Progressives need to reclaim the mantle of change, and need a charismatic leader, argues John McTernan.
What is the story of the European elections? Across Europe – the forward march of populism halted. Across the UK – the collapse of Labour and the Conservatives, the two dominant British parties of the last century, and the rise of Nigel Farage and the Brexit Party.
What does it mean for progressives? In truth, it’s great but challenging news. Let’s start with the challenge. In one word – Farage. Say that name anywhere in the UK and you get an image of a middle aged man with a fag and a beer. A man surrounded by a happy supportive crowd united by a common political vision. Mobilised and radicalized by a desire for a changed future.
Look once, as an urban progressive, at this image and you bristle. You can’t help feeling this is back to the future. Look twice and you see that the welcome for Nigel Farage is strongest in the Welsh valleys, the Nottinghamshire coal fields, and Teeside – the foundational places of the British Labour party and labour movement.
Why is Farage and his Brexit party so celebrated – and so supported – in what were once unassailable Labour strongholds? It is because he stands for change. Where once progressives were the utopians, he has now taken the title. While progressives stand for modest, technocratic change delivered by managerialist politicians. What Jaroslav Hašek, author of the classic Czech novel ‘The Good Soldier Švejk’ satirically termed ‘The Party of Moderate Progress Within the Bounds of the Law’. In our hearts we know the problem – these are times of transformational change, and our politics offers incremental improvements – at best.
What should we do? First, to adapt Stuart Hall on Thatcher, when someone wins three times – as Nigel Farage has, in the 2014 and 2019 Euro elections and the 2016 referendum – we should read and listen to everything he has said until we understand his appeal. And reject our preconceptions – we want to believe he is a reactionary, so we make him one. We define his dreams of a better world as nostalgia for the past. But we should understand them as dreams – and remember that we were the dreamers once.
But we should understand not to emulate but to defeat. Whole sight, as John Fowles once wrote of Rembrandt’s self-portrait in Kenwood House in London, or all the rest is desolation.
What would that give us? First an understanding of the Farage appeal, but second a true scoping of the terrain – and that is good for us.
Understandably, we are concerned with the crisis of the left – which is real and actual. But we normally overlook the deeper crisis of the right. Farage and the Brexit party are a symptom of the changed nature of UK – and European politics.
Step backwards and what you see are the broad forces of the right and left – both in crisis, but in very different ways. Traditional conservatives are seeing their vote devoured by parties of the populist right – the British Conservatives are a great example but look too at the French Republicans. (And who now remembers the Italian Christian Democrats – the party of government for decades). These parties are tempted to move to engage with populist parties – but as Austria shows, there is a cost. More difficult for them is that as conservatives they are eaten from both sides. A better educated, more globalized, urban, professional, middle class is no longer bound by class, culture and habit to centre–right parties.
These urban middle classes are potentially the new decisive group in European politics. Liberal in social values, supportive of competitive markets, concerned about the environment – they are available for progressive politics in its broadest sense. It is no coincidence that the growth in the UK and across politics is in a strengthening of liberal and green party representation. In Britain it had specific local roots – Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party being ambivalent on Brexit while progressive voters overwhelmingly want to Remain in the EU. But the pattern is there in France where Macron’s muscular centrism triumphed as the traditional left and right were obliterated.
There is hope for progressives – there always should be as belief in a better future is at our very core – but like everything in politics it takes hard work. Plus leadership. And charisma. There’s the real, and deeply irritating fact about Nigel Farage – in a field of dull political leaders he has swagger. Boris Johnson offers himself to the Tories as an answer – and he is right to do so, he is a match. Who do progressives in the UK have? The deposed king – Tony Blair. And the prince over the water – David Miliband.
The victory of ideals must be organized, as Harold Wilson used to say, but it also needs a champion.
About the author
John Mcternan is Senior Vice President for PSB Research. He is a former advisor to Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Julia Gillard.