The Renewal of Social Democracy and Basic Values

Henning Meyer

Henning Meyer

In the wake of the pan-European search for a new social democratic vision, the discussion about social democratic basic values and their meaning for today’s politics has taken centre stage again. What are social democratic basic values and have social democratic parties betrayed them in government? Or, even worse, have they been lost altogether? If so is this a bad thing? Do we still need basic values in contemporary political systems characterised by professional party machines and diversified electorates? If the answer is yes what is their role and function? Do they still have a real political meaning in the age of the “division between power and politics”, as Zygmunt Bauman put it? Are there joint values that can be used to forge a European social democratic project even though there is ample evidence to suggest that social democratic values are interpreted quite differently across Europe?

These and associated issues are vividly debated across Europe and the way in which these questions are answered will have profound consequences for the future of social democratic politics. This short essay presents my own views on the importance of social democratic basic values and draws on a pan-European online debate that was jointly organised by the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung and Social Europe Journal. The fact that there was very wide interest in the debate already answers the first basic question: social democratic basic values still matter and they have a vital role to play in the renewal of social democratic politics. But the key question remains: how can basic values inspire the revival of social democracy?

Julian Nida-Ruemelin, the chairman of the SPD’s basic values commission, argued that values are not determined by written political declarations but, moreover,  reflect the relationship between ideas, scopes of action and what parties actually do in political terms. In this sense, Nida-Ruemelin argued, social democratic basic values reveal themselves in concrete political practice. I agree with this assessment and will divide political practice further into two main categories of analysis – approach and content – for the purposes of this essay. I also want to avoid one of the biggest dangers of basic values discussions: the fact that they can become overly “remote or abstract” as the British MP Jon Cruddas rightly noted. You will therefore find a few uncommon but, I hope, also interesting comparisons and examples in this essay that hopefully help to make my argument clearer.

The Approach to Politics

A central issue in contemporary politics is the question of what are you in it for? Is the driving force of your engagement the circumstance that you believe in a political agenda and therefore you participate in electoral competition to put it into practice? Or do you first and foremost want to run governments and, as a result of this, the political agenda is less important than the pursuit of office? In real live there is of course never a clear-cut distinction between the two approaches. Political action and reaction is a circular movement but it does matter from which end you try to spin the wheel.

In my recent book The Future of European Social Democracy: Building the Good Society, which I co-edited together with Jonathan Rutherford, I argued that office-seeking has been too dominant in social democratic politics over recent decades and that a change of approach is needed for social democratic parties to turn their fortunes around. To illustrate my argument a look at the business philosophy of the late Steve Jobs is quite insightful.

Steve Jobs was certainly not an easy person to deal with and as Apple CEO a very demanding manager, who unfortunately also neglected labour standards in his supply chain. But nobody can deny that his vision and instincts for clever designs and what people wanted fundamentally transformed several industries, from personal computers to the music business. As Walter Isaacson described in his biography, Jobs effectively had a political mission as he was determined to change the world (“one keyboard at a time”).

Jobs himself summed his business approach up as follows:

My passion has been to build an enduring company where people were motivated to make great products. Everything else was secondary. Sure, it was great to make a profit, because that was what allowed you to make great products. But the products, not the profits, were the motivation.

He went on to argue that if you interchanged these priorities, something that might seem like only a subtle difference to many, everything would change in practise. The approach determines which people you hire, who gets promoted and what is discussed in the organisation. Is it the designer who designed a popular product who gets promoted or is it the bottom-line driven manager who has squeezed more savings out of the supply chain, with possibly negative effects for the product? What is the main discussion in management meetings? Is it what is needed to invent the next big thing or how to revolutionise an existing industry? Or is it how more short-term profits can be squeezed out of the company? The choice of approach has profound practical implications.

Jobs concluded:

Some people say ‘Give the customers what they want’. But that’s not my approach. Our job is to figure out what they’re going to want before they do. I think Henry Ford once said, ‘If I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would have told me, ‘A faster horse!’” People don’t know what they want until you show it to them (…) Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page.

