Inspiration from Unlikely Quarters – A Challenge for Social Democrats

On the 23rd of May 2016, Labour UK’s Jon Cruddas released a report entitled Labour’s Future: Why Labour Lost in 2015 and how it can win again.

The report using polling data from England, Scotland and Wales to outline reasons as to why Labour did so badly in the 2015 General Elections. While some of the content makes for stinging reading, the social democratic left in Ireland should pay heed to many of the challenges the report identifies.

The claims that UK Labour is risking becoming an exclusive cultural brand.

“It is now largely a party of progressive, social liberals who value abstract, universalist principles such as equality, sustainability and social justice.”

“It is losing connection with the majority of voters who are either pragmatists in their voting habits or who hold socially conservative values of family, work, security, and fairness.”

It breaks up voters into 3 categories.


Pioneers – Pioneers are socially liberal and more altruistic than most voters. They are more likely to vote according to their personal ideals, based on principles such as caring, justice and a desire to end inequality. They tend to be better of than the majority of voters and have been to university.

Prospectors – Their priorities are to improve their social status and material wealth. They value a good time, the trappings of success, and the esteem of others. They don’t really give too much thought to politics, and they want to be seen to be backing a winner.

Settlers – Members of this group are generally “small c conservatives.” They are concerned with home, family and security. They value a sense of belonging. Tradition, rules and social order are important to them.

Cruddas goes on to say that each individual has elements of all 3 values, and can shift between categories throughout the course of their lives.

In Ireland, the far left as opposed to the social democratic left, engage in a type of nihilism that fundamentally alienates vast elements of the electorate, and promotes a poor vision of a society that knows what it is against, but ignores the values that make us stronger.

They argue for greater power for the state, while at the same time articulating a paradoxical ideology in which the state is a bogeyman that can’t be trusted.

They scoff at small c conservatism in a way that often undermines solidarity and cooperation while at the same time claiming that solidarity is key to our liberation.

They ignore the institution of the family (I refer to family in broad terms), making light of the fact that it is the family unit that often matters most to the outcomes of the most underprivileged in our society.

Social democrats should avoid falling into this trap of nihilism and actively advocate for the communitarian values which underpin our society, and in doing so reach out to the “settlers” who value a sense of belonging, rules and tradition.

Arguably, the problem for social democrats is that they spend their time talking almost exclusively to the “pioneers” (with the majority of their membership coming from the said group), all the while alienating and patronising many settlers.

Far from tearing up honoured institutions and the fabric of the state and civil society without regard, the centre-left should be about protecting the gains of working people; about safeguarding the values and institutions our country can be proud of; and celebrating the civic institutions, the localities, stories and relationships that allow us to move forward as a society together, rather than as alienated, angsty individuals.

Also, the centre-left can at times be accused of having a victim mentality. While it’s vital to articulate stories of injustice, we sometimes relish highlighting struggle over success. Highlighting stories of battered communities rather than promoting the strength of communities and the virtues of work and resilience. This prevents prospectors from identifying with us.

A cultural shift is required.  In some quarters this is already beginning. For example, Ruairi McKiernan’s video entitled A New Ireland Rising outlines a powerful criticism of the Ireland of 2016, while at the same time outlining the positive parts of our culture and heritage.

Perhaps the vision of the common good that the centre-left could take heart from comes from somewhere we wouldn’t usually look for inspiration (arguably for justified reasons.)

In his Encyclical Letter, LAUDATO SI’, Pope Francis made the case for a more community driven politics, with respect for tradition and ethics at its fore, saying;

“We must regain the conviction that we need one another, that we have a shared responsibility for others and the world, and that being good and decent are worth it. We have had enough of immorality and the mockery of ethics, goodness, faith and honesty. It is time to acknowledge that light-hearted superficiality has done us no good. When the foundations of social life are corroded, what ensues are battles over conflicting interests, new forms of violence and brutality, and obstacles to the growth of a genuine culture of care for the environment.”

We must also move away from the idea that one organisation, institution or political party is capable of making the changes necessary.

The concept of vanguardist parties that deliver the goods for working people on their own has never been a realistic one. Working people have always had to work hard outside of the parliamentary arena to encourage significant societal change.

This is truer now than ever and social democratic parties need to see their place as part of a movement rather than it’s driving force. Again, to quote from LAUDATO SI’;

“Not everyone is called to engage directly in political life. Society is also enriched by a countless array of organisations which work to promote the common good…Some, for example, show concern for a public place (a building, a fountain, an abandoned monument, a landscape, a square), and strive to protect, restore, improve or beautify it as something belonging to everyone. Around these community actions, relationships develop or are recovered and a new social fabric emerges. Thus, a community can break out of the indifference induced by consumerism.”

