The Snow Prince and the Penguins — or why social democracy doesn’t work

So why are social democrats in such a pickle across the world? Some typical explanations include a) voters don’t like welfarism; b) that it’s been hijacked by morally deficient liberal elitists who lack working class virtue; c) that it has strayed too far from third way-ism; d) that it is too often Tory-lite, and if the electorate is given a choice between Tory and Tory, it will choose the Tory every time.

A lot of these explanations put a lot of emphasis on leadership — if social democracy’s elite was more intellectually rigorous or virtuous, then it would not be in the mess it’s in. But what if social democracy — which I am going to define as statist attempt to create a more equal society in an electoral democracy — is doomed to fail? This brings me to the tale of the snow prince and the penguins.

Once upon a time there lived 100 peasants on an Antarctic Island, ruled over by the snow prince, whose wealth was based on the vast forest he owned. There was no shelter on the island. Life was hard, as islanders were battered by the wind, hail and snow. So the people threatened to overthrow their prince. He promised to build a shelter to house them, and so he was allowed to keep his position.

But when he had built the shelter, there was only room for 60 out of the 100 peasants. There was another revolt, and an insurgent said that she should be prince instead, so she could build a shelter for all 100 peasants. It was decided to put it to the vote to decide who would rule the island — and all 100 peasants would vote.

The prince and the insurgent were invited to speak. The prince said the reason why he had built a shelter for only 60 people, was because there simply was not enough wood for a bigger shelter and all the firewood required. If a bigger shelter was built, they would soon run out of firewood and no one would be able to live with any protection from the wild weather. The insurgent then spoke up, and said this was rubbish. Everyone had seen the forest, and knew there was enough wood for a shelter for all 100.

There was then a discussion. It was generally agreed that the insurgent had a more persuasive argument than the prince, and that there was a 2/3rds chance that she was correct, and only a 1/3 chance that he was correct. Everyone agreed with that summation. It was then put to a vote. The prince won the vote 55 to 45.

The insurgent was disconsolate. She asked people why they had voted the way they had. Five people who were currently inside the shelter said they voted for her because they wanted to help those who lived outside the shelter. But 55 of those inside the shelter had voted for the prince. They thought she was probably right. But why risk it, when voting for the prince was a risk-free option?

The insurgent asked for a revote, under a new proposal. She would only build a shelter for 80 to reduce the risk. Only if it worked, would she expand the shelter later. The prince replied that it was impossible to build a sustainable shelter for more than 60. They voted again. The Prince won 55 votes again, but now the insurgent only won 35 votes — ten people from outside the shelter had decided that it wasn’t worth bothering to vote.

The insurgent asked for a third vote. This time she said she would only build a shelter for 70. But now the prince had a new argument. He said that there were some foreigners in the shelter. If more came, that would threaten the place of those inside the shelter. He would force the foreigners to leave, so that some peasants outside the shelter could come in. The prince won in a landslide, 70 to 20.

The insurgent was disconsolate and walked outside into the wild weather. She saw 90 disparate penguins, but 10 huddled together for warmth, with each individual taking it in turn to be on the outside. Ten more joined the huddle, and then ten more. Each new cohort was welcomed by the existing huddle, and each new individual took their turn on the outside. Eventually all 100 penguins were in the huddle.

The danger of trying to ensure you make a point clearly is that you hammer it away crudely, and so I apologise if I have done so. But at least the argument is plain. If centre-right and centre-left parties argue over the size of a statist welfare state over time, the centre-right party should become entrenched in power. That is because it can a) design a welfare state that covers the necessary proportion of citizens needed to win re-election and b) it can introduce the concept of risk to further expansion. In that scenario, it does not have to win the argument against the centre-left party or even reach deadlock, but just introduce an element of doubt and risk into voting for the centre-left. And that is before we introduce the concept of the ‘other’ into politics. You should also notice in the story, that the insurgent did no better when she moderated her proposal.

