by James Billot
Monday, 9
December 2019
Idea
16:44

Are the Tories now the Social Democrats?

The success of Mette Frederiksen, leader of The Danish Social Democrats, followed on from a tough stance on immigration. Credit: Getty

Social democracy is in retreat. In the past two weeks alone, two left-wingers have taken over the German SDP and Romania’s SD Party suffered its worst electoral defeat ever.

So why have voters deserted social democrats and how could they be won back? At a Civitas talk on Friday, Labour Leaver and avowed social democrat John Mills had some suggestions:

“We have got to get the economy performing better and get the growth rate up to a better level. We need to avoid a situation where wages stagnate. Secondly, as long as we have a deficit of a £100bn a year, we are never going to get the government finances under control. We also need to reindustrialise the economy – that doesn’t mean we need to go back to the 1970s, but I think we need to get manufacturing back to 15%.”
- John Mills

It is a peculiar trend in today’s politics that as the Tories move to the Left on borrowing and spending, what remains of the centre-Left is running to the Right on the same issue. Indeed, John Mills’ talk of economic growth, deficit reduction and the 1970s sound more like something out of the 2015 Conservative Manifesto than any kind of social democratic platform.

But if social democrats want to go trawling for policies on the Right, they would do better to tackle the issue of immigration instead. As the case of Denmark shows, one of few examples of a centre-Left party in power, the success of the Social Democrats followed on from a tough stance on immigration. Not only did this position take the sting out of the Right-wing parties, it allowed the party to re-capture its working-class base. As Paul Collier writes in the New Statesman:

“Across Europe, the most salient issue has become immigration: it has come to define the divide between the metropolitans and the working class. Hence, a sharp change of policy on immigration became that signal: the young metropolitans would have choked, rather than utter it. The signal re-established trust: the [Social Democrats] won back working-class votes, while losing votes among the young metropolitans.”
- Paul Collier

In the UK, there is very little appetite for this on the Left— see the Labour Party’s commitment to extending freedom of movement if it came to power.

So you’re left wondering: what is the closest thing to a modern social democrat party in the UK? With their commitments to increase spending on public services, reduce the tax burden for those worst off and ‘level up’ regional inequality around the country, it is starting to look distinctly like Boris Johnson’s Conservatives — something that neither the Tory Right nor exiled New Labour would want to hear.

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