Progressive Futures

In it to win it

22 September 2017

Lessons from Montreal

Alex Porter

Last weekend hundreds of progressives from around the world gathered together for Global Progress 2017 – a yearly opportunity for politicians, thought leaders and experienced campaigners from the centre left to exchange ideas, share success stories and dissect our shortcomings as we face the challenges of tomorrow.

Policy Network has proudly been organising such get togethers for almost two decades. To even the most casual observer, it is clear that the progressive cause is in a very different place now compared with the late 90s, when the coming millennium seemed to hail a new progressive future as centre-left politics took a dominant role around the world.

Electorally, the centre left has taken a beating in recent months. In 2017 alone, traditional social democratic parties have suffered painful defeats in the Netherlands, Ireland, France and Norway – and this weekend we are likely to see the centre left in Germany once again fail to end Angela Merkel’s reign as chancellor.

Progressive values are under assault from divisive rightwing nationalism and anti-immigrant sentiment with the surge in support that far-right parties have enjoyed across Europe, perhaps most clearly depicted in the divisive vote in Britain last June to leave the European Union.

But it is not only from the right that progressive politics is under threat. On the left as well, populists have responded to the challenges of globalisation with calls to look inward, pull away from the rest of the world by instituting protectionist economic policies and resist the innovation that technological change brings, rather than respond to its challenges with forward-looking economic thinking.

However, this year’s summit was far from a tired doom-and-gloom conversation. While all delegates were concerned by problems of climbing inequality, unremitting climate change and an increasingly divisive political debate, the sense of hope and energy in the room was palpable. Not least as we heard from Jacinda Ardern who, even if she doesn’t succeed in her campaign against Bill English tomorrow, has overseen an incredible turnaround in New Zealand Labour’s fortunes since she took over the leadership at the beginning of August.

This year, we were pleased to return to Montreal, where we were hosted by the thinktank Canada 2020, and to hear from Justin Trudeau who – despite facing the tough decisions all governing parties do in office – is managing to retain popular support and demonstrate the need for progressive governance to face the global challenges of climate change, empowering women and minorities, and resisting the populist right.

Of course, to replicate and build on such progress, we need to start winning again in our corners of the world. This means building truly modern campaigns, designed for a public debate that is increasingly held online, as well as cultivating messages that cut through against divisive and populist opponents.

A theme that came up time and time again was the need to push back against populist rhetoric not through dismissing the regressive and often bigoted views it represents – but standing up for social liberalism and redistributive economics with a positive message.

As John Podesta conceded in his speech, the failure of Hillary Clinton’s campaign to reach the “back row” of American society that Donald Trump managed to mobilise, shows that we cannot rely on simply pointing out our opponents’ flaws. We must advocate our progressive values as the surest path to a richer, more cohesive and happier society – regardless of the personality or incompetence of our opposing candidates.

If we are to win, we must be progressive not just in our policies and messaging, but also one step ahead in our campaigns, embracing the newest technology and making expert use of voter data and the ever-changing social media landscape. In his presentation, Tom Pitfield of Data Sciences was able to demonstrate the power of data in building a solid and snowballing digital campaign to elect Trudeau in 2015, and it is this kind of technology that we cannot afford to shy away from as we continue to build and strengthen our field operations.

September 2016 feels a world away. As Europe reeled from the Brexit vote, the rest of the world had little idea what was about to come their way as a victory for Donald Trump still seemed a laughable proposition. With a string of elections due over the next few months, it is likely that the next time we meet it will be in a new political climate that at the moment feels impossible to predict. But if we keep up these conversations, keep pushing one another to fight stronger campaigns, with big ideas and positive messages, hope remains strong that progressives can make our world not great again, but greater than it ever has been.