The Future of Social Democracy..?

Global solidarity is under increasing threat from western populism. The center left must step forward with a new social contract for the whole world, not just developed countries.

For over 100 years, the labour movement built its strength on the social contract — the idea that the working class could depend on secure, decent jobs and access to services over their lives. But since the 1990s, the explosion of trade and automation has weakened the social contract as western workers became dispensable to global corporations. Living standards could be protected so long as there was enough economic growth to keep everyone in a decent job, but when the global economy collapsed in 2008, governments were unable to insulate the public from the fallout.

Now workers in developed countries are turning away from social democratic parties, and towards populist parties who promise to protect living standards in their home country. These movements have provided the public with an alternative vision based on nationalism and protectionist trade policies — the idea that they can protect jobs by withdrawing from global trade agreements and international unions like the EU, and by closing their borders to immigration. Through Trumpism and Brexit, they have had electoral success. The political vacuum created by public anger has made these ideas compelling to a public looking to wind the clock back to better times.

The result has seen the center-left savaged at recent elections, while conservative parties have not felt the same backlash. There is now a real possibility of a long term realignment of the political spectrum with free-trade conservatives on one side and populist parties on the other. The left risks being sidelined to a minor role.

Such a realignment would offer us two clear and competing futures — to continue down the globalization route with further erosion of jobs, conditions and wages; or a tribal future where nations compete to maintain the living standards of their own people, while global integration and solidarity are abandoned. Neither scenario offers much for developing nations or the global poor.

The public in developed countries are already detaching from global affairs. We see this through the apathy towards the Syrian war, and how it is only taken seriously in the west through the lens of terrorism or immigration.

But are we turning our back on internationalism just when we need it most? Global warming is reaching a critical stage where we need to take decisive action. Biodiversity is under increasing pressure and is collapsing at an alarming rate. Peak oil is creating instability in the world’s geopolitical hot spots. Inequality is rising, and religious fundamentalism along with it. Nuclear disarmament has stalled. All of these existential threats need to be managed through complex and sensitive international cooperation. In this context, a return to tribalism is a dangerous move.

There is still a chance to offer an alternative future, one based on international solidarity and cooperation. But it will take a clear and compelling vision to make an impact on a public ground down by austerity and seduced by nationalist promises of a return to better times. It’s time to stop clinging to a broken social contract and draw up a new one for the twenty first century.

And that means changing international structures to ensure a better deal for the world’s seven billion citizens. We can not, and should not, put global trade back in the bottle but we must negotiate fairer trade deals that insist upon standards for dignity at work, wages, tax justice and environmental protection. Solidarity must be universal – every citizen in every nation should be valued equally and that means that western workers have no more right to a job than anyone else. It also means that developing countries should not be able to build their competitiveness at the expense of the environment or workers’ dignity.

We should look to reform the EU and other international unions to allow the transfer of funds from strong to weak economic areas and maintain living standards during asymmetric recessions. This should include a better deal for developing nations who should be installed as guardians of the environmental resources upon which we all depend, and funded accordingly.

In the developed world, we must fight to maintain living standards while recognizing that that jobs in their traditional form cannot always be protected. The pursuit of a living wage must be prioritized and we should consider the application of a Basic Income to maintain living standards job losses are unavoidable. Where jobs are being lost to automation, we need to empower working class communities to take control of their own future by providing clear pathways to education and training and by creating jobs in important social areas such as childcare, health and education, and by promoting innovation and entrepreneurship. We must re-imagine our idea of the working class to include entrepreneurs, freelancers and those in the gig economy so that they are afforded the same principle of dignity at work as traditional workers.

Social democratic parties and the labour movement can take the lead in driving this agenda on the world stage. The window of opportunity may be short, so now is the time to build a truly international labour movement.

Because solidarity must be global, or it is not solidarity at all.