A party of values: the future of Social Democracy

A- A A+

Social democracy has been in heavy decline all over the world, nearing extinction in some places. We suggest that social democratic parties ought to become parties of values to reinvigorate their broad electoral appeal.

From class to coalitions

While social democratic parties currently emphasize a cross-class appeal to coalitions of voters, for most of the late 19th and early 20th centuries their focus was on the working class. As Vössing shows in his recent book, social democracy successfully mobilized industrial workers by creating strong class-based networks and identities.

After 1945 (and sometimes earlier), economic growth, increasing prosperity, and access to democratic institutions reduced the popularity of class politics and its radical vision of sweeping change. The class party ceased to be a success story, and social democracy did the right thing by embracing a cross-class appeal to coalitions of workers and other social groups.

The social-spatial approach

Today, proposals for how social democratic parties ought to manufacture a cross-class appeal usually apply a ‘social-spatial’ approach to party strategy.

This approach begins by designating certain social groups as partners in an envisioned coalition of social democratic voters. Then, the interests of these groups are identified based on their presumed locations in a multidimensional political space. And finally, the party is moved to a position in this space that supposedly satisfies the interests of the targeted groups.

For instance, the ‘left turn’ model would move social democracy to the left on both the economic and cultural dimensions of the political space to target progressive urban voters (supposedly interested in left-wing cultural policies) and a traditional communitarian-minded working-class (supposedly interested in left-wing economic policies).

The ‘traditionalism’ model aims to recuperate support from social democracy’s traditional working-class constituency by combining a centrist (or even left-wing) economic policy position with a rightward move on the cultural dimension of the political space, in particular through demands for restrictive migration policies.

Limits of the social-spatial approach

The social-spatial approach has contributed important insights to the debate about the future of social democracy. However, on its own and applied simplistically, it can make the debate formulaic. Most importantly, it has so far not succeeded in halting social democracy’s electoral decline.

Research shows that people no longer vote based on their affiliation with a particular social class or other large social group.

Class-based voting has decreased for several decades, and people’s class positions explain only a small and perpetually shrinking part of their vote choices. These trends have emerged strongly in comparative studies over the last 20 years, such as those by Mark Franklin and his co-authors; Geoffrey Evans; and Geoffrey Evans and Nan Dirk de Graaf.

The same is true for other conceptions of group belonging. For instance, studies of the German 2017 elections published by Bertelsmann Stiftung and Hans-Böckler-Stiftung show that not a single social milieu has a dominant political party, and that social democrats do not receive more than 25 % of the vote in any social milieu.

A value-based approach

It is clear that neither social classes nor social milieus or other groups defined by social structural variables predict people’s political views and vote choices. This is why appealing to voters based on their values is a more promising strategy for winning elections than cross-class appeals based on social structural features.

The fundamental values for which social democracy stands – freedom, justice, and solidarity – are widespread across different social groups, and they are largely independent of people’s group affiliations. Values also have a much larger immediate effect on vote choices than social structural factors: Gidron and Hall demonstrate this clearly in their examination of populism, for example.

By appealing to people based on their social class, milieu or occupation, social democracy frequently fails to take advantage of the prevalence of social democratic values. A focus on values would allow social democratic parties to create deep and lasting identifications based on real shared convictions.

Becoming a party of values

Being a party of values means not only to have values, but to make values the decisive rationale for all aspects of party behavior.

Many social democratic initiatives and projects already embrace the value-based approach. We now outline five measures that can support these activities and help them transform social democracy from a party of social coalitions into a party of values.

First, while social democratic parties need to exude more pride in their values, they also need to revive their ability to listen. They should do this using old-school conversation as well as modern social scientific analysis. Effective value-oriented policy-making and communication require solid information about constituents (i.e. voters who share social democratic values) and their concerns.

Second, social democratic parties should create more space for discussion about how to put values into practice. In other words, talk about values should not be relegated to the preambles of party platforms and the occasional heart-warming speech, and it should stay clear of detached reflections about the abstract meaning of freedom, justice, and solidarity. Social democracy should discuss values with a focus on developing policies that advance social democratic values in response to ever new challenges and changing circumstances, in areas of major concern to citizens.

Third, social democratic parties should decide about their policies based on whether they truly help to advance social democratic values. This requires an anti-populist mindset with absolute openness toward rational policy-making and evidence.

Fourth, social democratic parties should always communicate their policies in relation to their  values, and their values in relation to their policies. This requires a professional and disciplined communication strategy that highlights not only the desirability of social democratic values, but also the positive effects of social democratic policies on these values.

Fifth, to win elections, social democratic parties should embrace a strategic approach to agenda setting. This means selecting campaign issues based on their ability to mobilize existing supporters and attract voters from other political camps. A value-based approach is perfectly equipped to accomplish this difficult balancing act. For instance, policies favoring a universal, high-quality and publicly financed health care system advance social democratic values that are widely shared by voters across existing political divides. Emphasizing health care in an election campaign using a value-based approach would allow social democratic parties to generate a wide appeal to old and potential new voters.


Sebastian Jobelius was head of office of the leader of the social democratic party group in the German parliament, Andrea Nahles. He is a member of the editorial board of the social democratic journal spw.

Konstantin Vössing is a political scientist at City University London. He was Jean Monnet Fellow at the EUI during the academic year 2015/16, and he has had other prior appointments at Humboldt University Berlin, Ohio State University, and Harvard University.


Our analysis and proposals owe a lot to the EUI and its members. They were discussed in public for the first time at a workshop about the past and future of social democracy organized by Ellen Immergut, Francesco Colombo, and Timo Seidl at the EUI in March 2019. The contributions of the organizers and participants helped us tremendously in developing and refining our ideas. This blog post incorporates new suggestions and even more feedback from a wide range of people with whom we discussed our ideas in the meantime. We are looking forward to more feedback and debate!