It’s the 1970s, stupid

For Labour the 1970s, not the 1990s, is the decade to search for comparisons.

Has the political class lost all memory? The comparisons between Ed Miliband and his two immediate predecessors as Labour leader are fatuous. The more exact comparison is Labour in its first 18 months after a heavy defeat. In 1952, 1971 or 1980 Labour was divided, depressed, demoralised, down and out. In 2011, Labour has none of the left-right, Bevan-Gaitskell, Benn-Healey, pro or anti Europe/CND divisions that ripped the guts out of the party in previous periods of opposition. Labour frontbenchers with greater or lesser degrees of effectiveness are focusing on the Government not on each other. Compared to Clement Attlee or Michael Foot, Ed Miliband seems young, fresh, open to ideas, and, as we saw in Monday's speech willing to tell hard truths to his party.

This is extremely frustrating for the commentariat, all of whom have been in the same job, writing the same columns for twenty years of more. They don't get Ed and Labour is not behaving according to tradition by refusing to become centrifugal, fissiparous and quarrelsome in opposition. Progress, the Fabians, Compass, and other think tanks and websites are post-factionalist. They plough their furrows and are not seeking to be organising centres for alternative leaders in the way that Bennite or Gaitskellite factionalism damaged Labour after 1979 or 1951.

Forget TB/GB. They are yesterday. More important, their rise to power came after fifteen years in opposition. When both took over in 1994, the Conservatives were unelectable. For Labour the 1970s are much more a decade to examine to search for comparisons. There were four governments in less than a decade. The Heath government arrived in power in 1970 with a sense of ideological purpose and a desire to shake up government. But events - domestic and international - forced change after change, U-turn after U-turn as the Heath government lost its bearings and momentum.

Heath's reforms, similar to Cameron's NHS policy, came to naught when tested against reality and widespread social opposition. What arrived as a confident, cocky Conservative government in June 1970 had become by late 1972 a confused cacophony of unhappy Tory MPs. Labour simply picked up the pieces in 1974. Then Margaret Thatcher arrived. Like Ed Miliband, she was widely derided for her voice, her cautious style at the Despatch Box, her lack of ideological certainty and her refusal to dump on the 70-74 Tory government. The Iron Lady and ideological Maggie we all remember is a product of power and was not evident in opposition. All she had to do was hold her party together and wait for Labour to collapse.

The 1970s like the second decade of the 21st century were a transition era between the welfare state mixed economy era that began in 1945 and run out of steam after the first oil shock of 1973. The United States had to withdraw from Vietnam just as America will withdraw from Afghanistan. By 1980, the world was ready to move into the long globalisation era defined by Reagan and Thatcher based on reducing by 10 per cent the share of national income going into wages and reinforcing rentier capitalism. This era came to an abrupt end in 2008. As in the 1970s we are in a transition period. Cameron and Osborne are still applying the recipes of the Thatcher-Reagan era and have not analysed the time-shift to a new economic model and the space-shift to a new geo-politics based on the rise of authoritarian nationalist expansionist powers like China, Russia, and India. President Obama in Westminster hall invited the EuroAtlantic community to reassert its values and confidence. But the petty Europhobic nationalism of today's Conservatives does not allow Cameron to see a bigger picture.

Labour and Ed Miliband thus find themselves with a trilemma. All Blair had to do was adapt Labour to the era of globalisation. In a transition era there is no such obvious road map to follow though Miliband's thoughtful speech gave some pointers. Second, there is a systemic failure of European social democracy to find solutions to current economic and social transitions. Thirdly, Labour is trapped in a fatuous row over its immediate past as the putschists of 2006 refuse to admit they made a tragic mistake by elevating normal personal rivalries into an assault on the most successful Labour prime minister(together with his Chancellor) in political history.

That said, Labour and Ed are in a much stronger position than any previous period when Labour went into opposition. The NHS fiasco, brilliantly handled by John Healey, is showing up the Heathite nature of a government that is led by a Duke of York Cameron marching his troops into the lobbies and then saying their votes were wasted and they have to come marching down again. There is even a U-turn on bin collections a reductio ad absurdum that not even Heath achieved. The next generation of political problems will focus on issues like Scottish separatism, Middle East turmoil, reducing the number of MPs and reforming the Lords, and Britain's role internationally and in Europe. A policy for Europe and a theory of low-tax co-responsibility, co-funding socialism is overdue. As in the 1970s expect febrile, changing politics. If Labour can understand and exploit this transition era there is no reason to be pessimistic.

Denis MacShane is MP for Rotherham and a former minister for Europe

Denis MacShane is MP for Rotherham and was a minister at Foreign and Commonwealth Office
Show Hide image

Justin Trudeau points the way forward for European politics

Is the charismatic Canadian Prime Minister modelling the party of the future?

Six months after Canadian election day, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party continues to bask in the glow of victory. With 44 per cent of support in the polls, the Liberals are the most popular party amongst every single demographic – men and women, young and old, and people of all educational backgrounds. 

