The challenge facing Britain’s Labour and Liberal Democrat parties cannot be overstated. Political parties have no divine right to exist and progressive parties of the centre and centre left are facing marginalisation, even extinction, across the Western world. Where is the French Socialist Party of François Mitterrand or the German SPD of Willy Brandt? And dominant national parties can very quickly become small fringe parties under the hammer blows of poor leadership and social and economic change. Look at the Liberal Party of Asquith and Lloyd George, reduced from 397 to 43 seats in just 18 years in the early 20th century.
Joe Biden’s victory in the United States apart, progressive politics across the globe is badly placed: four election defeats for the UK Labour Party and no one betting against a fifth; the German SPD placed behind a moderate Green Party; the French Socialists, who won the presidency in 2012, now polling at 11 per cent; the Italian left imploded and divided; the Spanish and Swedish socialists hanging on to power, but way below their earlier levels of support.
And truth be told, no sensible Democrat or democrat should overplay the Biden victory. He won against an incumbent like no other, considered by centre-ground voters to be uniquely strange and unacceptable in his behaviour. In the middle of the Covid-19 crisis, Donald Trump’s actions appeared to have worsened the pandemic; and even then, Trump increased his number of votes in the 2020 presidential election from 2016, while the Republicans took seats in the House and probably only lost control of the Senate thanks to the bizarre post-election antics that ended in the storming of the US Capitol in Washington, DC on 6 January. The Biden victory was a heavy reaction not so much against the policies as the comportment of Trump. And in Biden, the Democrats nominated possibly the only potential leader who could have won.
Without Biden, and his self-evident reasonableness and moderation, there might have been no victory. Ideas matter in politics, and rightly matter a lot to progressives. But without leaders who can frame and present these ideas successfully, they gather dust on shelves, not votes in ballot boxes. Biden’s manifest decency – right person, right place, right time – turned out to be vital.
Even now however, with the new president on a roll, his understated manner belying an extraordinarily radical stimulus and “build back” programme, the Democrats will not have it all their own way.
It could be that the domination of the Republican Party by the continuing division over Donald Trump eclipses any opportunity for a revival, at least for the presidency; but should the Republicans resolve their leadership crisis and identify a viable leader, they could give the Democrats a run for their money. In particular, while Biden is battling the Covid-19 crisis, his obvious competence in an area where partisan politics is regarded as stupid serves him well. But outside that domain, the Democrats may struggle, especially on cultural issues. America remains a deeply divided country.
In short, leave to one side Joe Biden, and around today’s Western world there are only flickers of a progressive agenda with deep majority support.
The progressive problem is that, in an era where people want change in a changing world, and a fairer, better and more prosperous future, the radical progressives aren’t sensible and the sensible aren’t radical. The choice is therefore between those who fail to inspire hope and those who inspire as much fear as hope. So, the running is made by the new radical left, with the “moderates” dragged along behind, uncomfortably mouthing a watered-down version of the left’s policies while occasionally trying to dig in their heels to stop further sliding towards the alienation of the centre.
The result is that today progressive politics has an old-fashioned economic message of Big State, tax and spend which, other than the spending part (which the right can do anyway), is not particularly attractive. This is combined with a new-fashioned social/cultural message around extreme identity and anti-police politics which, for large swathes of people, is voter-repellent. “Defund the police” may be the left’s most damaging political slogan since “the dictatorship of the proletariat”. It leaves the right with an economic message which seems more practical, and a powerful cultural message around defending flag, family and fireside traditional values. To top it off, the right evinces a pride in their nation, while parts of the left seem embarrassed by the very notion.
All this is happening against the backdrop of a real-world transformation. We are living through the most far-reaching upheaval since the 19th-century Industrial Revolution: a technology revolution of the internet, AI, quantum computing, extraordinary advances in genomics, bioscience, clean energy, nutrition, gaming, financial payments, satellite imagery – everything, every sphere of work, leisure and life is subject to its transformative power. The question is how it is used: to control humanity or liberate it, to provide opportunities for those presently without opportunity, or to put even more power, wealth and opportunity in the hands of those already well off.
This is the central political challenge of our time, and those who understand this revolution, show how it can be mastered for the benefit of the people, and harness it for the public good, will deservedly win power. It is a challenge tailor-made for the progressive cause. It requires active government; a commitment to social justice and equality; an overhaul of public services, particularly health and education; measures to bring the marginalised into society’s mainstream; and a new 21st-century infrastructure.
It will require innovation, not the status quo; and the mentality of change-makers, not “small c” conservatives. It will best be done in conjunction and collaboration with other nations, not with narrow-minded nationalism. Take the Covid-19 crisis. It required active government harnessing innovation, collective effort and global coordination, balancing the needs of the economy with the need to fight the disease. The crisis has accelerated technological change, deepened inequality, put an even greater premium on creativity and shown how dedicated public service is a vital part of national survival.
