A harbinger of Wales’s social democratic moment

The contents of the latest issue of the IWA’s journal give cause for encouragement

The latest issue of Agenda is landing on member’s doorsteps about now, and scanning the contents I was struck at the commonality of approach adopted by many of the contributors. In a word, or rather two words, their political philosophy is social democratic. This is regardless of whether they’re writing about the economy, politics or social policy and regardless of their formal positions on the political spectrum.

I find this both striking and encouraging, at a time when social democratic values are under a good deal of pressure. This is how Kevin Morgan puts it, in his article The Power of Purchase, in which he unpacks a chronic procurement skills deficit he says is a hidden crisis in the Welsh public sector:

“It is well known that a big public sector depresses productivity, destroys incentives and undermines the private sector- well known but wrong. The Nordic experience gives the lie to these neo-liberal myths, proving that they key questions to ask the public sector concerns competence not scale, performance not prejudice.”

Writing on the future of the Labour Plaid coalition in the National Assembly, Mark Drakeford, Rhodri Morgan’s special adviser who will succeed him as Labour’s candidate in Cardiff West next year, declares, “Labour will offer an approach which resonates with the long-established preferences of Welsh voters – the understanding that when we act collectively we achieve more than when we act alone, that pursuing the public interest is more important than the pursuit of self-interest and, more than anything else, that greater equality brings a set of social and economic advantages which markets alone can never match.”

Elsewhere in the journal Eurfyl ap Gwilym, who is Plaid’s economic adviser,  provides a useful statistical analysis that demonstrates that, contrary to many assumptions, the Welsh public sector and GVA per head are not especially out of kilter with the rest of the UK. Our economic problems in Wales are not due to an over-reliance on the public sector. Rather they follow from relatively low wage rates amongst the workforce and relatively low levels of profitability amongst our companies.

A major feature in this issue is an examination from a variety of angles of the problems of severe child poverty in Wales. Here again, the social democratic perspective comes to the fore. Huw Lewis, Minister for Children, explains how the Welsh Government’s new child poverty strategy, being launched later this year, will strain to integrate policy across all departments. One example he highlights is the Harlem Children’s Zone in New York which offers all encompassing education, social service and community-building programmes to families in the area. As Huw puts it, “Through the new strategy we will be setting a new policy direction on child poverty at the Wales level so that there is absolute clarity on what the Welsh Government’s contribution to this crucial agenda will be over the next few years.” Our Agenda editorial on the child poverty issues facing the Welsh Government is here.

One of the most powerful advocates of social democratic values in the world today is Tony Judt, Erich Maria Remarque Professor in European Studies at New York University. His latest book, well worth reading, is Ill Fares the Land: A Treatise on Our Present Discontents, just published by Allen Lane. He summarised its contents in an important article in the Guardian a few weeks ago (20 March). Here is an extract:

“It is difficult to feel optimistic about the upcoming election. Voters are invited to choose between two major parties: one – New Labour – that has governed for the past 13 years and is responsible for the political and financial crisis facing the country; the other – the Conservatives – who are largely to blame for breaking’ the society they now promise to fix. Neither party conveys any sustained understanding of what is wrong with Britain today and both propose remedies which would do little to address the underlying challenges.

“Social inequality on a scale unmatched in western Europe; dependence on and deference towards the most irresponsible financial sector in the world today; an over-mighty state, in thrall to private media influence and increasingly deaf to the concerns of civil libertarians and lawyers; a governing class drunk on ‘reforms’, ‘innovations’ and the presumptive merits of the private sector: these should be at the heart of public conversation in Britain today.

“We need to rethink the state, and rearticulate the language of social democracy. Social democrats should cease to be defensive and apologetic. A social democratic vision of the good society entails from the outset a greater role for the state and the public sector. The welfare state is as popular as ever with its beneficiaries: nowhere in Europe is there a constituency for abolishing public health services, ending free or subsidised education or reducing public provision of transport and other essential services. We have long practised something resembling social democracy, but we have forgotten how to preach it.”

I think I’ll send Professor Judt a copy of the current issue of Agenda. It should cheer him up.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA

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