Vilified by supporters of Jeremy Corbyn as ‘Blairites’ or ‘centrists’, Labour’s social democrats need to reaffirm that for which they stand. The main purpose of post-war social democrats was to create a more equal society within capitalism. But as capitalism changed in the 1970s many retreated from prioritizing equality. From being the critical friends of capitalism, many became its emissaries. This attenuated social democracy shaped the New Labour government, which nonetheless addressed inequalities of gender, sexuality and race but whose record on class was modest.
Even as the banking crisis and the austerity that followed washed away some of the achievements of the Blair-Brown years, too many social democrats were afraid of being seen as ‘anti-business’. Some even referred to themselves as ‘progressives’ rather than social democrats. The outcome of this caution is the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. If they are to recover their position in the party, social democrats must first rediscover their principled purpose. The tradition of which they are part has made a decisive contribution to the party’s past achievements. But if they are to contribute to Labour’s future they need to embrace the more robust vision of social democracy outlined by Anthony Crosland over forty years ago.