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20 September 2023

The progressive dilemma

The anxieties and insecurities of the present moment are a formidable challenge for the centre left – in Britain and beyond.

By New Statesman

Fifteen years ago this month, as the global financial crisis unfolded, social democrats spoke of a new “progressive moment”. Extraordinary state interventions, such as the bank bailouts, prompted talk of a new economic settlement and a new way of doing politics. It never came close to happening.

The economic stagnation and austerity that followed the crash instead ushered in a darker era of politics: national populist movements rose across the West and Donald Trump was elected US president. Having championed causes such as financial deregulation, foreign intervention, the free movement of people and the euro, the centre left in Europe struggled to adapt to a new age of populist discontent.

[See also: The return of the free-market right]

Yet today liberals and social democrats are growing in optimism. At the Global Progress Action Summit in Montreal – which took place on 15-16 September and was attended by leaders including the Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, and the former Finnish prime minister Sanna Marin – Keir Starmer declared: “I think there’s an opportunity for a progressive moment.”

Mr Starmer’s optimism is unsurprising. His Labour Party enjoys a consistent poll lead of around 20 points over the Conservatives and is the overwhelming favourite to win the next general election. Yet he should not assume that Labour’s advance – against an exhausted Tory government – heralds a wider progressive awakening.

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The US president, Joe Biden, whose re-election Starmer cited as “important” to the centre left, is neck and neck with Donald Trump in opinion polls. Mr Trudeau’s own Liberal Party trails the Canadian Conservative Party by a double-digit margin. New Zealand’s Labour Party, led by Jacinda Ardern until earlier this year, is likely to lose next month’s election to the centre-right National Party.

In Europe, the electoral outlook is similarly troubling for progressives. The German chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Social Democrats are polling behind not only the Christian Democrats but also the far-right Alternative for Germany. The French president, Emmanuel Macron, who cannot stand for a third term, has yet to identify a liberal successor to challenge Marine Le Pen or another far-right rival.

Meanwhile, in its traditional Nordic heartland, the centre left has recently lost in Sweden – where the far-right Sweden Democrats now hold the balance of power – and in Finland, with Ms Marin since becoming an adviser to the Tony Blair Institute. In Norway, the incumbent Labour Party was defeated by the right in this month’s local elections for the first time in 99 years.

Only in southern Europe, where the Spanish social democrat Pedro Sánchez may yet retain power, and where Portugal’s Socialist Party won a third term in 2022, does the left have some cause for celebration.

Why, then, do some regard this as a “progressive moment”? The Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine, like the financial crisis, have inspired new waves of state interventionism. Governments have spent hundreds of billions protecting incomes and jobs. In the UK, a Conservative administration has raised taxes to a postwar high and public spending to its highest sustained level since the 1970s. The age of big government – to invert Bill Clinton – is very much alive.

But this does not amount to a progressive moment. Liberals and social democrats have tended to thrive at times of economic prosperity, as leaders such as Mr Clinton and Mr Blair did in the 1990s. But the illusion of permanent economic growth was destroyed by the 2008 crash. Living standards have since stagnated and politics has become a battle over finite resources.

We have entered a new era of permanent crisis: great-power conflict (as the historian Paul Kennedy writes for the New Statesman), mass migration, pandemics, wage stagnation and climate change. The anxieties and insecurities that result are a formidable challenge to the centre left; Labour’s defeat in the recent Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election over the Ultra Low Emission Zone was a preview of the political conflicts that will define the next decade.

Hope is the essential currency of progressive politics. But it should not be confused with optimism. There is nothing inevitable about progress. Rather than dreaming of capturing the zeitgeist, progressives such as Keir Starmer should be clear-eyed about the threats and dangers that surround them.

[See also: A state in disrepair]

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This article appears in the 20 Sep 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers