "[p]olitics is about the nurturing of virtue: honour, loyalty, duty and wisdom. It is not about atomised exchange."
The Blue Labour promise
Labour and the rest of the left have much to learn from such Burkean thematics and from small "c" conservative thinking. Faced with growing social dislocation and cultural insecurity, the left needs to recover a sense of moral purpose and a story of renewal for both party and country.
More than any other force within the wider Labour movement, "Blue Labour" has owned the scale and nature of social democracy's crisis, forged new coalitions of interest and urged the left party to abandon its comfort zones - a position articulated in a book I recently co-edited with the title, Blue Labour: Forging a New Politics.
"Blue Labour" is the name a movement founded by Maurice Glasman and Jon Cruddas in the wake of Labour's 2010 defeat - Labour's second worst electoral result in over 70 years, which has now been outdone by the 2015 debacle. The name "Blue Labour" reflects a paradoxical politics of combining greater economic justice with an updated form of social conservatism that honours people's desire to earn respect and a place in society through family, locality, work and faith. Blue Labour seeks to reconnect the party with the very people it was set up to protect and represent while also speaking to the middle classes, small businesses and private sector employees.
Central to Blue Labour is greater democracy in the economy and the polity - for example, workers' representation on company boards, vocational training, self-governing towns, cities and regions, as well as regional and sectoral banks that support small businesses. Much of this is a development of Catholic Social Thought, including Pope Benedict's social encyclical Caritas in veritate and the notion of a civil economy that fuses contract with gift and places reciprocity at the heart of society.
This involves shifting the emphasis from abstract values to the practice of virtue. For Blue Labour, "virtue" is not an empty, moralistic word. Ethics is neither a simplistic moralism nor an optional extra that we can add at will to the economic, the political or the social. Instead, virtue is about pursuing the goods internal to each human activity. It is about promoting a politics of the common good and mutual flourishing - beyond individual rights, personal utility or private happiness. More Plato, Aristotle and Aquinas; less Hobbes, Locke and Bentham, if you like.
Jon Cruddas, who has led the Party's Policy review since 2012 and was closely involved in the 2015 election manifesto, argues that Blue Labour recovers the best traditions that have been lost since 1945 and 1997. The New Labour government became too enthusiastic for a political philosophy that focused on utility rather than virtue. At the launch of the Blue Labour book, to which he contributed an essay, Cruddas said that this "can create a cold, transactional, utilitarian type of politics which is pretty soulless and rationalistic."
Thus, Blue Labour takes a firm position in the struggle between two rival traditions of politics - one rationalist, utilitarian and transactional, and the other romantic, principled and transformative. The former may have triumphed at crucial junctures and dominated the twentieth century, but it never caught the imagination of the people. Whether in 1945, 1979 or after 1997, it was the planners, managers and bureaucrats who won out over the visionaries and the creators. But now this cold rationalism is in crisis, and the tide is turning.
Thus Blue Labour distinguishes itself from other forces within the wider Labour movement precisely on account of its commitment to a politics that is ethical, not materialistic. Its emphasis on the creativity of human labour, on the intrinsic importance of vocation and on the need to nurture virtuous action grows out of the British Romantic tradition of which William Morris was perhaps the greatest exponent.
It is against the background of the continual opposition between the transformative and the transactional that one has to understand Blue Labour's appeal to the radical tradition of British Romanticism - of William Cobbett, Walter Scott, Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin, William Morris, G.D.H. Cole and R.H. Tawney. This more specific Romantic tradition serves as a constant source of inspiration in the battle against those forces that are determined to abolish the history of both party and country in favour of abstract ideals such as progress and freedom of choice.
The invocation of Romanticism is vital because it highlights the paradoxical nature of Blue Labour - above all, the idea that the old is the new because renewal requires the recovery of exiled traditions. Blue Labour's restoration of a Romantic vision explains its rejection of the utilitarian moralism and liberal economics that have characterised both the left and the right for so long, and the recovery of a "moral economy" that promotes virtue and mutual flourishing even in an age of fiscal conservatism.
And if anyone thought that Blue Labour is either reactionary nostalgia or unadulterated utopianism, they had better think again. Blue Labour is as mercilessly critical as it is committed to a politics of hope and transformation. Frank Field notes in his remarkable essay in the book that, since 1997, Labour support has fallen by five million votes. During this time, the electorate grew by 1.8 million. The number of non-voters in 2010 - 15.9 million - was greater than the votes cast for Labour and the Liberal Democrats combined.
