Freedom and Social Democracy

A few months ago Chris Dillow, one of my favourite bloggers, wrote an interesting piece about the death of the idea of freedom on the right. This can be read here. The main points, are, I think, pretty good ones. Ending freedom of movement, the hostile environment for immigrants and regressive policies on criminal justice are all central projects of the British right, and all involve significant restrictions on individual freedom.  Anti-immigration policy is notable in particular, as its ostensive justifications (purported impacts on wages) tend to rely on the tacit assumption that labour markets don't function efficiently and immigrants simply impact the supply of labour, rather than create additional demand for it too (the lump of labour fallacy). Back in the 1980's, the dominant thinkers and politicians of the New Right used to think belief in freedom and belief in the power of the market went hand in had. Now, it seems, in large areas of social and economic policy the right believe in neither. Dillow suggests that the mantle of freedom might be taken up by the left, and concludes by arguing that this is well complimented by an understanding that unequal wealth and power can lead to forms of coercion. It was this understanding that was so central to the emancipatory themes of 19th century left wing thought.

I'd like to add a few thoughts as to why freedom might be an effective focal point for the left and centre left of British politics right now. The first point is it can be a good way of marrying the need to appeal to 'aspiration' with concern for social welfare. A functioning welfare state is not just about alleviating immediate poverty: by providing security and certainty people are more able to make choices about how they lead their lives. If, for example, you lose your job, meagre allowances and pressure from the DWP will likely force you to take the first thing on offer. You might well have better choices if a better level of support allows you to take the time to find something you are actually want to, or take the time to re-skill. The same is equally true for decent maternity and paternity allowances. A decent system of social support can, in a very real sense, be freedom enhancing, as can certain regulations aimed at providing greater job security. Free from insecurity, we can more confidently make better choices about our lives and have greater aspirations.

The second point here is that a focus on the value of the welfare state as freedom enhancing could help address one of the central problems Labour has had electorally under Corbyn. Many supporters of Corbyn have protested against what they see as the unfair depiction of their 2017 and 2019 manifestos as extreme. But this has not been helped by the fact that talking up the 'radicalism' of their platform has been a large part of the appeal of Corbyn amongst supporters. The rehabilitation of the word 'socialist' in particular as a self description is a notable part of this. The problem with the term as used today is for older generations it carries with it the baggage of the Cold War and a collectivist mindset, without even being a particularly useful description of a policy agenda (is anybody seriously advocating collective ownership of the means of production and distribution?) Moving away from this vocabulary and stressing social democratic policies as freedom enhancing might spare the left of these associations.

This focus finally offers a better opportunity for the kind of electoral alliance Labour, or any party of the centre left would need to win power. It could allow them to speak a language more recognisable to liberals, and have a common way of talking about the encroachments on traditional civil liberties and the erosion of constitutional norms resulting from Brexit and pushed by Johnson and the nativist right. It could, unlike Corbynism, effectively make this case, while simultaneously pushing the well evidenced proposition that more equal societies with greater levels of economic security are also freer and more politically stable ones, with a better functioning public sphere.

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