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    Eric Shaw and the two dimensions of social democracy

    Kelly, John (2011) Eric Shaw and the two dimensions of social democracy. British Politics 6 (1), pp. 110-114. ISSN 1746-918X.

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    In Losing Labour's Soul? Eric Shaw has written an exceptionally clear-headed, analytical and critical appraisal of the New Labour phenomenon. Much of the literature on the Labour party and government under Blair and Brown has centred on the distinction between Old and New Labour. Some have taken the Third Way rhetoric at face value and concluded that New Labour has indeed abandoned its social democratic values and traditions. Others, in contrast, have argued that beneath the rhetoric of radical change and new policies for ‘new times’ it is possible to detect significant continuities with a number of Labour traditions (see for instance Fielding, 2003; and Finlayson, 2003). Eric Shaw has taken this debate to a new level by arguing that New Labour is not rooted in one homogeneous, social democratic tradition but in two quite discrete traditions. One is captured by the language of social justice and equality, while the other refers to fellowship and solidarity, which Shaw defines in terms of the ‘public service ethos’. This conceptual distinction plays a vital role in Losing Labour's Soul? because it allows Shaw to cut through the argument about whether Labour has or has not abandoned social democratic traditions by demonstrating that the truth is more complex. In essence he argues that Labour has maintained its commitment to a form of social justice, albeit through new policy approaches and instruments. On the other hand it has abandoned its equally traditional commitment to fellowship by seeking to inject private capital into the public sector, thereby eroding the ethos of socially valued work. Turning to the explanation of these developments, Shaw (p. 165) argues that the Blair Government's overall programmatic thrust is not explicable exclusively or even predominantly in terms of constraint-bound adjustment to external reality nor as a form of functional adaptation to systemic needs. Rather it was, to a substantial degree, the outcome of a political process in which the ideas, values and preferences of key political actors feature prominently. The argument is developed through case studies of policy formation and implementation in five areas – poverty, secondary education, PFI, health service reform and employment relations. There is plenty of evidence, both in the book itself and elsewhere, that supports Shaw's argument. In the field of employment relations successive British Conservative governments from 1979 onwards excluded trade unions from involvement in policy formation as they sought to dismantle tripartism and weaken union power through legal curbs on strike action. That policy trajectory was continued with only minor modifications by the Blair and Brown governments. According to some accounts of the Thatcher governments, union involvement in policy formation was undermined by the adversarial industrial relations of the 1970s, the subsequent decentralisation of collective bargaining in the 1980s and the persistence of high inflation and low profitability that placed a premium on wage moderation. Yet in Ireland a remarkably similar set of industrial relations and economic developments in the 1970s and early 1980s eventually led to an entirely different policy trajectory. From 1987 until 2010 a succession of different Irish governments embraced a policy of national ‘social partnership’, signing long-term agreements with the trade unions covering wages, taxation, employment, pensions and a number of other issues. Consistent with Shaw's argument, it was the values and preferences of party leaders in the respective countries that comprise a key part of the explanation for the Anglo-Irish divergence in policymaking styles (Hamann and Kelly, 2010).


    Item Type: Article
    School: Birkbeck Faculties and Schools > Faculty of Business and Law > Birkbeck Business School
    Research Centres and Institutes: Birkbeck Centre for British Political Life
    Depositing User: Sarah Hall
    Date Deposited: 29 Sep 2014 08:35
    Last Modified: 02 Aug 2023 17:12


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