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The Progressive Policy Think Tank

Editorial - How can progressives win?

The political make-up of the UK is shifting. Since 2010, political realignment across large swathes of the UK has been solidified through four General Elections, six governments, and referendums on Scottish independence and the UK’s membership of the EU. Meanwhile, devolution has changed the nature of the union between the UK’s constituent nations, and shaped distinct political trajectories in each.

Labour remains in government in Wales after more than two decades, and in Scotland the SNP has enjoyed power for 14 years and counting. In England, a decade of Conservatives in government at Westminster closed not with a resurgence of progressive support, but communities that were once Labour stalwarts turning away. The UK government’s handling of Brexit has inflamed tensions and posed new threats to the Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland.

“the new political identities surfaced through Brexit have deep roots in demographic shifts over the last half-century, intensified by regional politics and the British imperial mindset”

The drift of working-class voters in England and Wales towards the Conservatives and the breaking of historic Labour party ties has forged new political identities.1 But are they here to stay? In part, these shifts reflect profound changes to the UK’s economic model, reflected back in people’s everyday experiences of the economy, as workers, renters or asset owners. But the economy is not separate to people’s wider lives and identities.

Some have pointed to longer-term trends in political dealignment and realignment to explain the consolidation of Conservative success at the polls, drawing links to rising apathy in historic Labour strongholds met with attitudes to EU membership and immigration.2 As recent scholarship has explored, the new political identities surfaced through Brexit have deep roots in demographic shifts over the last half-century, intensified by regional politics and the British imperial mindset.3 These are not trivial or temporary challenges. And, political realignment has brought with it shifting agendas and demands within the Conservative party, including towards priorities previously championed by other parties more commonly thought of as ‘progressive’.

Where should progressives in the UK look to understand these shifts and the forces that drive them, and to grapple with the challenges that lay ahead? Across Europe, politics since the financial crisis have been shaped by two key forces: fiscal austerity and the sustained decline of social democratic parties. The dominant narrative presented in the years following the crash presented a systemic financial crisis as the result of financial mismanagement on the part of social democrats, and austerity as the natural remedy.4 Social democratic parties in power across Europe at the time of the crash were punished at the polls for the crisis itself, and for implementing catastrophic austerity regimes in response.

“Now, progressives face another economic crisis without having recovered ground lost since the last”

Across Europe, the rise of new left challenger movements has so far failed to pave a way to sustained success at the ballot box. First came the rejection of Greece’s once-dominant centre-left party as ‘Pasokification’ entered the political lexicon and radical left Syriza took power at the height of the eurozone debt crisis. In austerity Spain, Podemos blurred the lines between a movement and a political party – with dazzling but short-lived electoral success. In the UK, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the labour party from 2015 gave way to a new radicalism, harnessing the energy of anti-austerity movements to make gains in 2017 before suffering profound losses in 2019.

The recent rise of green parties has been seen by some to have potential to re-energise the progressive landscape and shift the dial on economic orthodoxy to respond to our climate and nature emergency. Germany’s Green party has overtaken the struggling Social Democratic party (SDP) in the polls and looks set to make gains in September’s election. In Scotland, the Greens are in talks over a cooperation deal with the SNP, while across Europe Greens are in governing coalitions in Ireland, Austria, Belgium, Finland and Sweden. Academic research points to decentralised governments, high GDP per capita and low unemployment driving green support at the polls.5

“While the long-term political implications of the Covid-19 crisis remain unclear, early signs are less than encouraging for progressives”

Now, progressives face another economic crisis without having recovered ground lost since the last. Whether lessons will be learned from the last crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic will mark a step-change in economic orthodoxy remains to be seen. While Biden’s ambitious proposed $1.9 trillion stimulus package aims at revitalising the United States’ economy, the fiscal response in the UK and the EU has been muted. IPPR analysis suggests that too small a stimulus risks a sluggish recovery and permanent economic scarring as a consequence. While talk of austerity may have been quietened for now, the economic consensus that emerges could set the direction of travel for the next decade.6

While the long-term political implications of the Covid-19 crisis remain unclear, early signs are less than encouraging for progressives. Earlier this year, Portugal’s presidential elections saw centre-right candidate Rebelo de Sousa triumph comfortably over the socialist party’s Ana Gomes (followed in close pursuit by a right-wing populist candidate), and the Netherlands’ social democratic party struggled this year to re-make ground lost in the major defeats of the last election. In France, the socialist party languish in the polls while Jean-Luc Melénchon’s presidential bid represents a splintering of the left.

In this issue, we look for a path through for progressives. In conversation with Robert Putnam, giant of political science, we discuss the decline of trust in politics and its consequences, within UK and across the Atlantic. Putnam reminds us that trust is a measure of trustworthiness – and that government performance is what matters. He makes the case for progressives to focus on institutional change in order to improve outcomes – and restore the health of our democracies.

We start by looking back to old bastions of progressive power, and how the union movement can be renewed to meet contemporary challenges. Alice Martin assesses the role unions can play in an increasingly financialised UK economy. By mapping out a landscape characterised by new forms of private ownership and new barriers to collective action, she sets a course to building collective power by embracing new modes of organising.

