Keir Starmer should take a leaf from Joe Biden’s book when it comes to building a progressive coalition
The British Labor Party and its leader, Keir Starmer, are engaged in a furious self-flagellation after a series of local elections in England where they lost ground in the traditional working class and industrial areas of the West Midlands and North, and lost a high-profile parliamentary by-election to Hartlepool.
Eighteen months after abandoning Jeremy Corbyn – arguably the worst leader in the party’s history – and a landslide defeat in the 2019 general election, they appear to have stood still. The party drew 35 percent of the vote back then and is still no more than 35 percent now, around 10 percent behind the Tories. The situation is dire enough that spokespersons are hanging on to crumbs of comfort, including unlikely council seat wins in Tory strongholds like Worthing and Chipping Norton.
Maybe Labor should consider themselves lucky. They are part of the three major European social democratic parties, alongside the German SPD and the Swedish social democrats. Their German counterparts currently only poll 15%, well behind the Greens at 25%, and have been on a downward trajectory in the Länder and federal elections for years.
Sweden’s Social Democrats are in government, but currently 26% in the polls, after falling from 28% in the last general election, which in itself was a disastrous drop from heights of 50% or more during the party’s heyday .
In all three countries (and others like France, Italy and Spain, where the situation is generally worse), there is nostalgia for the past: the glory days of Tony Blair or Clem Attlee en Grande. -Brittany, Willy Brandt or Helmut Schmidt in Germany and Tage Erlander or Olaf Palme in Sweden.
The problem, activists complain, is the lack of a leader to inspire and a lack of “vision.” “We need a return to socialist values,” they say, or some other way of reconnecting with voters who have gone elsewhere.
Absurdity. Even if these parties were ruled by reincarnations of their former heroes, they would struggle. The nature of politics has changed. It is no longer primarily about social class or the degree of enthusiasm for public spending and ownership. We now have “identity politics” in which the “right” parties – with varying success – represent “cultural conservatism”: the traditional values and prejudices of nation, race or religion and the “soil policy”.
The antitheses are “progressive parties” which, on the other hand, are inclusive, liberal, outward-looking and for the wider “public good”: social democrats, liberals and greens. In Britain, the Labor Party, Liberal Democrats and Greens together currently represent 50% of voter preferences, excluding the 6% of Celtic nationalists who also self-identify as ” progressive”.
In Germany, a progressive “traffic light” coalition of the SPD, the liberal FDP and the Greens currently holds 51% of the vote. The Swedish Social Democrats, as well as the two Liberal and Green parties hold 43% but form a majority with the Communists who, in Sweden, are not very Communists and often work in Social Democratic coalitions.
The numbers are a snapshot and could obviously change in the heat of an election. But, far from a history of relentless decline and marginalization, the “progressive” parties taken together represent a (small) majority of public opinion. They have no reason to be apologetic, defensive and pessimistic; but everyone needs to see themselves as part of a larger movement.
In countries where there is proportional voting, such as Sweden and Germany, the emergence of “progressive” coalitions is a matter of choice. For tactical reasons, the German Greens and the Social Democrats may not want to work together. Liberals may fear losing their identity. Swedish Social Democrats may regard the Center Liberal Party as insufficiently progressive. These are complacent luxuries that are affordable in proportional voting systems where the public gets a government not too far removed from their preferences.
The problems are much more serious in countries without proportional voting like the United Kingdom (or the United States). The inability of British “progressive” parties to think beyond narrow tribal identity and recognize their common interest is crippling. Their fragmentation has been the main reason for the failure to stop a ‘hard’ EU Brexit. He promises to give the Conservatives years and maybe decades in power.
And the Tories ruthlessly bolster their hegemony by suppressing voters (identity documents for voting), intimidating independent broadcasters (muzzling the BBC) and justice (cutting the wings of the Supreme Court) and feeding their supporters with tasty pork from the public spending barrel.
Yet progressive parties still bicker and indulge in the narcissism of small differences. Small parties are excited by small victories and campaigns they have no chance of winning. The Labor Party is doing everything it can to stigmatize the Liberal Democrats for their past complicity in the evil of “austerity” which they would no doubt have pursued had they been in power. The Greens are “holier than you” with the two rivals. Small local grievances and dislikes invariably take precedence over the big picture.
The three parties are now fishing from the same pool of progressive voters mainly at the expense of each other. And the dominant player – the Labor Party – seems to have no strategy beyond the hope that in the distant future a roll of the electoral dice will produce the magic number of seats. In the meantime, progressive voters in Scotland may well decide that a faster and safer way to get the kind of politics they want is to create their own country.
There is a better way and the US is giving some clues as to how it can be done. US policy, aided by the primary system, encourages factions and insurgents to operate through the two-party system rather than fragmenting it. The costs of involving third parties in the presidential elections were demonstrated quite clearly by the American Green Party campaign in 2000, which helped offer the presidency to George W. Bush in a very close fight against Al Gore.
Nonetheless, one of the remarkable achievements of the Biden presidency, at least so far, has been the creation of an effective progressive coalition ranging from relatively conservative Democratic senators and corporate funders to idealistic young activists of the left in the camp of Bernie Sanders. The coalition is not as diverse as the one that united under Roosevelt’s New Deal and ranged from segregationists in the South to radical socialists, but it united to win a crucial election and then to get results. To an admiring foreigner, this sounds like adult politics.
How could this maturity and discipline be transplanted to the UK? The difficult but crucial first step is for the progressive opposition parties to simply recognize that unless they stand together, they will be suspended separately. This means a prior understanding of how to fight future elections. At the very least, tacit recognition of each other’s priority seats is essential and, better yet, would be an explicit deal of the type of the Liberal Democrats and the Greens negotiated in 2019, but which failed in the absence of Labor.
Discussions in this direction are taking place across the country, with the formation of de facto coalitions within local government and the emergence of cross-party forums like Compass. But they currently lack support and encouragement from the top. Mr Starmer could “step up a gear” by taking the lead in this trialogue, clearly moving away from the Labor Party “another uprising” brigade.
To make sure the effort is a real campaign – not just a math – it should seek common ground around a progressive agenda for the government, based on quick-acting policy measures of the kind Biden was able to do. implement in a few months. Political reform is essential to this program to ensure that future elections are held on a proportional basis.
It is easier to talk about building coalitions than it is to do so. But until the various “progressive” parties think of themselves – and act – as part of something bigger, they are doomed to frustrated helplessness.