Matthew Taylor points to a “gap between what people say they want – greater fairness – and what policies they are wiling to sanction.” He gives examples of unpalatable policies: higher taxes on well-off pensioners; higher CGT; abolition of higher rate tax relief on pension contributions; and a wider property tax.
This, inadvertently, draws attention to two of the big flaws with social democracy.
First, there’s an omission of any reference to power. Matthew seems to think - like many social democrats since Keynes - that income can be redistributed without touching the basic power relations of capitalism, without challenging the power of capital.
This is questionable. It’s no accident that the most successful era of social democracy - the 50s and 60s - just happened to be a time when capitalists’ power was curtailed not (just) by the power of the state but by socio-technical factors; Fordism happened to create a big demand for labour, whilst a lack of globalization meant that capitalists had no credible threat to leave. And as Lane Kenworthy points out in a post the whole left should read, any progressive politics requires a strong labour movement.
This poses the question: now that capital has the whip hand over labour, how far is tax-based redistribution feasible? Yes, Matthew’s call for higher property taxes are part of the solution - in a globalized economy land is the obvious thing to tax - but is this sufficient?
Could it be that equality requires more than tweaks to the tax system, but also an empowerment of workers relative to capital at the point of production - that is, worker ownership and democracy? One reason why I welcome Blue Labour, despite Glasman’s appalling comments on immigration, is its recognition of the need for a change (pdf) in the “balance of power within the firm“ and a “commitment…to forms of mutual and co-operative ownership.”
The second issue Matthew raises but doesn’t confront is: what should be the relationship between the left and public opinion? Labour’s answer has for years that it should be one of abject and supine submission. To it, public opinion is not something to be challenged or changed - and not by open debate - but rather a given, a datum, around which policies should be designed. And in fairness to Labour, now that a mass party simply doesn’t exist, it might not have many tools to radicalize opinion.
But the fact is that what John Quiggin says of the US applies equally to the UK; something must be done to shift the Overton window leftwards.
Until the left gets a grasp both of the need for a radical change in power relations, and of a means of shifting or overcoming public opinion, it is destined to fail.