“Through the Covid-19 pandemic, Ardern has stood apart on the global stage for her personal leadership qualities”

We look to New Zealand, where Max Rashbrooke draws out lessons from Jacinda Ardern’s premiership. Ardern’s approach has been characterised by ‘radical incrementalism’- winning support or an outright majority through small steps taken in coalition. Now, the challenge lies in delivering against her vision to realise a wellbeing economy, and increasing pressure to shift the dial on major policy agendas including child poverty and the climate crisis. These challenges closely chime with those facing the policymakers in Scotland, where the SNP have sought to align Scotland’s approach with New Zealand’s.

Through the Covid-19 pandemic, Ardern has stood apart on the global stage for her personal leadership qualities, which have been the subject of much discussion – and have caught the attention of progressives looking to emulate her success. Andrea Whittle, Frank Mueller and Chris Carter argue that leaders matter – and perceived authenticity is increasingly important in an age of political cynicism. And when it comes to building authenticity, politicians ought to be wary of how their behaviour will be perceived - from what they eat, to how they talk. To be seen as authentic, consistency is key. These perceptions are increasingly shaped by the media we consume – as Fran Newton underlines as she explores the case for independent progressive media ecosystem.

“Territorial dynamics are playing an increasingly significant role in shaping how voters see the world and their place in it, as fortunes diverge across nations and regions of the UK”

Territorial dynamics are playing an increasingly significant role in shaping how voters see the world and their place in it, as fortunes diverge across nations and regions of the UK. Nye Davies traces the roots of Welsh Labour’s electoral success, as the party with the longest electoral success in Europe. He explores how the party has successfully drawn on explicit appeals to a Welsh identity and a rich history of radical socialist tradition to establish – and maintain – clear red water between the party in Wales and the rest of the UK.

We look to Scotland to assess the enduring success of the SNP, who have enjoyed levels of support at the ballot box that parties across the UK can only dream of. Fraser MacMillan and Rob Johns track the rise of the SNP in an era of centre-left partisan decline. They point to the party’s early embrace of universalism which has led to a vanishingly small gap in left- right positioning between the SNP and Scottish Labour, and a Scottish electorate that have been drifting to the left over the past two decades of devolution.

In parts of the north of England, too, regional devolution has created new environments for progressives to build power. Steve Rotheram reflects on lessons from Liverpool City Region, where he was elected metro mayor in 2017, leaving Westminster behind after seven years as MP for Liverpool Walton. Merseyside bucked the trend across England with a split Brexit vote in 2016, and again in 2019 as Labour MPs held onto their seats. Recent scholarship has turned to explore Liverpool’s strong sense of collective history, and particular local dynamics – such as the widespread boycott of the Sun newspaper – in explaining this difference in political attitudes.7

“is there, as Liberal Democrat Leader Ed Davey has suggested, a ‘blue wall’ in England that is coming unstuck?”

Recent by-election outcomes suggest voters are still on the move. But is there, as Liberal Democrat Leader Ed Davey has suggested, a ‘blue wall’ in England that is coming unstuck? John Curtice makes the case that the Chesham and Amersham byelection was an exaggerated continuation of a trend that has been clear since the 2019 general election – whereby constituencies with strong support for Remain are drifting away from the Conservatives. He argues that Brexit identities still matter, but Conservative decline in remain-voting areas in the south of England is a new phenomenon in seats that are only recently established Conservative strongholds – marking two points of difference from Labour’s ‘red wall’ losses. Ultimately, a path to progressive power at Westminster will require a far broader electoral strategy.

How do progressives cut a way through the noise? This issue explores lessons from across the UK and beyond, to set a course towards a different future.

Rachel Statham, Chris Thomas and Josh Emden

References 

  1. Cutts D, Goodwin M, Heath O and Surridge P (2020) ‘Brexit, the 2019 General Election and the Realignment of British Politics’ The Political Quarterly, 91(1): 7-33. https://onlinelibrary. wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1467-923X.12815
  2. Cutts D, Goodwin M, Heath O and Surridge P (2020) ‘Brexit, the 2019 General Election and the Realignment of British Politics’ The Political Quarterly, 91(1): 7-33. https://onlinelibrary. wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1467-923X.12815
  3. Sobelewska M and Ford R (2020) Brexitland: diversity, identity and the reshaping of British politics.
  4. Cramme O, Diamond P and McTernan M (Eds) (2014) Progressive politics after the crash: governing from the left.
  5. Grant ZP and Tilley J (2018) ‘Fertile soil: explaining variation in the success of Green parties’ West European Politics 42(3): 495-516. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10. 1080/01402382.2018.1521673
  6. Jung C, Dibb G and Patel P (2021) ‘Boost it like Biden’, IPPR. https://www.ippr.org/research/publications/boost-it-like-biden
  7. Foos F and Bischof D (2021) ‘Tabloid media campaigns and public opinion: Quasi-experimental evidence on Euroscepticism in England’. http://www.florianfoos.net/resources/Foos_Bischof_ Hillsborough_APSA.pdf