Adapting Social Democratic Parties to the Facebook Age

By Neal Lawson



Form follows function. What are social democratic party’s for and therefore how should they be structured? In the era of what we could call social democracy 1.0 when unions were big, production was bigger and the state and power heavily centralized the goal was the administration of power from the top down. War socialism meant an elite and hierarchical form.

So what do we do now that class is no longer central and production isn’t Fordist and the state’s ability to deliver meaningful and lasting change from the centre has gone? Social democracy has to rethink its form. In an age where individualism is rampant and we form different identities in different groups the elite, homogenous and hierarchical form of social democratic politics is hopelessly outdated. Despite a few tweaks and changes the model is that of factor politics in a Facebook age.

So what to do? First remember what social democratic party’s exist for. The job is to ensure that the vast majority lead fulfilling lives where they have the resources, the time and the democratic connections to shape their lives and their world. The crippling crisis of social democracy across Europe is in part because we are organised in a way that stops us achieving such goals.

But all the same functions are necessary: leadership, candidate selection, narrative setting, programme building and election campaigning. But all of these things have to be achieved in a fundamentally different way.

Leadership has to enable others to transform their lives themselves and together, promoting change done with people not to them. Candidates should reflect the membership of the party and not just become a technocratic elite. The narrative should be about a different vision of society – a good society – not a system of targets or markets. In keeping with this policies have to be transformative – they have to make a real and substantial difference. Finally campaigns have to be pluralistic – involving not just the party machine but a myriad of civil society and political forces.

What this requires more than anything is not a structural reform but a cultural revolution. Social democrats have got to stop controlling and start trusting. First they have to trust their members and then the people. They have to let go and recognize that change comes from soft power – or morality and consensus building not the machine politics of the post war era. I’ve written more about this here.

Social democracy as a political creed may already be dead. It certainly will be unless it can adapt to the world as it is and not go in tighter and tighter circles to refind a world that has long gone.