Whether you call it centrism or progressive politics, it’s back

  • Progressives are winning again: it’s vital we learn from them.

  • Chuka Umunna MP

It’s fashionable to claim that progressive politics has been in decline across the western world since the global financial crash of 2008, that progressive politicians don’t know what they stand for anymore, and that parties of the far right and far left have been insurgent.

But just because others on the extremes may not agree with their politics, it does not mean these activists, politicians and thinkers – a group that includes me – have no politics. For ours is a politics that promotes individual freedom but understands it relies on strong collective provision and an active state to be realised.

We believe in reciprocity, which requires an inclusive economy that rewards those who work hard and play by the rules, while caring for those who can’t support themselves. We are advocates of a rebalancing of power between capital, labour and the consumer, and rigorous competition to keep the balance of power in check.

At the core of our beliefs is the value of work – yet we acknowledge there is more to life than work. Family life, in all its forms, and the importance of the place where people live are the building blocks of the communitarian ideals to which progressives subscribe.

We don’t wish to subvert democracy but to enhance it by ensuring decisions are taken at the lowest possible level. We are unapologetically patriotic and internationalist in orientation too.

It is true that many progressive political parties have been on a losing streak in some countries since the crisis. The centre-left administrations of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown lost power in 2010, having won three general elections in a row since 1997. In elections last year, the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) got 20.5 per cent of the vote, and the Dutch Labour Party (PvdA) got just 5.7 per cent of the vote. This year Matteo Renzi’s Democratic Party lost office on 23 per cent of the vote to the ugly extremes of left and right in Italy.

But this does not tell the whole story. There is a new generation of politicians, mostly in their late thirties and forties, leading the progressive charge internationally. These politicians respect the achievements of the wave of “third way” leaders of the Nineties and Noughties, but also recognise times have changed, which means different, modern solutions to today’s problems. They often get lumped in with the leaders of the past – but the big difference between this generation and the earlier generation of progressives is that their politics has been formed in a post-crash world.

They are illustrating that “modernising” does not mean going down a “neoliberal” avenue (a point I have made here before). More and more of them are showing it is possible to win, in what some call an age of populism, on a popular progressive platform.

Forty-six-year-old Justin Trudeau took the Liberal Party in Canada from third place on 18.91 per cent back into office with 39.5 per cent of the vote in 2015. His party has been polling around the 38 per cent mark this year and he has won plaudits recently for standing up Donald Trump on a number of issues, not least in the trade dispute between the two countries. In their first two years in office his government welcomed refugees, increased child benefit and invested heavily in early learning and childcare, advanced reconciliation with Canada’s indigenous peoples, put gender equality front and centre of their programmes, and lowered small business taxes to help entrepreneurs.

New Zealand Labour’s 38-year-old Jacinda Ardern – who describes herself as a “progressive” and a “social democrat” – became leader of her party just three months before their general election in October 2017. She went on to become prime minister of a coalition government after substantially increasing Labour’s vote share. In her first budget she ploughed billions more into health and education and her government declared it would be the first in the world to measure its success by the improvement of its people’s wellbeing, all in a fiscally responsible way.

Spain’s prime minister, Pedro Sanchez, also aged 46, took the reins of a minority government in June this year, vowing to end brutal spending cuts and the austerity of his right wing-predecessor Mariano Rajoy. On his appointment, the centre-left PSOE leader pledged to “transform and modernise” his country, improving job security and fighting inequality. He forced through a law to remove the remains of the fascist dictator Franco from the mausoleum he built in Madrid.

Last week, he and his coalition allies agreed a budget pact to implement a 21 per cent rise in the Spanish minimum wage, the largest ever increase. Further government spending on public services is to be funded by measures including a 3 per cent tax on big tech companies and a tax on the super-rich.

Sanchez released an eight-point declaration with fellow progressive Emmanuel Macron of France in July, in which the two pledged to work together on immigration seeking “a migratory model based on solidarity and respect for human rights”, on eurozone integration and on reform of the EU. Many, of course, cite the election of Macron and the formation of En Marche! in 2017 as further evidence of the progressive renaissance.

Of course, these leaders have already had their ups and downs, and by the time they face fresh national elections, they will bear the scars of incumbency. But what is without doubt is that there has been a changing of the guard.

While these new leaders have emerged, the debate in the UK has been stuck along two tramlines: the battle between the hard left and so-called “centrism”, principally in the Labour Party, too often framed by claimed allegiances to leaders of another generation; or one that seeks to pitch metropolitan, Remain-voting Britain against blue-collar Brexit-voting Britain. But the debate could be about so much more than this if we could lift our sights beyond the domestic to the international, drawing on fresh ideas and initiatives shown to work by progressives in power.

This month, The Progressive Centre UK, a new think tank and network of progressives – to which I have been appointed chair – launches with the explicit aim of connecting progressives from across the UK with the latest ideas and experience from across the globe. As it happens, Ardern, Trudeau and Sanchez were all involved in the gathering the centre co-sponsored in Canada last month, organised by the Global Progress network. Progressives are winning again: it’s vital we learn from them instead of allowing ourselves to be locked in the stale, boring, polarised nonsense that characterises too much debate in UK politics.