Social Democrats will struggle to bring supporters on board

Three respected political figures have combined to form Ireland’s first Social Democratic party but Kyran Fitzgerald wonders if they have a future.

Social Democrats will struggle to bring supporters on board

These are strange times. A former employee of high powered consultants McKinsey joins forces with a one-time Workers’ Party activist and a long time Labour Party stalwart to establish Ireland’s first Social Democrat Party.

The new alliance brings together three respected political figures, Stephen Donnelly, Catherine Murphy and Róisín Shortall but have they come on board a leaky craft, or is there indeed a future for a political force that aims to combine managerial efficiency with the achievement of egalitarian goals?

Social democratic parties and those of the European soft left, in general, have been under the cosh for some time now.

Much of the working class base has drifted away from parties that are viewed as having sold the pass and become part of the establishment.

However, social democracy has a long and proud history and there are signs that the current tide of protest across Europe may be peaking, with Greek prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, an apparent convert to the politics of pragmatism.

The historian, Eric Hobsbawm hit the nail on the head when he suggested that social democrats “seek to regulate and socialise capitalism rather than replace it”.

For decades, the real enemies of social democracy have been the parties on the hardline left.

Today, the hardest challenges are posed by globalisation and job-destroying technologies.

The growth of individualisation, backed by the spread of education, has undermined trade union memberships.

Social democrats struggle to adapt to this new world. The German thinker, Jurgen Habermas, talks of a “technocratic hollowing out of democracy”. He argues for a much deeper European Union as a response to this trend.

But such idealism is not shared by many.

In post-war Western Europe, social democrats played a key role in propping up fragile democratic institutions on the continent.

The father of all the Social Democrat parties was Germany’s SPD.

Originally founded in 1863, it gained power in 1918 as Germany fell apart. Its leader, Friedrich Ebert was reviled by many when he teamed up with the army to crush the communists.

Ebert introduced war disability benefits and laws guaranteeing worker representation which served as a foundation for the social market economics of post war Germany.

Across the North Sea in Sweden, the social democrats became the largest party in parliament in 1911, remaining so ever since.

In power from 1932 to 1976, the social democrats boosted state spending helping Sweden to ride out the Great Depression with much lower levels of unemployment.

During the War, the Swedish Government was ruthlessly pragmatic, supplying the Nazis with iron ore and other vital raw materials.

However, over time, it built up the world’s most elaborate welfare state financed by marginal taxes peaking at over 100%.

The filmmaker, Ingmar Bergman was hounded out by the taxman.

The Swedish miracle began to unravel in the late 1970s, but the welfare state remained underpinned by success stories such as Ikea and Volvo.

Somehow, low inequality went hand-in-hand with high levels of innovation. Sweden and its neighbour, Finland suffered a banking crash in the early 1990s but both countries soon bounced back helped by an international recovery and by restructuring public finances while shifting resources towards technology and education.

The Scandinavians do not believe in welfare handouts. They have opted for active labour market polices, investing heavily in childcare as a means of assisting people into the workplace.

In the Swedish Utopia, wealth is largely concentrated in private hands, controlled by families like the Wallenbergs, who have repeatedly reinvested in their home country.

Reform has proved far from painless. The voters have turned away from the traditional parties of big government to back liberal and Green parties. While the social democrats are back in power, their share of the vote is down from 45%, in 1994, to just over 30% today.

In Germany, too, the SPD has lost support with backing going to the Greens and the left bloc, largely made up of former communists.

The Social Democrat government laid much of the groundwork for the country’s current economic success through a restructuring of the economy which alienated much of its trade union voter base.

This is the dilemma for those who seek to put radical ideas into practice in Government.

It is far easier to march in opposition than to compromise around the Cabinet table.

The new Irish Social Democrats believe that better social protection can be married with a strategy of continued promotion of foreign investment combined with greater backing for entrepreneurs.

Deputies Shortall, Murphy and Donnelly may be positioning themselves to participate in actual decision making.

As a result, the axis of the next Government could be tilted leftward, but will they be thanked by their supporters, many of whom may prefer the purity of protest?

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