This rot started under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. New Labour replaced trade union barons with media moguls and big business bosses, and the party came to be seen as being on the side of power, wealth and the metropolis. After three victories, Labour had consolidated its new image and in the process alienated its traditional working-class voters, not least in Scotland. This is true for semi- and unskilled workers as well the poorest in the electorate who have abandoned the party in droves. But it is even truer for the skilled working-class who see Labour as the "party of welfare" and the liberal establishment. Little wonder that they have left and aren't coming back.
By contrast, the decline in Labour's share of middle-class voters has been much lower than the total decline in the party's vote, and particularly its vote from the skilled working class. Wooing business and middle-class voters won't be enough to offset the loss of Labour's old core supporters. In short, the skilled working classes have been abandoning Labour and Labour cannot win without them.
Field outlines the value gap between metropolitan Labour and the working class. He identifies a cosmopolitan disdain for patriotism and the endorsement of a social allocation system "that favours the newcomer and the social misfit" over those who exhibit decades-long civility and good behaviour. These widely shared ideas are clearly unpalatable for the bien-pensant metro-left who thinks that everyone should and indeed will be like them.
So to bridge the gap between liberal-cosmopolitan and conservative-communitarian values, Blue Labour addresses the common concerns of the vast majority of people, notably work, family and pride of place. To give three examples:
• On the economy, Blue Labour accepts the need for fiscal discipline, but not by shifting the debt and risk burden onto individuals and households through the slashing of public expenditure and continued tolerance of a low-wage economy. Rather, it proposes to incentivise the introduction of risk- and profit-sharing models. In addition to spreading asset ownership - for instance, through a massive house-building programme - Blue Labour seeks to re-value work by replacing the minimum wage with the "living wage" and linking salary increases to labour productivity growth.
• On welfare, Blue Labour calls for an insurance-based system that rewards contribution while also honouring the "preferential option for the poor." Blue Labour argues for a much wider notion of contribution beyond national insurance payments to include child rearing, care for the elderly and involvement in local communities (schools, hospitals and so on). This fusion of honest contribution with realistic generosity speaks to the growing number of disaffected workers who are socially conservative and turning to UKIP.
• In terms of the state, Blue Labour opposes the centralisation of power in the hands of unaccountable elites at Westminster and Whitehall in favour of the self-government of towns, cities and regions across the UK. This is much more radical than the dominant forms of devolution, which have left the bloated bureaucratic-managerial machine in place and failed to transfer taxation and spending powers away from London. Blue Labour's vision of self-government can also resolve the problem of England's under-representation in the Union while fulfilling the promise of Scottish home rule. This can confront the ugly nationalism we are seeing on both sides of the border and help heal the wounds of an increasingly divided Kingdom.
Blue Labour acknowledges that the crisis of the left is about the death of an old social-democratic politics, and the loss of millions of people who have deserted the Party. And it is about reconnecting with people as they are - as human beings who belong to families, localities and communities and who are embedded in shared traditions, interests and faiths. Neither as lone egos nor as an anonymous mass, but as relational beings who desire mutual recognition more than wealth and power. If the left wants to reconnect with people, then it needs to renew and extend its own best traditions - in particular, the ethics of virtue inherited from the cooperative movement, Christian socialists and the early trade unions.
In short, Blue Labour is key to reconnecting the left with ordinary people across class and creed. Its blend of economic egalitarianism and an updated form of social conservatism offers the only sensible alternative to the liberal status quo and the populist insurgency by parties on the extreme left and right.
In the early 1970s, New Zealand's Prime Minister Norman Kirk laid out a political philosophy that still resonates today. People, he said, don't want much. They want "someone to love, somewhere to live, somewhere to work and something to hope for." Relationships and a sense of community, a secure home; a fulfilling job that provides for the family - the building blocks of "the good life." Blue Labour is about recovering and renewing traditions of thought and practice that can restore meaning to these virtues.
Adrian Pabst is Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Kent. He is the author of Metaphysics: The Creation of Hierarchy, and co-editor of Blue Labour: Forging a New Politics.