Although such a centre-right party can be re-elected and its limited welfare state sustained in such a scenario, that does not mean the populace is happy. The bar for the centre-right party’s re-election is that the necessary plurality of voters for re-election is kept content with the welfare they receive and are convinced of a risk to further expansion. There is little incentive in the system to solve any problems beyond that. There can be apathy and frustration — for those inside and outside the shelter of the welfare state — although the centre-right party continues to be elected.

This is why an easy phrase like ‘The Tories are moving further and further to the right’ needs to be unpacked. It may be true, in so far as the conditions for people outside the welfare state shelter get harder and harder. It may also be true, in so far as Conservatives start deploying the politics of ‘the other’ — especially against non-voters by choice (the young) or definition (potential immigrants). But it won’t be true as far as reducing the size of the shelter is concerned. The national living wage and pensioners benefits, ringfenced spending for the NHS and the apprentice levy are all examples of the Tories protecting a welfare state large enough to ensure re-election in recent years.

Under such a system, I can only envisage two circumstances under which the centre-right party may lose. The first is when they misjudge how large the welfare state has to be to maintain the necessary support. In this age of a professionalised opinion-testing, you would imagine this to be impossible without incompetence. But it wasn’t always so. In 1945, Britain had essentially experienced censorship and self-censorship for five years of total war. There had been no general election for ten years. The Conservative Party had very little feel for the appetite for welfare, and so failed. In 2017, sheer incompetence led the Tories to fiddle with the boundaries of welfare in an untested way with the so-called ‘dementia tax’, and probably contributed to the loss of their majority. But it should be noted, that many of those who were offended by the proposal — essentially homeowners who wanted their children to benefit from welfarism — may well have been anti-welfare in other contexts. These voters could be flipped back if Conservatives expand their welfare offer a little.

The other circumstances, the centre-right party may lose is when it is perceived to be incompetent — the metaphorical prince cannot be trusted to maintain the shelter. This was essentially the case for the Conservatives in 1964–66 (fuddy-duddyish and backward), 1997 (too divided by Europe) and in 2017 ( The social care u-turn).

So what are the lessons for social democrats? Firstly, in order to win, the message to hammer home is not that centre-right parties are evil- i.e. they want to keep the welfare state small. That will be interpreted by voters inside the shelter as meaning that the centre-right party won’t risk their welfare with overspending — a good thing to them. The message that a centre-left party must repeat, ad nauseam, is that the centre-right party is incompetent.

But once in power, the social democratic party must try to think of welfare like the penguin colony, not the shelter, in that it should encourage those receiving welfare to increase the number of beneficiaries. This means supporting non-state welfare whenever possible, rather than state welfare.

Let us give an example of workplace rights, and the balance between government diktat (the state route) and union strength (the non-state route). Let’s say, in a country that already insists employers give a year’s maternity leave, the centre-left party suggests that they should also give a year’s end-of-life carer’s leave. The centre-right party can say that insisting on both sets of leave in legislation would make employers go bust. Those that are due to benefit from maternity leave but not end-of-life carer’s leave will vote for the centre-right party, so their welfare is not put at risk from a further expansion in welfare.

In a different scenario, let us say that a centre-left party says it will not legislate for end-of-life carer’s leave, and it will in fact repeal maternity leave. But it will make it far easier for unions to organise. Now the soon-to-be-parent joins a union for their rights — and recruits the soon to be bereaved on a similar basis. The union grows, and they both get their rights as a result.

In reality, a move from pre-existing legislative rights to benefits derived from non-state action would not be as smooth. But without such a shift, it is hard to see how social democrats escape the crushing effect of limited welfare states presided over by perpetual centre-right government. The other hope is to introduce universal benefits, such as the NHS, and, potentially, a basic income.

However, even a non-state or universal approach to welfare has severe problems. What happens to those, unlike the penguins in the colony, who can’t contribute, such as those with disabilities? Or those that can never be voters, such as potential immigrants? How is their welfare secured in a democratic system? It might just be that social democracy — judged in terms of being self-sustaining — is not very good.