In business practise, this philosophy led Jobs to reject standard market research tools. When questioned about this he famously asked back whether Alexander Graham Bell did any market research before he invented the telephone. Jobs was keen not to react to short-term moods but to transform industries by pushing boundaries.

What has this story about Steve Jobs to do with social democracy you might ask? The answer lies in the choice of basic approach and what practical implications follow from this. Jobs’ approach was to create something new and then offer it to the public. This is the equivalent of a value-driven political approach that offers a new political vision. A big problem for many social democratic parties is that in their policy-making approach, they are often over-reliant on opinion polls, focus groups and short-term voter perceptions. They are too focussed on the “profits”, concentrating on giving voters what they think they want. At the same time they are neglecting the “product”, the creation of a new social democratic vision that could be embraced by voters if it was offered and explained to them.

What happens when you develop your policies based on focus groups and rational choice assumptions is that you practise a very reactive kind of politics. Put bluntly, you try to identify perceived interests and service them. Apart from the fact that rational choice is an insufficient and often misleading approach to understanding electorates, such a strategy can only work for a time (in good times). But when crises occur people can quickly change their minds and blame politicians for why they hadn’t done anything to stop the catastrophe before it happened. This is also an explanation for why social democratic parties have not benefitted from the current crisis of financialised capitalism: they have often been perceived as collaborators in a failing project and thus part of the problem rather than the solution.

So if identifying perceived voter interests through market research tools and designing policies on this basis does not work, what should be done? The Berkeley neurolinguist George Lakoff and Elisabeth Wehling have argued that voting decisions are fundamentally taken on the basis of values and empathy. Policies and facts matter; they are, however, not absorbed in isolation but are moreover embedded in values. Politicians therefore need to communicate a value framework in which policies are embedded and add up to a coherent programme. This, however, cannot be achieved by reacting to short-term electoral research but needs to be included in a political approach that is medium to long-term and transformative and personal, not reactive and transactional.

Maybe surprisingly, I think the lesson from business and politics is the same: an overemphasis on short-term rational perceptions and demand is very unlikely to build lasting success. For this reason I believe that social democratic parties need to refocus on the formulation of a new political vision based on basic values and internalise the lesson that if you want to build lasting success you have to focus on the “product” not the “profits”; a point that in business is not just applicable to the case of Steve Jobs but also to numerous other cases. In his book Obliquity: Why our Goals are best achieved indirectly John Kay of the Financial Times eloquently analysed a series of business cases and came up with the clear result that your profits are higher if you don’t focus on them but the products and services you sell. This is a lesson for politics too.

The Content of Politics

If the strong indication is that a value-driven approach is the way to go, how do you construct a new value-driven programme? It seems very clear that in the current situation reality is out of synch with most people’s expectations. There is an evident desire for a more stable political economy and more cohesive societies but there are presently no comprehensive political alternatives on offer. Here lies the opportunity for social democrats to come up with a new transformative vision that addresses the fears and desires of people and is firmly rooted in social democratic values. This does not mean banning openness, entrepreneurship and individual aspiration from the social democratic agenda – far from it – but it means crafting a social democratic programme that aims to cure the causes of the current malaise, not just the symptoms, and offers a positive future vision that people can buy into.

Over recent years, a group of colleagues and I have started to work on such alternatives under the label Good Society. But it does not matter too much what you call the new programme; the important point is that it has certain characteristics. So what are those characteristics?

I mentioned above that recent social democratic practise was reactive and transactional – I give you the policies I think you want and you therefore vote for me. For a start, a new social democratic vision needs to become more transformative and personal and thus create a new social democratic identity. Only by creating an authentic and more socially rooted politics, social democrats will be able to bridge what is often perceived as a widening gulf between citizens and politics. Jonathan Rutherford, who also called this the “Politics of Belonging”, described this situation at the example of the British Labour Party when he wrote:

Labour has to lift its sights from the one or two points up and down the polls and look to the longer term. It has to win back the trust it lost on the economy and it has to prove its capacity for leadership. But it also needs new foundational thinking. What does Labour stand for? Nobody has a clear idea.

