Social Democrats: Radical alternative or capitalist status quo re-packaged?

By Harper Cleves

The Social Democrats have made a substantial effort to present themselves as the socially progressive alternative to business as usual politics. Their new leader, 33 year-old Holly Cairns has been posed as an antidote to the political status quo, and heralded as a Repeal activist. An early April poll shows that she is already the most popular party leader in Ireland and in some polls has doubled the support of the Social Democrats since her assumption of the leadership position. All of this paints a pretty, if indistinct, picture of what they offer. But who are the Social Democrats, and what sort of politics do they actually represent? 

Attacking the left 

The Social Democrats are rooted precisely in that ‘old style of politics’ they now seek to distance themselves from. Roisín Shorthall, one of the three co-founders, was formerly a junior minister in Enda Kenny’s government, which presided over a bank bailout and imposed further austerity measures on working-class people. In a television appearance on The Week in Politics in January 2011 she justified the Fine Gael / Labour coalition and dismissed the anticapitalist left as a ‘ragbag’ and misfits. 

Holly Cairns in her first speech as party leader echoed this sentiment, warning of ‘the most extreme voices’ dominating. To most, this recalled the far right, but implicit in this warning was a distrust of the socialist left. For all of their veneer of social progress, the unwillingness of the Social Democrats to actually put forward left positions makes them indistinguishable from the old boys club politics of Ireland’s capitalist establishment they are publicly rejecting.

Undeserved reputation 

The vagueness of the Social Democrats allows them to maintain their unearned left-of-centre reputation. They don’t say much of consequence, and this is intentional. Let’s take for instance their founding mission to Repeal the 8th amendment. They never went beyond this most basic proposal. Like a Rorschach test, left and right-leaning supporters could glean what they wanted about what would replace the constitutional abortion ban onto this simple Repeal position because the Social Democrats didn’t clarify. In fact, it wasn’t until the Citizens’ Assembly put forward a pro-choice recommendation in 2017 that they ever supported pro-choice legislation. Their efforts now to reinvent themselves as the party of women’s liberation rings hollow.

This ambiguity continues today. The most looming fear when it comes to the future of young people is the climate crisis. It’s clear to millions that if capitalist profiteering and greed is allowed to continue, human existence itself is at risk. What do the Social Democrats propose in the face of climate catastrophe? “Active travel to schools;” “Reduce transport fares;” and “Give public transport greater priority in the National Development Plan.” They call for ‘no more privatisation’ but stop short of demanding that all transport in Ireland be brought back into public ownership, and that a free, reliable public transport system is established. It is the vanilla-like, anodyne politics of Labour and the Green Party repackaged. 

Radical socialist politics needed 

Even when it comes to the future of the planet, they demonstrate an unwillingness to put forward something definitive or in any way challenge the logic of capitalism. In order to tackle the climate crisis, and the housing crisis, the seizure of private assets and wealth for public need is absolutely essential. That means the major construction and energy companies must be nationalised under democratic workers’ and community control, which is the only way we can truly reduce emissions and to build homes for all. There is not even a whisper of such demands in the programme of the Social Democrats.

The milk toast approach of the Social Democrats, which accepts the logic of the market, is completely out of sync with the scale of the capitalist crisis. Modest reform that doesn’t tackle profiteering only offers a continuation of the same suffering we currently see on display. As Malcolm X said “A man who stands for nothing, falls for anything.” Vague assurances won’t do, the exploited, the oppressed and the planet need urgent anticapitalist action and socialist change. The scale of the multiple crises of capitalism calls for nothing less.

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