Like it or not, the mass industrialised economies that led to the creation of social democratic parties across Europe in the last century have changed dramatically. At the same time values and the quest for identity have become more salient.

We need to challenge ourselves to leave our ideological comfort zones. Only through reaching outside our liberal silos can we build the consensus needed to truly change the political and social order to one which can provide people with not only bread, but roses too.

Let’s be clear – Either we do it, or the populists will step into the vacuum.

We must defend free expression in the face of group think.

speak out

Recently, celebrity Stephen Fry decided to leave Twitter due to the social media service being what he described as a ‘stalking ground for the sanctimoniously self-righteous.’

In many ways however, Twitter now represents a part of the broader public space.

Whether it be social media, our Universities, our own communities or column inches in our newspapers, those who engage with public debate are beginning to feel they need to check themselves before publicly stating their views for fear that the self-appointed Orwellian trust and safety council who haunt our social media pages might barrage them with often personal abuse and group think.

In tandem to this phenomenon, democratically elected politicians find themselves unable to visit community groups and schools without being harrassed.

Here in Ireland, there was a time when many felt our freedom of expression and sense of self was shackled by social mores dictated to us by the extreme elements of the Catholic establishment. Years of liberal agenda and social activists fought to break down barriers to expression and freedom of thought and conscience.

It seems ironic now that some of the people who claim to be the inheritors of these social movements seem set on building up a new version of self-censorship.

Rather than advocating for free speech – some are advocating “friend’s speech” i.e. only defending those who they agree with.

People who truly believe in freedom of expression and equality must defend the rights of everyone to say, write, depict and argue for what they like within the confines of the law, not merely defend the views that they agree with.

Social Media Activists & Trade Unionists Beware – We’re On Their Radar !


In a Consultative Document published by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills in the UK, a suggestion was made that Government could potentially limit the ability of workers to garner support for their campaigns using social media.

The document suggested that there should be a requirement for trade unions to publish their social media plans in relation to picketing and protests each time industrial action is called.

In advance of industrial action, unions would be forced outline how they plan to use social media, “specifically Facebook, Twitter, blogs, setting up websites and what those blogs and websites will set out.”

The fact that restricting the use of social media is on the agenda of the UK’s right wing government shows that they recognise the power of social media as a tool for change when it’s in the hands of ordinary working people.

Clearly, if ever enacted, the above restrictions would represent an attack of freedom of speech and create a large barrier in the way of running effective campaigns on workers’ rights issues.

The instantaneous nature of social media is one of it’s key strengths.

Updating the public on ongoing disputes and campaigns via the web would not be possible if unions or other campaigning organisations where ever forced to plan exactly what their social media pages and blogs where going say weeks in advance.

The indication of intent to hinder campaigning organisations from using social media effectively should come as a warning to all activists and human rights defenders who use the internet (pretty much all of you I’m guessing).

Those whose interests run counter to ordinary people have alway attempted to limit the power we have.

They will act no differently in the sphere of social media.

Anyone who believes in truly democratic participation needs to keep a close eye on web freedom and ready themselves to fight for greater digital democracy.

Jimmy Reid Articulated Values Lacking in Political Discourse Today

Jimmy Reid was a Scottish trade union activist and an inspiring orator.

Reid came to prominence in the early 1970s when he led the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders Work-in to try a Conservative government from closing down the shipyards on the River Clyde.

Instead of the workers in the shipyards going on strike, Reid decided that the best way to show the viability of keeping the yards open was by staging a ‘work-in’.

In a speech given to the workers, Reid announced the beginning of work-in by insisting on self-discipline:

“We are not going to strike. We are not even having a sit-in strike. Nobody and nothing will come in and nothing will go out without our permission. And there will be no hooliganism, there will be no vandalism, there will be no bevvying because the world is watching us, and it is our responsibility to conduct ourselves with responsibility, and with dignity, and with maturity.

The campaign was successful in persuading the Conservative government to back down the following year, and the Clyde shipyards received £101 million in public support over the next three years.

Below is an edited version of a speech given by Reid in 1971 which, despite using some antiquated gender pronouns, still resonates today:

Alienation is the precise and correctly applied word for describing the major social problem…today. People feel alienated by society. In some intellectual circles it is treated almost as a new phenomenon. It has, however, been with us for years. What I believe is true is that today it is more widespread, more pervasive than ever before. Let me right at the outset define what I mean by alienation. It is the cry of men who feel themselves the victims of blind economic forces beyond their control. It’s the frustration of ordinary people excluded from the processes of decision-making. The feeling of despair and hopelessness that pervades people who feel with justification that they have no real say in shaping or determining their own destinies.

