The Anglo-American Centre-Left and the immediate question of agency

The Democrats and the Labour Party have been on the defensive for too long. Winning again requires a progressive re-radicalization of politics

David CoatesThe primary problem faced by the Centre-Left in both the US and the UK is not ultimately one of programme. Adequate policy proposals abound. The problem lies rather in the lack of electoral support for such proposals, and in the internal weaknesses of the political parties available for their dissemination and delivery. The weakness of the Centre-Left in both countries, therefore, is less that one of policy than it is of agency.

In the United States, the Democrats have been losing ground steadily since 2010, and doing so despite holding the White House until 2017. Currently more than two-thirds of all US states are run by Republican governors, the ranks of state legislators contain at least 9,000 fewer Democrats than they did a decade ago, and the White House is now lost. So even as an electoral machine, the Democratic Party is not performing adequately; and it is an inadequacy firmly rooted in the fact that too many local Democratic Parties see themselves as just that, as mere electoral machines. They raise money. Every two or four years, they canvass; and between elections they hunt out candidates. But what they do not then do is hold those candidates tightly accountable to a previously agreed set of policies and principles. Only Republicans – from Tea Party activists to socially-conservative evangelicals – do that. It is time, therefore, for the Democrats to recognize that they must take a leaf from their opponent’s play-book, and forge a party held together by programme and by ideology rather than simply by money and electioneering. It is also time for centrist Democrats to recognize what the election result in 2016 made abundantly clear to the rest of us: namely that the future electoral success of progressive forces in the United States lies with the Sanders’ wing of the Party, and no longer with the Clintonites. Indeed, the sooner Democrats unite around those two recognitions, the quicker the Party’s electoral fortunes will begin once more to turn.

At the very least, therefore, in this next phase of defensive battles against Republican excess and Trump bombast, the Democratic Party needs to stay together as a federal as well as a state/local force between elections, and to widen its understanding of what winning elections entails. Donald Trump will do his best to recruit for them, by generating one excess after another; and as he does so, the Democrats will need to resolve how best to articulate the identity politics they have been playing effectively for the last four decades with the class politics they pursued so successfully through the New Deal period. By not articulating those two things well in the last 25 years, the Party lost contact with key parts of its white working-class base. Getting those votes back, without losing other demographics, requires nothing less than the rekindling of a broad class alliance around issues of poverty and rights, as well as around issues of identity and rights.

The Sanders’ 2016 campaign focus on income inequality constituted an important moment in the building of that new alliance, but the Democratic Party now needs more than merely a critique of millionaires and billionaires. It needs a critique of the interplay of class and power at every level of contemporary US society, and not just at the top. It needs to offset the Republican Party’s presentation of Americans as simply consumers with that of Americans as also workers. The party needs to make worker rights and trade union growth as central to American freedom as civil rights and equal protection under the law, and focus on making the Democratic Party not simply more progressive but also more social democratic.

That will not be easy, because America is ultimately a country of edges and middles, with some version of a social democratic (in US terms, New Deal) culture still firmly entrenched on the West Coast and in parts of the East, but largely missing in vast swathes of the middle of the country, particularly in the South. Things should progress more rapidly in the UK because there, by contrast, political culture is far more social democratic than it is libertarian, and as much shaped by ‘One Nation’ Toryism as it is by neoliberalism of the Thatcherite variety. The Labour Party therefore has far less of an uphill battle on its hands than do American Democrats to persuade people that the public provision of welfare services, for example, is both necessary and superior to any privately-provided equivalent. And yet for all that Labour out-performed expectations in 2017, the fact that the party has now lost three elections in a row since 2010 tells us just how weak programmatically it had become by the end of its 13 years in power, and how tarnished the Party remains by its long New Labour dalliance with Thatcherism.

As Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership is quietly demonstrating, the Labour Party needs to rebuild an electoral base for itself that is as passionate and as committed as the Democratic Party will soon enjoy as the limits of the Republicans’ austerity policies reveal themselves, and as opposition to Trump excesses grows. That rebuilding requires Labour to continue to sharpen its critique of its own immediate past as New Labour, and to fill the ranks of the Parliamentary Party with a new and more radical generation of politicians untainted by that past. The call is currently on, from every current of opinion within the broad Labour-Party tent, for the Party to reconnect to key groups of voters, to re-establish public confidence in its economic competence, and to make clear its underlying vision. Of course, it must do those things: but Labour will not achieve any of them if, as some Blairites now propose, rather than breaking with its New Labour past it prioritizes instead the immediate concerns of Conservative marginal voters in the south and the midlands, and redefines its central task as that of reversing the drift away from voters in southern England. For the new and predominantly young membership that flowed into the Labour Party to support the Corbyn leadership spoke to a wider recognition that there is no “southern England, centrist” route back to power for UK Labour. The Conservative Government is completely in control of that pass out of the mountains. To regain power, and to regain it on terms that will enable that power to be used for progressive ends, Labour – like its Democratic equivalent in the United States – has no real choice but to turn itself again into a movement of principled social reform and economic regeneration, and then to show both the sense and the courage to invite its electorate to join it in the many struggles that will ensue.

For ultimately there are only two ways of reconnecting a party to its voters: reconnection by transforming the party, or reconnection by transforming the voters. A truly progressive political party has no genuine option – if its progressive goals are ultimately to be achieved – but to prioritize the second of those: the transformation of its electorate. On both sides of the Atlantic, the Centre-Left has been on the defensive for far too long, letting conservative voices set the political agenda and the specification of the legitimate range of public policy. The consequences of that defensive stance have been, and remain, appalling. We can, and we need, to do better than a Trump presidency and a Conservative-led Brexit. The time, and the opportunity, for the progressive re-radicalization of politics is at hand in both the US and the UK. It is a time and an opportunity that need not be, and must not be, wasted.

This blog is drawn from David Coates’ chapter in his new edited book Reflections on the Future of the Left published by Agenda Publishing this month. The book features contributions from Dean Baker, Fred Block, Hilary Wainwright, Colin Crouch, Wolfgang Streeck, Leo Panitch, Sam Gindin and Matthew Watson.