Progressive Futures

We need a centre-left revolution, not patching

22 September 2017
Wes Streeting

It is easy to forget that the world enjoys an unprecedented degree of peace and prosperity, but as delegates from across Europe, North America and Australasia gathered in Montreal for this year’s Global Progress it was against a backdrop of mixed domestic political fortunes and anxiety about the future of liberal and social democracy.

The benefits of globalisation and economic growth are being unevenly distributed and people are acutely aware of their own relative disadvantage. Across Europe and the United States of America, people are sending a clear message to their leaders: that they feel left behind, that they feel unheard and that they feel dislocated in a world that is changing around them. There’s something a little ironic about the emergence of a global movement against globalisation, but it’s not hard to understand what’s driving it.

Since the global financial crisis of 2008, the biggest gains have been made by the richest. Since the 60s and 70s, communities whose jobs have been reliant on their strengths in traditional manufacturing have been hollowed out through a combination of labour-saving technology and outsourcing elsewhere. And young people across advanced economies face the prospect of growing up to be poorer than their parents.

At times of economic upheaval and with pressures on livelihoods, history tells us that people can become fearful and resentful. In the United Kingdom, we saw that resentment writ large during the EU referendum campaign, Donald Trump capitalised on it during the US presidential election and while Emmanuel Macron’s sensational victory saw off the threat of a fascist occupying the Élysée Palace, across Europe the far right is resurgent.

As David Miliband argued in his powerful tour de force, our politics is under assault from a centre right, stealing our clothes, a populist right, stealing our core voters; and a sectarian left, laying claim to our party structures.

How do we respond? Three days in Montreal didn’t provide all of the answers, but there were some common themes emerging.

Firstly, to defend the gains made through globalisation – not least for the world’s poorest – we need, as Policy Network’s President Peter Mandelson put it, to be more honest and outspoken about its downsides and committed to real reform. The global financial crisis has put a premium on challenging economic orthodoxy. The risk is that voters are left with a choice between old school leftwing protectionism and rightwing deregulation. Neither offer answers to the pain that communities across western democracies are experiencing.

Second, we need to reinvent the international system to counter the myth that international institutions are too strong, when in reality they are too weak. We see this reflected in the global response to the refugee crisis, to climate change and international trade. It is a great irony that so many British voters, angry at the excesses of multinational corporations and the global economic system, voted to leave an institution that better equips our nation to manage it.

Both of these tasks become more urgent in the context of the Fourth Industrial Revolution that is driving change on an unprecedented pace and scale. We need to invest in education and skills to prepare people for the future world of work, put in place social protections for people who lose their jobs and helping them to re-skill and retrain, and support communities affected by the loss of traditional industry, to avoid the intergenerational scarring effect we’ve seen in communities affected by the decline of traditional manufacturing and heavy industry. We have to use our international alliances to prevent a race to the bottom, with new global agreements on employment rights and protections, standards and pay – including ending our indifference to grotesque pay inequality.

For too long, in too many parts of the world, the centre left have been out of office and out of answers. Our job is to appeal to people’s hopes and aspirations by providing real answers to the challenges facing our country. The appearance of New Zealand’s insurgent Labour leader Jacinda Ardern, seemingly on her way to victory in their general election provided a real-time example of what is possible.

Seventy five years ago the great Liberal, William Beveridge, authored a report that was to become the cornerstone of the transformational state created by the postwar British Labour government in 1945. In his foreword he argued that “a revolutionary moment in the world’s history is a time for revolutions, not for patching”. We need to provide centre-left answers to this revolutionary moment.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com / Vlad G