Many may not have rationalised it. May not even understand, may not be able to articulate it. But they feel it. It therefore conditions and colours their social attitudes. Alienation expresses itself in different ways in different people. It is to be found in what our courts often describe as the criminal antisocial behaviour of a section of the community. It is expressed by those young people who want to opt out of society, by drop-outs, the so-called maladjusted, those who seek to escape permanently from the reality of society through intoxicants and narcotics. Of course, it would be wrong to say it was the sole reason for these things. But it is a much greater factor in all of them than is generally recognised.

Society and its prevailing sense of values leads to another form of alienation. It alienates some from humanity. It partially de-humanises some people, makes them insensitive, ruthless in their handling of fellow human beings, self-centred and grasping. The irony is, they are often considered normal and well-adjusted. It is my sincere contention that anyone who can be totally adjusted to our society is in greater need of psychiatric analysis and treatment than anyone else.

They remind me of the character in the novel, Catch 22, the father of Major Major. He was a farmer in the American Mid-West. He hated suggestions for things like medi-care, social services, unemployment benefits or civil rights. He was, however, an enthusiast for the agricultural policies that paid farmers for not bringing their fields under cultivation. From the money he got for not growing alfalfa he bought more land in order not to grow alfalfa. He became rich. Pilgrims came from all over the state to sit at his feet and learn how to be a successful non-grower of alfalfa. His philosophy was simple. The poor didn’t work hard enough and so they were poor. He believed that the good Lord gave him two strong hands to grab as much as he could for himself. He is a comic figure. But think – have you not met his…I have.

It is easy and tempting to hate such people. However, it is wrong. They are as much products of society, and of a consequence of that society, human alienation, as the poor drop-out. They are losers. They have lost the essential elements of our common humanity. Man is a social being. Real fulfilment for any person lies in service to his fellow men and women.

The big challenge to our civilisation…involve [s} morality, ethics, and our concept of human values. The challenge we face is that of rooting out anything and everything that distorts and devalues human relations.

Let me give two examples from contemporary experience to illustrate the point.

Recently on television I saw an advert. The scene is a banquet. A gentleman is on his feet proposing a toast. His speech is full of phrases like “this full-bodied specimen”. Sitting beside him is a young, buxom woman. The image she projects is not pompous but foolish. She is visibly preening herself, believing that she is the object of the bloke’s eulogy. Then he concludes – “and now I give…”, then a brand name of what used to be described as Empire sherry. Then the laughter. Derisive and cruel laughter. The real point, of course, is this. In this charade, the viewers were obviously expected to identify not with the victim but with her tormentors.

The other illustration is the widespread, implicit acceptance of the concept and term “the rat race”. The picture it conjures up is one where we are scurrying around scrambling for position, trampling on others, back-stabbing, all in pursuit of personal success. Even genuinely intended, friendly advice can sometimes take the form of someone saying to you, “Listen, you look after number one…”

Reject these attitudes. Reject the values and false morality that underlie these attitudes. A rat race is for rats. We’re not rats. We’re human beings. Reject the insidious pressures in society that would blunt your critical faculties to all that is happening around you, that would caution silence in the face of injustice lest you jeopardise your chances of promotion and self-advancement. This is how it starts, and before you know where you are, you’re a fully paid-up member of the rat-pack. The price is too high. It entails the loss of your dignity and human spirit. Or as Christ put it, “What doth it profit a man if he gain the whole world and suffer the loss of his soul?”

Profit is the sole criterion used by the establishment to evaluate economic activity. From the rat race to lame ducks. The vocabulary in vogue is a give-away. It’s more reminiscent of a human menagerie than human society. The power structures that have inevitably emerged from this approach threaten and undermine our hard-won democratic rights.

The whole process is towards the centralisation and concentration of power in fewer and fewer hands. The facts are there for all who want to see. Giant monopoly companies and consortia dominate almost every branch of our economy. The men who wield effective control within these giants exercise a power over their fellow men which is frightening and is a negation of democracy.

Government by the people for the people becomes meaningless unless it includes major economic decision-making by the people for the people. This is not simply an economic matter. In essence it is an ethical and moral question, for whoever takes the important economic decisions in society ipso facto determines the social priorities of that society.

From the Olympian heights of an executive suite, in an atmosphere where your success is judged by the extent to which you can maximise profits, the overwhelming tendency must be to see people as units of production, as indices in your accountants’ books.

