"Do it for all of us". Can Labour save social democracy?

Social democracy is in trouble. Social democratic parties have been annihilated in Greece, reduced to a shadow in France and struggle in Scandinavia. Corbyn in Britian and Sanders in the United States have support but can't get elected. Can New Zealand Labour show that it is not only possible to form a government but also to save social democracy? 

Social democrats like to do good. That is why they seek to be in government. They can use the resources of the state to improve lives. 

At least that is how it used to be in the good old days of the welfare state. Then we lived in a world characterised by homogeneity, standardisation and economies of scale. A single party in one nation could aspire to balance the interests of the state, business and labour. 

Now we are entering a world of diversity, differentiation and fragmentation. Megatrends like globalisation, the knowledge economy the declining importance of class politics, climate change, choice and individualisation have made it difficult for national governments to manage their economies, provide social benefits and run one-size-fits-all policies. 

It was these New Times that caused the traditional social democratic bureaucratic top down model to falter and be overtaken by the "market knows best" approach of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. It was why social democrats, led by Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, tried to reinvent their tradition via a Third Way. 

As it turned out, neither the market nor the Third Way provided an enduring response to the fundamental changes taking place. 

This opened the way for populists like Donald Trump to argue that the answer was "strongman' politics. Someone who says the answers are simple - leave it to them. What they mean is that they will act as if the trends that define the modern world can be ignored and national governments are in control. 

Short of the collapse of capitalism, environmental disaster or nuclear war (all possible), pretending change can be ignored is a fool's errand. New Times are here to stay. Sure populists will peddle their snake oil, but when they do win power (see Berlusconi, Trump, the Brexiteers) it does not take long for their words to turn to ashes in their mouths.

 The 'emperor has no clothes' reality of the populists should make it possible for social democrats to once again get a hearing. Yet in most countries they have struggled to craft a message that has lifted them above more than 20 percent of the vote. In Greece, they have been annihilated, in France they command 6 percent of the vote. Even in Scandinavia, social democrats are struggling. 

The considerable support voters have given to Jeremy Corban in Britain and Bernie Sanders in the United States has raised hopes. But neither have yet been able to make it into government. 

All of this makes the Labour-led government cause for celebration not only in New Zeland but also around the democratic world. As Jeremy Corbyn said in the lead up to the 2017 election - "do it for all of us". Labour delivered. Social democrats could breath a sigh of relief - it was possible to govern. 

Now comes the hard part. Social democratic parties are not out of favour because of some temporary blip in the electoral cycle. It is not, as some persist in saying, that politics is all about waiting for the pendulum to swing their way. The problem for social democrats is that they have yet to show they are equipped to deal with the 21st century as well as they were to deal with the mid-20th century. 

The question Labour needs to answer is whether they are ready for the future or not. 

There are encouraging signs. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, has made it clear she represents a generational change. She is at home in the new world of social media and information. She is at once a global citizen and a fiercely proud New Zealander. She has identified climate change as the nuclear free moment of our times. 

In opposition, now Finance Minister Grant Robinson showed a willingness to take on big issues when he led a discussion on the future of work and even went as far as to consider a universal basic income. Other Ministers have shown a willingness to rethink key areas like education, agrifood and healthcare. 

Labout is not the largest party in Parliament  - that honour goes to National. This means we may have the first truly MMP govenment. Previously National and Labour dominated any coalition. Smaller parties were marginalised and hurt badly at the polls

This time, Labour will have to listen carefully to its partner (New Zealand First) and supporter (the Green Party) to ensure it can form a government at the next election. It may have to reach out to other parties to allow for other options. For the first time, a major party is going to have to let go of some of the reins of power and allow other voices to be heard. If this extends to the wider community and the democratising of democracy, alll the better. 

New Zealand First may seem an odd bedfellow for Labour, but it has placed firmly on the agenda such key issues as regional development. 

The Green party is not around the cabinet table but they have enough power to keep their agenda of the environment, conservation, climate change and social justice alive. 

But, we are in the early stages of a government that was a surprise not only to the country but the parties involved. There is a lot of work to do - especially for Labour. 

They need to explain to New Zealanders that generational change is about more than millennials taking over. It means articulating a new vision of a good society in the context of the New Times we live in. 

The urgency of the immediate problems left by National - poverty, dirty rivers, homelessness, inequality - cannot be allowed to crowd out the importance of this long-term project. Indeed, ensuring answers to these problems requires a fundamental shift in the way we live because there is no quick fix.

What has to be avoided is the temptation to dip too heavily into the policy toolkit used by Corbyn and Sanders. What they say can sound good when measured against the incoherence of Donald Trump of Theresa May. But Corbyn and Sanders follow the traditional social democratic line that one party in one nation using the bureacratic state and higher taxes can solve eveyone's problems. 

This is to act as if New Times and old social democracy belong together when they do not. 

What social democracy, and the world, urgently needs is an understanding that the changes we are living through demand new thinking. Everywhere people are looking for new ways of addressing the problems they see around them. To date, social democratic parties have not been able to respond. Labour is now in a position to show the way. Throughout its history Labour has been the party of change - the welfare state in the 30'/40s, internationalisation in the 70s, deregulation in the 1980s. It is time to show the way again - for all of us.