Everything about the world we live in, and still more the one we are about to live in, cries out for a progressive response. In the future, those equipped for the tech revolution can succeed; those ill-equipped will almost certainly fail. This is the modern progressive cause. The 21st century technology revolution is the crux: the real-world change for good or ill.
Why do progressives find it hard to rise to this challenge? Why do they profess to see this challenge and then look past it for the place to focus their ideas and energy?
It is for the same reason that it was so hard for Labour to abandon Clause IV, and the commitment to mass nationalisation, in the 1980s and 1990s. It was a confusion of abiding values with outdated mechanisms – a failure to grasp the nature of the contemporary social and economic challenge, and a deep psychological reluctance to let go of an outdated past. It means discarding shibboleths. This new world doesn’t require a Big State per se, but a strategic and active one which is good at solving problems and good at promoting social inclusion and economic dynamism at the same time. It will challenge all those who don’t adapt to change, including big business with a conventional centralised mentality, or trade unions which can’t get to grips with mobilising workers in the new econmy. A myriad of small firms and the self-employed will be central not peripheral to the future.
It is the same with public services. The way we teach and provide medical care and education will change dramatically, and therefore old ways of working will decline. New forms of social ownership will be needed to tackle the housing crisis. Solutions will often be practical, some more associated with traditional left thinking but some more with modern centre-right thinking. It will require steadfast adherence to values but complete agnosticism as to the means of implementing them.
The thinking of the new left radicals across the West – which is really the rediscovery of 1960s Marxist-inspired left policy by a new generation – is largely redundant to answering the challenge. Public ownership of industry, “free” university tuition, much heavier regulation – all of these traditional solutions, as well as being politically challenging, will not materially impact people’s lives in anything like the manner of technological change, and may be regressive if they reduce the power of social mobility and social aspiration. They seem “radical” because they come from a traditional left which presented them as such, but politically they are mostly now museum pieces, lingering relics of outdated ideology.
It isn’t that the traditional issues don’t matter; it is just that they’re second-order compared with those accompanying the revolution. Of course, we have to determine levels of taxation and spending, appropriate regulation and what the state does and doesn’t do. And there will be political choices and trade-offs that democracy will decide. But all of these pale into insignificance beside the question of how we handle the all-encompassing vastness of the impact of modern technological change. So, we can and no doubt will require more public spending on the NHS. But a bigger reform challenge is how we use technology to alter diagnostics, prevention and public health.
Similarly, tackling climate change can only be accomplished through the application of science and technology. In particular, it will require a revolution in modes of transport and transport infrastructure to promote electrification and a switch from aviation to high-speed rail. Whether the railway system is publicly or privately owned has a fraction of the importance of the advent over the next decade of next-generation rail technology and the growth of electric, driverless vehicles, with all the secondary effects on jobs, insurance and mobility.
On education, how we utilise the possibility of online teaching and learning to change the way we educate our young people, and how as a consequence teaching skills evolve, will decide whether we are an educated nation or not in the future. And the nations which are first-movers will get a disproportionate advantage.
You can literally go through the policy catalogue, from crime to defence to the environment, and in every case the potential of technological change is enormous and revolutionary. This is the future. But you can’t organise the future with a playbook from the past.
Precisely because a new younger generation are looking for radical policy, as every new generation does, and because they’re not really finding it in an economic message which doesn’t enthuse, so progressives have defaulted to issues around culture, gender, race and identity. Handling these issues successfully is an equally great challenge for modern progressives.
A large part of moderate progressive opinion simply wants to steer clear of these cultural and identity issues entirely. The moderates – often of an older generation – don’t quite understand the strength of feeling over issues such as trans rights. They distrust their own sensors and fear tripping up or saying the wrong thing, and so have come to a position which basically says: there is no culture war, in any event we’re not playing it, or if there is and we are forced to play, we will play at the back as quietly as possible.
I believe this is a mistake and merely reinforces the sense of being weak people who don’t really stand for anything. And, as I know from a lifetime in politics, however successful a leader you are, you don’t always decide the agenda. You can decide the answer, but you can’t always decide the question. Your political opponents have a say, and most importantly, so does the public.
The right knows they’re on to something on these cultural issues. They are revelling in it and setting traps for the left all over the field, which the left is falling into one by one. (Or not. A key moment for Biden was when he comprehensively disowned “defund the police”, while backing police reform.)
Keeping your head down isn’t a strategy. There is a big culture battle going on. Progressive folk tend to wince at terms such as “woke” and “political correctness”, but the normal public knows exactly what they mean. And the battle is being fought on ground defined by the right because sensible progressives don’t want to be on the field at all. The consequence of this is that the “radical” progressives, who are quite happy to fight on that ground, carry the progressive standard. The fact that it ensures continued right-wing victory doesn’t deter them at all. On the contrary, it gives them a heightened sense of righteousness, like political kamikaze.