A new social democratic vision also needs to be ambitious, positive and forward looking. It should motivate people to achieve in life, create the circumstances needed for people to do so, help them if they struggle along the way and link them together so it is not just about individual progress but how societies as a whole develop. Every political vision needs a degree of believe and faith. This is actually the mechanism with which it can bring together and unite otherwise diverse social groups. The American Dream is a good example for such an identity-giving positive vision. Apart from its focus on the individual the big problem is that in today’s world the American Dream is much more a mirage than a vision. People are not enabled to actually achieve the dream. In this case the crucial link between a political vision and the opportunities to achieve it is broken. This example also exemplifies the relationship between a political vision and policies: without an overarching political vision policies can easily be piecemeal and unconnected (the whole is not bigger than the sum of its parts); without the right policies, on the other hand, a political vision remains unachievable and is thus likely to fade into the distance over time.

The social democratic basic values of freedom, equality and solidarity need to be the starting point and backbone of a renewed social democratic vision and they are well placed to fulfil this function. As Julian Nida-Ruemelin wrote:

Freedom’ here is not used in the narrower liberal sense of formal freedom under the law or the free-for-all of economic markets, but rather means the concrete legal, social, economic, cultural and political conditions that enable citizens to live a self-determined life; ‘Equality’ does not just mean equality before the law, but also the concrete legal, social, economic, cultural and political conditions that give all citizens equal chances to participate and equal opportunities in life; ‘Solidarity’ is not the lobbyism of a specific group, social stratum or class, but a practice of cooperation and inclusion at the national, European and global level that is founded on the universal values of equal freedom for all.

This triad of values, with Freedom understood as positive freedom (freedom to do something, not just freedom from something), Equality providing everybody with equal chances and opportunities to achieve their aims, and Solidarity linking people together so it is not just about individuals but about society as a whole, should be the core of a new social democratic vision. Even though implicitly contained in the three values mentioned above, I would also give Social Justice an explicit place in the core set of values. It reemphasises the focus on societies as a whole, in which individuals can thrive, and stresses the important notion of fairness.

If social democratic basic values are the core of a new social democratic programme and policies are the concrete steps enabling progress towards the aims of the programme, two other important aspects are still missing: what role do institutions play and, connected to this, how do you politically shape change. These are areas the SPD basic values commission has recently worked on and that also formed thematic focal points of our online debate. Against the backdrop of a social democratic vision, what role should the state play? Does it need to be in the driving seat to ensure the primacy of democratic politics over other forces of change? For me the answer is yes. If social democracy is to become transformative again and if change ought to be legitimised, the state and other institutions of governance need to determine the political direction.

For change to be appropriately moderated through governance institutions it also needs to be properly understood. It is therefore vital for social democrats to understand important drivers of change, such as immigration/integration for instance, and embrace a positive idea of these drivers. The deputy chairwoman of the SPD Aydan Oezoguz did this when she wrote:

The social democratic perception of the term Integration calls for mutual acceptance between citizens of all cultural backgrounds or religious beliefs (as well as between citizens and the state) whilst uniting them as one society in which everyone has equal chances to participate in matters of social, cultural, political and economic activities. And it is not only about accepting cultural diversity that new citizens have brought with them, it is also about acknowledging their achievements and appreciating diversity as a resource that society can benefit from.

Understanding and shaping change is also at the heart of what social democrats refer to as Progress, which is mostly shorthand to describe politically driven change for the better. Matthias Machnig convincingly argued that a new notion of Progress is needed; one that puts human beings centre stage, i.e. is more personal:

Any new understanding of progress must take human beings as its starting point and put the ideal of the good life back at the centre of political action. There are many areas where a change for the better is not only desirable, but also possible. For the necessary debate about progress to take place, we need critical thinking in science and academia, in politics and in our social organisations. We also need our politicians to find new and different ways of using science, expertise and marketing. The notion of a better society must be put back at the heart of political debate. (…) A just society committed to the new progress is more stable, more productive and more democratic. It is a society based on cooperation and equality for all. It opens up more opportunities for the individual to develop and prosper, and it provides collective safeguards for this personal development.