To appreciate fully the inhumanity of this situation, you have to see the hurt and despair in the eyes of a man suddenly told he is redundant, without provision made for suitable alternative employment…,

The concentration of power in the economic field is matched by the centralisation of decision-making in the political institutions of society. The power of Parliament has undoubtedly been eroded over past decades, with more and more authority being invested in the Executive. The power of local authorities has been and is being systematically undermined. The only justification I can see for local government is as a counter- balance to the centralised character of national government.

Local government is to be restructured. What an opportunity, one would think, for de-centralising as much power as possible back to the local communities. Instead, the proposals are for centralising local government. It’s once again a blue-print for bureaucracy, not democracy…

As in other matters, I must ask the politicians who favour these proposals – where and how in your calculations did you quantify the value of a community? Of community life? Of a sense of belonging? Of the feeling of identification? These are rhetorical questions. I know the answer. Such human considerations do not feature in their thought processes…

To measure social progress purely by material advance is not enough. Our aim must be the enrichment of the whole quality of life. It requires a social and cultural, or if you wish, a spiritual transformation of our country.

A necessary part of this must be the restructuring of the institutions of government and, where necessary, the evolution of additional structures so as to involve the people in the decision-making processes of our society. The so-called experts will tell you that this would be cumbersome or marginally inefficient. I am prepared to sacrifice a margin of efficiency for the value of the people’s participation. Anyway, in the longer term, I reject this argument.

To unleash the latent potential of our people requires that we give them responsibility…

My conclusion is to re-affirm what I hope and certainly intend to be the spirit permeating this address. It’s an affirmation of faith in humanity. All that is good in man’s heritage involves recognition of our common humanity, an unashamed acknowledgement that man is good by nature. Burns expressed it in a poem that technically was not his best, yet captured the spirit.

In “Why should we idly waste our prime…”:

“The golden age, we’ll then revive, each man shall be a brother,

In harmony we all shall live and till the earth together,

In virtue trained, enlightened youth shall move each fellow creature,

And time shall surely prove the truth that man is good by nature.”

It’s my belief that all the factors to make a practical reality of such a world are maturing now. I would like to think that our generation took mankind some way along the road towards this goal. It’s a goal worth fighting for.

Social Democracy – What does it actually mean? #SocDem

There’s been much talk about social democracy and the Nordic Model in Ireland over the last few days since the launch of the Social Democrats, the second party on the political scene in the Republic of Ireland claiming to believe in the values of social democracy.


But what does social democracy actually mean?

Well first off, it’s a broad church… Every social democrat has his or her own personal answer to the question of what social democracy stands for.

Social democracy is not and never has been a fixed body of dogmas that every social democratic party member must swear by.

It has a tradition of ideas shaped by more than a hundred years of theoretical debate and practical politics.

However, one definition is described succinctly in this video from the German think tank Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung:

The Danish Social Democrats claim that their ideology rests on 3 main planks: 1) Freedom 2) Equality 3) Solidarity:

Freedom is about securing the democratic rights of each individual. Freedom is also about opportunities in life. For social democrats, the community, and the possibilities and options the community provides us, is the only way to secure each individual the freedom to pursue its dreams and exploit its full potential. Community is not the contrast to freedom, but the condition for freedom.


Equality, for social democrats, is a socially just distribution of goods. There has to be equal opportunities and equal access for everyone, regardless of sex, ethnicity, or social class. Equality is furthermore about respecting the right of our fellow human beings, to live a life different from our own.


Solidarity means that we are there for each other and that we secure the vulnerable in the society, for instance the elderly, the sick, or the unemployed. But solidarity is also about each of us contributing to, and taking responsibility for, the community. The old saying, that the broadest shoulders must carry the heaviest burden, is still valid today.

Solidarity is the will to improve the cohesiveness – also when it comes to rendering assistance to the poor and vulnerable – international as well as national – regardless of race and belief. Solidarity is also about dissociating oneself from racism and xenophobia.

On top of these 3 pillars, workers rights must be central to the values of any truly social democratic party. The Nordic Model is after all built on high trade union density and sectoral agreements made between employer bodies and trade unions.

The Swedish Social Democratic Party makes the point that

“the Social Democratic party’s long-time strength…rests on the following pillars: co-operation with the trade unions, strong local self-government combined with good party organisation on all levels, a certain capacity of being in opposition to itself and keep a lively internal debate going.”

A social democratic party that doesn’t recognise the key role of organised workers in addressing inequality is not a social democratic party. (See Wilkinson & Pickett’s Spirit Level for evidence regarding the relationship between trade union density and reducing inequality.)