While most European mainstream parties only dream of such approval, this is actually a small dip for the Liberals. They were enjoying almost 50 per cent support in the polls up until budget day on 21 March. Even after announcing $29.4 billion in deficit spending, Canadians overall viewed the budget favourably – only 34 per cent said they would vote to defeat it.

Progressives around the world are suddenly intrigued by Canadian politics. Why is Justin Trudeau so successful?

Of course it helps that the new Prime Minister is young, handsome and loves pandas (who doesn’t?) But it’s also true that he was leader of the Liberals for a year and half before the election. He brought with him an initial surge in support for the party. But he also oversaw its steady decline in the lead up to last year’s election – leadership is important, but clearly it isn’t the only factor behind the Liberals’ success today.

Context matters

As disappointing as it is for Europeans seeking to unpack Canadian secrets, the truth is that a large part of the Liberals’ success was also down to the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s extreme unpopularity by election time.

Throughout almost ten years in power, Harper shifted Canada markedly to the right. His Conservative government did not just alter policies; it started changing the rules of the democratic game. While centre-right governments in Europe may be implementing policies that progressives dislike, they are nonetheless operating within the constraints of democratic systems (for the most part; Hungary and Poland are exceptions).

Which is why the first weeks of the election campaign were dominated by an ‘Anybody But Harper’ sentiment, benefitting both the Liberals and the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP was even leading the polls for a while, inviting pundits to consider the possibility of a hung parliament.

But eight days before election day, the Liberals began to pull ahead.

The most important reason – and why they continue to be so popular today – is that they were able to own the mantle of ‘change’. They were the only party to promise running a (small) deficit and invest heavily in infrastructure. Notably absent was abstract discourse about tackling inequality. Trudeau’s plan was about fairness for the middle class, promoting social justice and economic growth.

Democratic reform was also a core feature of the Liberal campaign, which the party has maintained in government – Trudeau appointed a new Minister of Democratic Institutions and promised a change in the voting system before the next election.

The change has also been in style, however. Justin Trudeau is rebranding Canada as an open, progressive, plural society. Even though this was Canada’s reputation pre-Harper, it is not as simple as turning back the clock.

In a world increasingly taken by populist rhetoric on immigration – not just by politicians like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and other right-wingers, but also increasingly by mainstream politicians of right and left – Justin Trudeau has been unashamedly proclaiming the benefits of living in a diverse, plural society. He repeatedly calls himself a feminist, in the hope that one day “it is met with a shrug” rather than a social media explosion. Live-streamed Global Town Halls are one part of a renewed openness with the media. Progressive politicians in Europe would do well to take note.

Questioning the role of political parties today

Another interesting development is that the Liberal party is implicitly questioning the point of parties today. It recently abolished fee-paying, card-carrying party members. While this has been met with some criticism regarding the party’s structure and integrity, with commentators worried that “it’s the equivalent of turning your party into one giant Facebook page: Click ‘Like’ and you’re in the club,” it seems this is the point.

Colin Horgan, one of Trudeau’s former speechwriters, explains that Facebook is “literally a treasure trove for political parties”. All kinds of information becomes available – for free; supporters become easier to contact.

It was something the Liberals were already hinting at two years ago when they introduced a ‘supporters’ category to make the party appear more open. Liberal president Anna Gainey also used the word “movement” to describe what the Liberals hope to be.

And yes, they are trying to win over millennials. Which proved to be a good strategy, as a new study shows that Canadians aged 18-25 were a key reason why the Liberals won a majority. Young voter turnout was up by 12 per cent from the last election in 2011; among this age group, 45 per cent voted for the Liberals.

Some interesting questions for European progressives to consider. Of course, some of the newer political parties in Europe have already been experimenting with looser membership structures and less hierarchical ways of engaging, like Podemos’ ‘circles’ in Spain and the Five Star Movement’s ‘liquid democracy’ in Italy.

The British centre-left may be hesitant after its recent fiasco. Labour opened up its leadership primary to ‘supporters’ and ended up with a polarising leader who is extremely popular amongst members, but unpopular amongst the British public. But it would be wrong to assume that the process was to blame.

The better comparison is perhaps to Emmanuel Macron, France’s young economy minister who recently launched his own movement ‘En Marche !’ Moving beyond the traditional party structure, he is attempting to unite ‘right’ and ‘left’ by inspiring French people with an optimistic vision of the future. Time will tell whether this works to engage people in the longer term, or at least until next year’s presidential election.

In any case, European parties could start by asking themselves: What kind of political parties are they? What is the point of them?

Most importantly: What do they want people to think is the point of them?

Ultimately, the Canadian Liberals’ model of success rests on three main pillars:

  1. They unambiguously promote and defend a progressive, open, plural vision of society.
  2. They have a coherent economic plan focused on social justice and economic growth which, most importantly, they are trusted to deliver.
  3. They understand that society has changed – people are more interconnected than ever, relationships are less hierarchical and networks exist online – and they are adapting a once rigid party structure into a looser, open movement to reflect that.

*And as a bonus, a young, charismatic leader doesn’t hurt either.

Claudia Chwalisz is a Senior Policy Researcher at Policy Network, a Crook Public Service Fellow at the University of Sheffield and author of The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change