Progressive Futures

Towards a progressive insurgency

22 September 2017

There is an urgent need to save social democracy and save our future. We need to hear what voters are saying. 

Lodewijk Asscher

Last week it was wonderful to be back with friends in Montreal. Exactly a year beforehand, I spoke in the same city at Global Progress 2016. It feels like yesterday and, at the same time, like a century ago.

In my talk last year, I warned our progressive congregation against the Pavlov reflex of smirking at voters of populist rightwing parties. I criticised Hillary Clinton for her ‘basket of deplorables’ snub.

It is quite likely that you are not aware of what happened shortly afterwards. I am not referring to Trump – it would be hard to miss that one – but to what happened across the ocean in the Netherlands. I went on to run for party leader, won that contest and then suffered a crushing, historical defeat in the Dutch general election. This proves the point that it is always easier to see the flaws in others than to do things right for yourself.

Now I — and I’m not proud about it — hold two national records: First for suffering the biggest loss ever, and second for being the longest acting deputy prime minister since the World War II. On the second record the clock is still ticking because, after our experience, no one quite has the guts anymore to enter government.

And so, as negotiations have continued over the last six months I have been rebuilding my party – but I still wake up deputy prime minister every morning.

So, what happened?

In the 2012 election my party, the PvdA, was elected with almost 25% of the vote, joining a grand coalition as a junior partner during a time of economic recession. We worked hard to improve the state of our economy, on reducing unemployment and balancing the budget – and we can now boast the highest rate of growth in the Eurozone.

And, critically for us as progressives, as we improved our economy, we shared the gains, redistributing heavily to keep income inequality at our famously low level.

GINI-coefficients for various countries:

Then we got crushed.


You can see the stark difference in the results of the elections of September 2012 and of March 2017. Even the red counties above, are not ‘our’ counties, but counties in which the leftwing Socialist Party won the most votes.

In the wake of this defeat, it was inspiring and energising to come to global progress and meet with friends who know progressive politics matter but who do not surround themselves with dread – but dare to dream out loud. Instead of dwelling on defeat and blaming others, it is up to us to act to achieve the progress we want for our societies, rather than merely commenting on the future we fear.

Progressives and social democrats have achieved huge successes in the past, making great strides in attaining equality and security in the 20th century. It was our movement that built welfare states like my own. Workers’ rights, universal health care, social security – you name it, we fixed it. Or so we thought. In fact, ‘mission accomplished’ was a widespread sentiment by the end of last century, with progressive governments in power across the western world.

But then came 9/11, globalisation, automation. We saw the wealth of the richest 1% grow and a financial crisis that had to be paid for by the 99%. While our economies recovered and continued to grow, beneath the figures something had changed in our societies. The confidence that we were all moving forward, together, had crumbled.

Maslow’s pyramid

If you believe that social democracy has delivered on its objectives, we now need only worry about the top two layers of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. With our basic needs met, we can concern ourselves with the search for self-actualisation.

And while some of us have the luxury of pursuing these goals, fanatically practising yoga or mindfulness, many people are living in times of great uncertainty and anxiety.

Just this month we saw some of the clearest results of climate change with extreme storms destroying homes and lives – often of those people who were already the most vulnerable members of our societies. We see homegrown terrorist killing with rented vans in streets we know well. Globalisation has stretched communities’ sense of unity to breaking point and social security has been cut to pay for the financial crisis. Finding and keeping a solid, rewarding job has become the preserve of the happy few.

And with this uncertainty, the debate on identity has permeated our politics. Voters express a longing for community pride, the need for a sense of belonging and the fear of change.

All of these trends have one thing in common. They threaten the bottom three layers of the Maslow Pyramid, and they hit those in the ‘back row’ of our politics hardest – those who feel left behind. It is an existential threat now that needs to be answered.

The right tapped into this uncertainty and anxiety much earlier than we did. Populists and conservatives have found a common language. They have successfully reframed government and immigrants as the problem, with progressives as the establishment and themselves as heroes of the common man.

Identity politics can stoke the fire. Like in the Weimar Republic, adversaries and the press are systematically ridiculed, intimidated, hampered.

So what should be our answer as progressives? Let me turn to the late, great Dutch footballer, Johan Cruyff, who once said that Italians will certainly not win a football match against you but you can easily lose one to them.

The same goes for identity politics. Progressives will not win elections with identity politics. Yet by ignoring or responding to such politics in the wrong way we can certainly lose!

We know that to build a better future we need to provide real security, addressing issues of both economy and identity – who we are and what we do. Public goods are the only way to foster progress. Not just progress for a meritocratic class of well-educated people but progress for all. This means access to good education for all, universal healthcare and affordable housing.

We will need to be more radical in our ambition to restore this sense of security and individual progress. We will have to tame international capital and enforce labour rights. To end the trend of growth accumulating in the pockets of just the top 10%, we will need to force major change, tax capital and unionise the gig economy.

We also need to eliminate the language that accompanies a neo-liberal economic perspective. We must quash the idea that it is simply a matter of choice to attend college and achieve success, and recognise that growing inequality is making it harder for many people to advance in this way.

Redistribution is crucial to secure a fairer society, but it is not sufficient.

We need to protect public goods against erosion through the frame of ‘market efficiency’. This means keeping schools, healthcare and police services in the remit of small communities, while we build neighbourhoods where people feel known in our big cities. As we build more social housing, we must also fight speculation on the housing market. And we need to fight racism as we work to control migration, celebrating progress and embracing diversity and shared values.

Coming together in Montreal provided an opportunity to strengthen one another, exchange ideas and build strategies to defeat the right. The cynicism of the White House can’t be defeated by copying or ignoring it. We must be bold and creative – and we must use the strength of the masses.

For example, my colleague and our trade and foreign development minister, Liliane Ploumen, responded to Donald Trump by setting up the She Decides Fund. This initiative started with small donations of just a few euros by private citizens, fighting to protect the women’s reproductive rights that Trump set out to destroy. Now the fund stands at €300 million, and will only inspire others to be bold and unapologetic in their progressive resolve.

We have to learn from our mistakes and hear what our voters our telling us, but we can never give up on the knowledge that progressive politics is the surest route to improving people’s lives.

As we work to understand our defeats, we must not give in to populism but start our own progressive insurgency. If we do, we will start winning elections again and, crucially, be able to deliver collective security and real progress for all.


Image credit: CC via astoller