What progressives must do

7 September 2020

As we work to shape the ‘new normal’, the left must be the voice of those who kept the nation going during these difficult times, and must condemn those who pursued their own interests.

John Denham

It’s a paradox that the global health and economic disaster of COVID-19 is being understood as a series of national experiences. A disease that is killing people everywhere is judged more by its impact on individual countries than by its toll on humanity as a whole. When political systems and institutions come under stress they reveal a great deal about the deepest and most visceral instincts of the public and politicians. The response to COVID-19 leaves no doubt that it is the nation, and not internationalism, to which most turn. We expect our national governments, not our international institutions, to lead even in response to the most internationalised crisis for 80 years. Publics have looked to national leaders to deliver on public health, oversee prudent lockdowns (and relaxation), sustain health and care services, to control borders, and to foster economic recovery. We may look at what others are doing but haven’t wanted to be coordinated by or with others if it does not suit our national circumstances.

The left cannot ignore this primacy of the nation. It won’t go away once the ‘new normal’ is established, whenever that may be. Any hopes that the shock of COVID-19 will give impetus to the urgent measures needed to avert climate disaster or reshape our economies rest on the left’s ability to get progressive national politics right. Of course, the weakness of international cooperation is a disaster. We are suffering through the worst leaders of major powers in many generations. The malign incompetence of President Trump and the aggressive and illiberal assertion of Chinese power under President Xi provide an umbrella under which a host of ‘mini-me populists’ govern the likes of Russia, Turkey, Hungary and many other places besides. International cooperation is undermined and the UN side-lined. Even the EU which stands out as a better managed international organisation than most, and which broke new ground in its financial support package, has struggled to lead the COVID-19 response within Europe let alone outside.

International institutions will have to be rebuilt but this can’t happen without a foundation of nations that are themselves self-confident and cohesive. The generation of political leaders who might renew internationalism will come from those who are successful in rooting progressive politics in their own nation, not from those who look to internationalism to solve problems that have been neglected at home.

I write from Britain and with an English perspective. Our domestic politics are shaped by the relative autonomy of devolved national governments and the constitutional anomaly whereby England has no domestic administration but is run by the UK government. England’s disastrous record under COVID-19, with the highest excess death rate in Europe, inevitably colours my perspective. But so far as I can see, the importance of the national level applies to most European nations, however successfully or unsuccessfully they have responded, and to reflect the politics of America. COVID-19 may either cut across or reinforce existing political divisions in ways that are particular to each nation.

COVID-19’s political impact will go far beyond the reassertion of the national priority in politics. Because COVID-19 touches all our lives it will inevitably change the way that people view their nations. The importance of previously ‘taken for granted’ workers (not just in health and social care but in distribution, retail, basic environmental services, public transport workers – many of whom have suffered the highest death rates), has been brought home to the more comfortable parts of society. But this unifying impact is also undermined by the extent to which it highlights inequalities in relation to health status, job security, housing adequacy, migration status, and ethnicity. The COVID-19 response has exposed the (in)competence of administrations and technocracies and the inadequacies of social welfare systems and has either built or eroded trust in politicians and political systems depending on how public policy responses played out for people.

How well we have sustained our compliance with lockdown measures provides a test of our social cohesion, and highlights some of the areas where things are beginning to fray. Nations that seemed to pull together three months ago may still yet divide fractiously between young and old, urban and rural, and majority and minority communities.

The left’s response faces many challenges. If we treats COVID-19 simply as an apolitical technocratic issue that simply requires sound policy responses, we will play into the hands of those who want to defend the status quo. Political leaders like Boris Johnson in the UK will wash their hands of governmental failings or the fissures in our nations and be quick to claim, ‘we were all in it together and we came through it together’.

On the other hand, a progressive agenda requires careful construction. Within weeks of the pandemic striking progressive websites were full of blogs explaining why ‘things must never be the same again’. The harsh mirror that COVID-19 has held up to our nations has reinforced the left’s belief that this must be a turning point moment that shifts our economics and societies towards sustainability and equity. But to make that happen the left must win in nations where it currently lacks power or popular support. In 2008, when the left was more widely in power than it is today, the banking crisis did not trigger the left turn that was widely anticipated. (It informed much of the thinking of Labour leader Ed Miliband, for example). Instead it exposed the widespread weakness of the left and saw the rise of national populism. Even though many voters were well aware that the banks had been rescued at the cost of the majority, much of the left was deaf to popular concerns around the political marginalisation of working class communities, the impact of migration, and the remoteness of the political class. The growing gap between the more middle class and cosmopolitan base of the left and much of its traditional electorate became clear.

Today’s radical voices for change face the the same constraints. Telling each other that COVID-19 proves that we’ve always been right about capitalism is not a political strategy. In many ways the global left has become more interconnected than ever before while becoming less well-integrated in its own national politics. Events in US politics often prompt a more excited response in the European left than issues in domestic national politics. In the UK demands to ‘de-fund’ the police suddenly gained support from a metropolitan left that just a few months before was supporting Corbyn’s demand for 10,000 more police officers. The proposal for a new ‘Green New Deal’ generates more excitement when proposed by radical US Democrats than it did when put forward nearly ten years ago by Ed Miliband. There is a real danger that a homogenised international left agenda gets in the way of a genuinely rooted left response to the particular problems of each nation.

The left’s support is weak in those sections of society that have been hit hardest by the pandemic and its aftermath. For many of those people the fastest route to recovery will appear to be the restoration of the economy to the way that it was before, with its full carbon intensity, consumption and waste. In the maw of a global recession, it is understandable why people would focus on ‘getting back to normal’ rather than on any radical new way of ordering society and of doing business. Indeed, this ‘conservatism’ is not reactionary but is to be expected, given the very immediate impacts of crisis.

Progressives need a clear explanation of where the existing structures of government and institutions of economic power succeeded and where they failed. We will need to draw a distinction between how the people have responded with solidarity and discipline and the failures of those in power, between those who kept the nation going and those who pursued their own interests, and between the interests of the nation and governments whose corporate support outstripped the support for the vulnerable.

A progressive left strategy needs to be rooted in the experience of each nation. The left needs to tell a narrative about what happened, the impact it had on different sections of society, and what it told us about the nation we live in. Our critique needs to be focused, not generalised. It needs to draw the links between the problems that have been exposed and the wider public interest, for example: where food security depended on migrant workers, many of whom were living and working in unhealthy conditions; where the living standards of the poorest became a health threat to the wider public; and where online shopping giants have grown rich despite their continued dangerous exploitation of their staff.

But it needs to be a unifying story, rooted in the possibility of a better future for the majority. While the left must respond to both the disproportionate health impact of COVID-19 on BAME communities and the wider issues of racism highlighted by the Black Lives Matter movement, our national stories must clearly embrace all those who have suffered the economic and social consequences of the crisis. In other words, the left’s narrative must be about the nation and engage with national identity. As we work to shape the ‘new normal’ is going to be, the left must be the voice of those who kept the nation going during these difficult times and must condemn those who pursued their own interests.

At the same time, we should also show that we understand why the desire for economic security may come ahead of demands for radical change and we must avoid substituting our agenda for theirs. In the short term we should concentrate on consolidating those changes – for example towards flexible working practices and building on the outburst of mutual aid and solidarity – that the pandemic has opened up and on winning effective responses to those facing unemployment or social exclusion as economies struggle to recover from recession. By winning trust with these foundational issues it will become easier to build an audience for the wider and more radical (and more internationalist) changes that are undoubtedly necessary in our modern world.