What does the Continental European model of social democracy and a Rolls Royce have in common? We will return to this metaphor after some brief analysis.
Last week David Miliband wrote in the New Statesman that Labour should not be the party of the “big state” - this comes against a recent trend of criticism of large governments, which many politicians believe, are bad for the economy and unpopular with voters. Western governments are not without their legitimate criticism as anyone who has had to claim benefits or submit a planning application will be aware of. The marsh of bureaucracy that the public has to deal with when they want something from their government creates a feeling of disillusionment with the virtues of the public sector which turns voters away from any politician who claims that we need more government to solve societies’ problems. The slick efficiency of the tills at Tesco stand in sharp contrast to the long periods of standing around waiting at the Job Centre. It is no wonder politicians who favour the selling of public services to private companies find voters agreeing with them at all levels of society.
The scepticism directed towards big government is partly a result of real fear caused by the European Sovereign Debt Crisis but it is also a definite effort to shift the agenda towards a free-market small government approach by those with vested interest in this opinion. This being large companies and right leaning governments keen to drum up support for their ideologically motivated austerity programs. Miliband argues that it was faith in big government which caused the Labour party to lose the public’s trust over the economy. He is pandering to the view that Labour is the party of the “nanny state” and that the Conservatives are the party of individual freedom.
I personally, have never had a problem with the label nanny state. When you think about it, who is a nanny? A warm and comforting figure that looks after children when they are cannot look after themselves. I cannot think of a better role model for government. However western voters are opposed to oppressive, overbearing regimes which meddle in the daily lives of their citizens. The fear behind this is also legitimate, only a fool in the West would want to live under a Cold War Communist regime. However, in the left learning parties of Europe’s desperate attempts to escape the spectre of being labelled a Marxist-Leninist, some of what was truly important about socialism has been washed away in the bland acceptance of the free market.
What is important about socialism is not a commitment to the big state but to a set of underlying principles that society should be directed towards income equality, the removal of class divides causes by wealth inequality, an equality of opportunity for all citizens as a birth right and safety net for those who are unable (temporally or permanently) to provide for themselves and their families. Self-reliance should not be the governing rule of society and the collective should look out for the individual. In exchange for this the individual must be willing to make a sacrifice for the good of the collective in terms of personal wealth and some degree of personal freedom. The social democratic parties of European - some of which are differentiated from the socialist parties of Europe and some of which are not – maintain the commitment to these values on a social level but not an economic one. In place of the economic proportion of socialism there is a general acceptance of the virtues of free market capitalism as the best method to allocate societies’ scarce resources.
David Miliband and the Brown Government embodied this notion of a commitment to social justice along with a commitment to small state free market capitalism. The coalition government has continued the shift towards right wing economic principles by further reducing the state at the expense of any commitment to the values of stated above. Miliband’s insistence that Labour move beyond the big state verses small state argument may win him support with voters but will do little to reassure those who believe that Labour has lost touch with the key values at the root of socialism from which the party draws its ideology.
I submit that a rebranding of the virtues of big government is needed by social democrats if they are to distinguish themselves from the economically right leaning parties and reconnect with the values at the root of their past popularity. This rebranding should be focused on the core values stated above. There are many who are concerned about the growing divide between the rich and the poor and how unevenly wealth is distributed across society. This is also where Rolls Royce comes in.
The typical criticism of big government by the right is three fold: 1, that state involvement in the market causes a problems for industry, 2, that that it requires higher taxation and 3, the old nanny state argument. I will take each point in turn:
Firstly, I have already written on the need for Capital Conscious Socialism. I have said that government should always be mindful of the needs of private business to provide employment when intervening in the economy. It is also worth considering that state invention is often necessary to make sure that industry allocates societies’ scare resources so that they create the most social good not economic good. An example of this is medicine, which should be allocated where it benefits society by curing diseases rather than where it is most profitable.
Secondly, the cost is key to the value of large Government. We should think of Government like a car. If we opt for the cheap option (economically right wing with low taxation and spending) then we will receive a cheap government, one which is ineffectual at meeting our needs and protecting our values. If we opt for the Rolls Royce government, which is expensive but capable then we will have a government that is empowered to tackle social problems and is something to be proud off. Spending more on our government should be viewed the same as buying a luxury car. That the price tag is part of the appeal because only with an expensive product can we achieve satisfaction from our spending.
Thirdly, social democrats should remind the public that it is their government’s duty to look after them and not simply get out of the way of private businesses. It is the role of government to embody the values of altruistic medieval kings. To clothe the naked, feed the poor, provide shelter for the homeless. Those who have the least are the most vulnerable to the problems created by wealth inequality and the basic safety net provided by the state ensure that the needs of the very worst off are not forgotten. The state may intervene in our lives to protect us from letting the selfishness - which the free market uses to drive economic growth - from entering our social conscience and thus kicking aside the poor, the vulnerable and the politically weak.
The values at the heart of socialism and big government will resonate with voters once framed within the right context. The argument of big state verses small state is not the right context. The argument of Rolls Royce against a budget banger is the right context. It is important that social democrats across Europe defend these values less society become deeply divided between rich and poor. The core values behind socialism are important in building a fairer society and there is still merit to the argument that big government can help to achieve this.
Ed Miliband would do wise to bare this in mind during his review of Labour’s policies - rather than listening to the supposed wisdom of his older brother. Many on the left hope the results of the policy review will bring the Labour party out of inertia and back into the business of providing a genuine alternative to the methods of the coalition government. Until that time we should remember that we get back from our government what we put in. If we give it scepticism and starve it of funds it will be ineffective at protecting our core values. If we view government spending as an important step to having a fairer society then we can empower government to tackle the root causes of social ills.