Social democrats recognise power dynamics in society and believe that the power of capital should never outweigh the power of democracy. 

According to the Swedish Social Democrats,

“in the social democratic analysis of society, the conflict of interests between capital and work plays a central role. The conflict concerns both the issue of the conditions in working life and the distribution of the production results. It inevitably follows from the different conditions in working life and in that sense it cannot be overcome, but as the relations of power are more or less even, it can act as a dynamic factor for economic growth.”

Finally, good social democratic parties see working with other groups in society as a strength and have the confidence to do so. 

The Swedish Social Democratic Party points out that;

‘working in popular movements people get used to take responsibility for their own society and learn how a democratic organisation should function. These organisations train their members how to work in a democratic way.

You can say that popular movements act as a complement to parliamentary democracy.

For the Social Democratic Party it has become natural to seek contact when new popular movements, show up and help them to give a political profile to their message… All this means that sometime party members and local organisations find themselves in opposition to their own party, especially when the party is in government.”

If either of the social democratic parties in Ireland want to be truly worthy of the title, these values must be at their core. 

Progressives should think twice before wishing the Irish Labour Party the same fate as the Lib Dems.

In the recent UK elections, the Liberal Democrats saw the number of seats they have in Westminister reduced from 57 to just 8, leading them out of Government and onto the opposition benches.

Vince Cable, Former UK Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills who lost his seat in the recent election
Vince Cable, Former Lib Dem Business Secretary who lost his seat in the recent election

The centrist party cannot be described as “of the left”. It is connected to the same political group in the European Parliament as the Progressive Democrats were (and who Fianna Fail are connected to now.)

However to be fair to them, they did play a role in the UK Government of preventing the worst attacks launched by the Conservative Party against the trade union movement.

In 2014, the Liberal Democrats accused Conservative ministers of “pandering to the right” by “vindictively attack trade unions,” claiming “some Tories want to attack the very principle of trade unions and that is not something the Liberal Democrats will ever sign up to.”

The Liberal Democrats were not one week out of Government when the Tories decided to begin a vicious assault on the trade union movement.

Newly promoted Tory Business Secretary Sajid Javid has unveiled plans to make it more difficult for workers to take strike action.

The legislation is designed to ensure strikes cannot go ahead unless they have the support of 40 percent of balloted members.

In addition to the vote share, at least 50 percent of those eligible to vote must cast their ballot for the result to be considered legitimate.

This policy was vocally opposed by former Lib Dem Business Secretary Vince Cable while in Government.

This attack on trade unions by a Conservative Government which does not have a junior coalition partner to rein their anti-union ideology should come as a lesson to progressives in Ireland.

People claiming that the Irish Labour Party should never have gone into Government with Fine Gael should be careful what they wish for.

As SIPTU (Ireland’s Largest Trade Union) President Jack O’ Connor pointed out in a speech to the Labour Party Conference in February, after the 2011 General Election, Labour “were faced with the choice of opting to go into opposition and grow its electoral support while the most draconian austerity agenda ever inflicted in Ireland was implemented by Fine Gael and its political allies on the right, or going into government as a minority party outnumbered by more than two to one to try to mitigate the damage to working people and civil society in general.”

Rather than the anti-union elements of Fine Gael being given free rein to corrode workers’ rights, working with the trade union movement, Labour has ensured that workers rights in Ireland are progressing once again with collective bargaining being unveiled, an official study into zero hour contracts underway and a Low Pay Commission set up to deal with the issue of low pay.

It is not credible to claim that these things would have happened had Labour not been in Government.

Reasonable people who seek to protect workers rights should look at the example of the UK and think twice before they claim Labour should not have gone into Government to curb the extremes of Fine Gael, Ireland’s Conservative Party.

Presidential Age Referendum: I’ll Be Spoiling My Vote

There was a whole menu of changes to our Constitution suggested by the Constitutional Convention, not least inserting Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (which includes things like the right to housing).


The Marriage Equality Referendum gives us a historic chance to vote YES to equality, however we’re also getting a pretty irrelevant referendum in the form of the Presidential Age Referendum.

There is no public demand for a vote on the age of the President.

People under 35 have more on their plates than worrying about running for President such as precarious jobs, high rents, saving for mortgages, paying for expensive childcare etc.

I’ll be voting YES in the Marriage Equality referendum but spoiling my vote in the Presidential Age Referendum.

By spoiling my vote, I will make the point that I believe more serious political reforms are overdue.

P.S. If you feel like doing the same, don’t spoil the wrong bloody ballot!