Progressive politics must disentangle this cultural question and get on to ground it can hold with public support. It isn’t impossible. But it requires deep thought and political courage. Here are some principles around which such ground can be captured.
People do not like their country, their flag or their history being disrespected. The left always gets confused by this sentiment and assume this means people support everything their country has done or think all their history is sacrosanct. They don’t. But they query imposing the thinking of today on the practices of yesterday; they’re suspicious that behind the agenda of many of the culture warriors on the left lies an ideology they find alien and extreme; and they’re instinctively brilliant at distinguishing between the sentiment and the movement. They will support strongly campaigns against racism; but they recoil from some of the language and actions of the fringes of the Black Lives Matter movement. You could go through the entire litany of modern causes and find the same – from Extinction Rebellion to trans rights to Reclaim the Streets – in the same way.
People like common sense, proportion and reason. They dislike prejudice; but they dislike extremism in combating prejudice. They support the police and the armed forces. Again, it doesn’t mean that they think those institutions are beyond reproach. Not at all. But they’re on their guard for those who they think use any wrongdoing to smear the institutions themselves. And they expect their leaders to voice their own opinion, not sub-contract opinion to pressure groups, no matter how worthy.
The correct course for progressives on culture questions is to make a virtue of reason and moderation. To be intolerant of intolerance – saying you can disagree without denouncing. To seek unity. To eschew gesture politics and slogans. And when they’re accused of being insufficiently supportive of the causes – which is inevitable – to stand up for themselves and make it clear they’re not going to be bullied or pushed around. This will lose some votes among a minority with loud voices; but it will bind the solid but often silent centre to them. And, of course, it will allow the causes themselves to be effectively pursued, as the last Labour government did with its own revolution in gay rights and the pathway to equal marriage – and the forced conversion of the Conservative Party on the issue.
The British Labour Party is the embodiment of this progressive challenge. Just 17 months ago it went to the far left and suffered the worst defeat in the party’s history. It has now replaced Jeremy Corbyn, a classic protest politician completely unsuited to leadership, let alone to governing, with Keir Starmer – Sir Keir – intelligent, capable, moderate-minded. He has taken a strong stand against the stain of anti-Semitism from the Corbyn era, been generally reasonable when opposing the government’s handling of Covid-19, and looks and sounds sensible. But he is struggling to break through with the public, and last week’s elections are a major setback.
The Labour Party is now scratching its collective head and wondering why the replacement of an extremist with someone more moderate isn’t achieving the miracle renaissance. It is even asking whether Keir is the right leader.
But the Labour Party won’t revive simply by a change of leader. It needs total deconstruction and reconstruction. Nothing less will do.
At present, Labour expresses perfectly the progressive dilemma. Corbyn was radical but not sensible. Keir seems sensible but not radical. He lacks a compelling economic message. And the cultural message, because he is not clarifying it, is being defined by the “woke” left, whose every statement gets cut-through courtesy of the right. Equally, “spend more” is a weak slogan when the Tory government is already spending around record levels. And the inheritance from the 2019 Labour manifesto – a £1trn programme – is a huge albatross, accompanied by the usual misguided argument from the left that the individual items poll well (they always do, but it’s their cumulative effect which is deadly).
On cultural issues, one after another, the Labour Party is being backed into electorally off-putting positions. A progressive party seeking power which looks askance at the likes of Trevor Phillips, Sara Khan or JK Rowling is not going to win. Progressive politics needs to debate these cultural questions urgently and openly. It needs to push back strongly against those who will try to shout down the debate. And to search for a new governing coalition. All the evidence is that it can only do this by building out from the centre ground.
Progressive parties must modernise their economic message. They need a unifying social and cultural message as well. The Conservative parties of Western politics have adapted and adjusted. But by and large they’re finding a new economic and cultural coalition.
Meanwhile, left parties are fracturing, Green parties are rising but rarely capable of winning power, and a whole generation of talent that is not Conservative can’t find a political home. For now, the Labour Party cannot fulfil its historic mission. Its limitations have been there from its inception, particularly its estrangement from Britain’s great Liberal tradition – Gladstone, Lloyd George, Keynes, Beveridge. Except for the period of New Labour, it has never succeeded in being in government more than six years; and the devastating cul-de-sac it went down over the past decade has made those limitations worse, possibly endemic.
Progressive politicians open to the scale of the challenge and the change are to be found in the Labour Party, in the Lib Dems and in the ranks of the politically homeless. Without the diverting drama of speculation around new political parties, we need a new progressive movement; a new progressive agenda; and the construction of a new governing coalition.
The construction of this new progressive movement should start with an open dialogue between like-minded Labour and Lib Dem members and the non-aligned. Otherwise, we will be in the dreary business of fighting with a cause which is unclear, our hands tied behind our back, on a ground we didn’t choose in a battle we can’t win, against a foe which doesn’t deserve to triumph; and hoping that another defeat will bring the clarity of purpose we should embrace now. It won’t.
This article appears in the 12 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Without total change Labour will die