Do Social Democrats still expand the welfare state? This article argues that a time-constant policy-oriented expectation of Social Democratic behaviour neglects parties' aspiration for other goals such as votes and offices, and therefore cannot explain why some Social Democratic parties have introduced welfare state retrenchment measures. Social Democrats can win votes and join coalitions by shifting rightwards. In contrast, they can pursue policy objectives by shifting leftwards. To communicate these shifts, in other words, changes of heart, parties send signals to voters and other parties before elections. This study analyses the effect of these party signals on the welfare state. Party manifesto data are used to compute the positive and negative signals parties send on welfare issues in their electoral manifestos. A pooled time-series analysis of 14 parliamentary democracies between 1972 and 2002 shows that Social Democrats enact retrenchment measures after having sent a negative signal on a welfare issue in election time, especially in the case of unemployment benefits. Most importantly, this study identifies when Social Democrats choose to retrench (part of) the welfare state, namely after having signalled a 'change of heart'. © 2011 Macmillan Publishers Ltd.