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This year’s labor conference got off to an unusual start, with delegates performing the national anthem. Despite Twitter’s usual little meltdown and some pearl squeezing in The Guardian, everything went well and without incident. There was no heckling, no boos, no unfurling of banners saying “This is literally fascism!!”, and no counter-chorus trying to drown out the anthem with chants of “Oh Jeremy Corbin”. It was quite a gamble, because any of these things could have happened very easily.

The thing about Labor is that they are (at least) two parties in one: an awakened socialist party and a moderate social democratic party. The quasi-socialist party organizes its own parallel quasi-party conference, The World Transformed (TWT), with a list of speakers which includes all the usual suspects: Zarah Sultana, John McDonnell, Diane Abbott, Jon Trickett, Ian Lavery, Richard Burgon, Nadia Whittome, Owen Jones, the Novara Media team and, of course, Jeremy Corbyn. In the Corbyn years, TWT and the official party conference were complementary events. They have since become competitors.

Of course, all political groups above a certain size are, in effect, coalitions, with factions that may be ideologically far apart. But the split in the labor movement is unusual in two respects.

First, there is the magnitude of the ideological divide. When asked to describe the kind of society they want to live in, Social Democrats usually describe a somewhat idealized version of Sweden or Denmark. TWT, on the other hand, say in his profile:

“We are fundamentally opposed to capitalism […]

Our vision is that of a […] classless society […] where social life is organized around common property rather than private property”.

It is not a difference of degree. It is a qualitative difference. Sweden and Denmark have exorbitant taxes and huge welfare states, but they are clearly capitalist market economies nonetheless. If one group believes in the reform of capitalism, while another group believes that capitalism is irremediable and must be overthrown, then those groups are not, in any significant sense, political allies.

Second, and more curiously, only one side of this divide can clearly articulate its differences from the other and defend its own position. There are many statements socialists explaining why they reject social democracy, but there are hardly any social democrats who can – or will – return that favor.

What social democrats are doing instead is distancing themselves from socialists in an indirect way. That’s where singing the national anthem comes in, because it’s one of those ways.

The most conventional way is to hide behind the electorate: “I agree with you in theory, but we are not going to be elected on this basis, and our main priority must be to win the election.” In this way, they can pretend that a difference in principle is really only a difference in strategy, and thus avoid difficult arguments.

But it is also fundamentally dishonest. A social democrat is not simply a socialist who believes that socialism is, electorally, a lost cause, and who is content with social democracy as a lesser evil. A social democrat is someone who would not want total socialism, even if it were a winning strategy.

As a political economist Professor Geoffrey Hodgson Explain :

“There is a simple criterion to distinguish a socialist from a social democrat […]

To be a social democrat, it is not enough to accept markets and a mixed economy […] After all, a mixed economy could be accepted as a temporary step in the transition to hardline socialism, as Vladimir Lenin did with his New Economic Policy in 1921.

A modern social democrat must go further. He or she must demonstrate clearly and positively why markets, competition and a private sector are more than a temporary expedient. It must be said that these things are indispensable, both for economic efficiency and for the preservation of freedom.

The social democrats of the British labor movement have forgotten how to present such positive arguments in favor of the market economy. Social democrats clearly believe that, despite all their criticisms, capitalism also has some good characteristics, which deserve to be preserved. But they cannot explicitly specify what it is and why they want to preserve it. They’re good at explaining why they reject “thatcherism” or “trickle down economics” or “neoliberal capitalism” as they see it, which is fine – but if you think contemporary capitalism is so terrible, you also need to be able to explain why you want to keep it.

For socialists, all of this is, of course, very frustrating. To them, it seems that the Social Democrats all share their criticisms of the current system, but then, inexplicably, do not support their alternative.

Imagine two roommates, Peter and Paul, who aren’t particularly happy with the state of their current apartment and who sometimes talk about moving in together. But even though they generally criticize the same things about the apartment, there is a crucial difference.

Peter has completely abandoned the place and is eager to move. Far. Ideally, he wants to move into a new town that some of his friends are setting up on an abandoned farm.

Paul, on the other hand, doesn’t really mean it when he says he wants to move out. He still loves a lot of things about this place and thinks it just needs a major overhaul, which he plans to do as soon as he gets the chance. He also doesn’t have much time for Peter’s hippie friends. He knows they’ve created similar communes in the past, and they all collapsed soon after. (Peter knows that too, but he thinks this time will be different.)

But Paul doesn’t want to appear boring and unadventurous. So he can’t bring himself to say honestly, ‘Sorry Peter, but if you want to move, you’ll have to go on your own. I’m staying. I know the place needs a lot of work, but there are also a lot of things I like about it.’

Instead of saying this openly, Paul drags his feet. Whenever Peter wants to make plans to move, Paul tries to change the subject. Peter notices this, but doesn’t understand why. So he becomes more and more resentful towards Paul and accuses him of being in cahoots with the owner. Paul, in turn, starts playing a song that he knows is really pissing Peter off, in order to drive him away.

For the moderate left, the soft rendition of the national anthem at the conference is both a triumph and a surrender. It is a triumph, because it is a way of signaling that the Labor Party is no longer a Corbynite party. But it also shows that the social democrats still accept the cultural dominance of the Corbynites. They would rather troll them with a song they hate than confront them in an open debate.

How about a panel discussion at a side event at a conference, with a title like “Socialism versus social democracy”, or “Capitalism – reformable or irretrievably flawed? or “Denmark versus Cuba – where should the left seek inspiration? ‘.

The socialist side would find it incredibly easy to fill their side with such a panel. But could the social-democratic camp fill theirs?

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Kristian Niemietz is Head of Political Economy at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

The columns are the author’s own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.