The recent work of the SPD basic values commission and our wide-ranging online debate have once again revealed the pivotal role of social democratic basic values in renewing social democracy. From a coherent political vision flows the proper use of institutions and the design of policies. Basic values also provide a framework through which major drivers of change can be analysed and a politically moderated version, a positive idea of Progress, can be elaborated. So having a political vision of a Good Society and developing a new Progress to get there is complementary and mutually reinforcing.


This short essay dealt with a difficult topic and it has of course not come up with a new social democratic programme. But I hopefully managed to show how social democratic basic values are at the core and set the framework for such an endeavor. I tried to show that social democratic basic values reveal themselves in at least two ways. Regarding the approach to politics I hope that my slightly unusual example of Steve Jobs’ business philosophy helped to clarify the main point I intended to make: social democrats have moved too far away from value-driven politics, which has to be rectified.

When it comes to the content of politics I tried to show that a new narrative around the basic values of social democracy should be the core of a renewed social democratic vision. As Jon Cruddas correctly said, the rest is “allegorical” leading back to the central narrative, which also gives social democracy a new identity. No doubt, the tasks for social democrats are huge. But so are the opportunities if we get it right.


  1. says

    El debate debería seguir, partiendo de valores/prácticas más que de valores/ declaraciones; e iniciar dialogos sobre valores/prácticas y sus consecuencias, junto con maneras de entrenarse en buenas prácticas. Sin líderes conscientes – muchos más que los que hay, en lo posible – que estén dispuestos a superar las contradicciones entre lo que dicen y lo que hacen y sus consecuencias, no será posible superar el orden actual.

  2. says

    Well done with this, Henning. There is an important connection here to how social science should drive social democracy. For, just as with natural science, the whole point of social science is to probe below surface phenomena and find out what is really going on–which often turns out to be quite counter-intuitive. Darwin thus overturned Lamarck on evolution by demonstrating that giraffes had long necks not because they had to stretch them to reach food on trees but because they had evolved that way by the process of natural selection. Darwin of course faced extreme hostility for his conclusions from the creationist conservatives of his day and Marx famously dedicated Das Kapital to him. Marx himself used the nice metaphor of the camera obscura to show how the phenomenal world could be ‘upside-down’ as compared to its real determinants and in the 20th century relativity, quantum mechanics and the discovery of DNA were to bear out this fundamental insight.

    For social democrats, that means prejudices have to be challenged, even popular ones. Yes, universal welfare states do actually enhance risk-taking by offering security. Yes, greater social equality fosters individual social mobility. Yes, demand should be raised in the economy when recession hits. Yes, employee-owned firms perform better. Yes, more diverse societies are more dynamic. And so on. Conversely, this allows us to go on the front foot by saying that the ‘invisible hand’ of the profit motive no longer should drive how society is organised to achieve the best social outcomes (or indeed even the most profit) but can now be transcended by an ethos of individual autonomy allied to equality and social solidarity, as you say.

    Notoriously, by embracing ideology rather than social science and universal values, the USSR became embroiled in the Lysenko debacle–defending Lamarckism as a somehow more ‘materialist’ approach to evolution. Social democrats should today ensure that their normative project–the values–is securely aligned with what social science tells us to be valid. The good society and good (social) science thus go hand in hand.

    • Henning Meyer says

      Thanks Robin! I have had good feedback for this essay from various corners. It wasn’t easy writing it but it forced me to think more deeply (and bring into a digestible format) what this values discourse is and how it relates with all the work we have done over recent years. I hope it is a useful basis from which we can tackle the next set of issues.