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social democracy


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1 The title taken by most Marxist socialist parties between 1880 and 1914, especially the German and Russian Social Democratic Parties. In Britain, the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) was a late nineteenth‐century Marxist group which was eventually absorbed into the Communist Party.

2 Beginning with the split of the Russian Social Democratic Party into Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, the more right‐wing faction when socialist parties split. This has become the established usage.

By the 1960s there was a clear ‘social democratic’ faction in sense 2 within the British Labour Party. Its characteristic ideas were support for a mixed rather than a socialist economy, distrust of further nationalization, and to some extent liberal social policy. After many years of internecine tension some but not all of the social democrats in the Labour Party exited to form the Social Democratic Party (SDP) in 1981.

The SDP wished to ‘break the mould of British politics’. It proposed a new—or at least rarely articulated—amalgam of strong social liberalism with fairly strong economic liberalism, under the slogan of ‘the social market economy’. In conventional terms, therefore, it was left‐wing on social matters and right‐wing on economic matters. However, this strategy faced two problems: a Although there was an increasing group of voters to whom this mixture appealed—typically well‐educated people in professional rather than commercial occupations—they were not numerous enough to be electorally significant.b Some members of the SDP preferred to present themselves as the continuing Labour Party when the real Labour Party was seen as having moved far to the left. This was the basis of an appeal to a quite different sector of the electorate; but it involved much stronger support for corporatism and the traditional left in economic matters.The narrow failure of the SDP/Liberal Alliance to push the Labour Party into third place in terms of votes in 1983 led to the crumbling of the vote under (b) except in places in the South of England where it was obvious to the rational voter that the SDP and its Liberal allies were the only force capable of beating the Conservatives. After acrimonious opposition from its leader, David Owen, most of the SDP voted to amalgamate with the Liberal Party in 1988 to form the Social and Liberal Democrats. Until 1992 Owen's supporters continued as a rival force to the detriment of both. The Liberal Democrats have dropped the word ‘Social’ from their title. All that is left of the SDP is a proportion of their membership and a constitution that is much more centralized than that of the former Liberal Party.

a Although there was an increasing group of voters to whom this mixture appealed—typically well‐educated people in professional rather than commercial occupations—they were not numerous enough to be electorally significant.

b Some members of the SDP preferred to present themselves as the continuing Labour Party when the real Labour Party was seen as having moved far to the left. This was the basis of an appeal to a quite different sector of the electorate; but it involved much stronger support for corporatism and the traditional left in economic matters.

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Subjects: Politics.


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