The future of the left since 1884

The seeds of recovery

Across Europe populism is on the rise and social democratic parties are taking a blow at the ballot box. Can progressive politicians reset the trajectory they’re currently on? We asked eight experts for the policy ideas that are needed to revive the centre-left.


Long read


The centre-left needs a bold, well-evidenced and systematic vision of fundamental economic reform, demonstrating how a fair economy is also a prosperous and sustainable one. At the heart of this is a new articulation of the role of investment, in driving growth and productivity as well as social progress. IPPR’s recent commission on economic justice sets out one such detailed programme.

For ‘labour’ parties, the clue’s in the name. The way we work is being reformed de facto. Policy must find structural responses to work insecurity, automation, longer working lives and the diminishing role of unions – to say nothing of changes to the labour market that may emerge post-Brexit. We also need new  thinking on ownership – of housing, wealth and other forms of capital.

‘Single issues’ generate campaigning energy, but in a genuinely progressive politics few issues stand alone. The growing recognition that the green agenda is an economic and social as well as an environmental issue is one example.

Fragmentation and the proliferation of electoral options threatens entrenched two-party systems and those who rely on them. Parties across the spectrum need the courage to learn new ways of working in coalitions and partnerships, built perhaps around urgent issues (such as climate change) – or around particular places.

Dynamic localism, enacting a big vision through regional approaches and genuine opportunities for grassroots participation, will help to overcome economic and political disenfranchisement. In many parts of the north where a devolution deal is signed or in the pipeline, centre-left politicians have set out distinctive programmes for regional prosperity and social justice, pursuing inclusive growth and protecting the most vulnerable. What these emboldened local leaders could do with more extensive devolution of powers and a real end to the austerity that curbs their potential we can only imagine. A modern centre-left government could make it a reality.

Anna Round is a senior research fellow at IPPR North

BIG RESPONSES – Anthony Painter

European and US democracies are going through a period of profound upheaval. The glib way of characterising these upheavals is under the umbrella of ‘populism’. But can the rise of political outsiders ranging from Donald Trump to Emmanuel Macron to Jeremy Corbyn to Matteo Salvini be explained as a single political phenomenon? Of course not. And one might add Brexit to this mix. Yet the causes of this disruption by the outsider have some similar roots.

These roots are planted in the financial crash which exposed economic, social and cultural fissures that had been widening for some time. Western societies haven’t yet regained a sense of balance and probably won’t do so for the foreseeable future. A simple desire to return to a period of moderation rather misses the point. There is a clamour for new responses – just no consensus about what they should be.

For the centre-left, there must be a realisation that rather more than technical tweaking and political reversalism is the order of the day. Big responses are needed to resuscitate democracy, address economic insecurity, square up to climate change, reinfuse education with a sense of collective mission, spread access to wealth and capital, radically devolve power to localities and develop a new social contract around good work.

The social democratic centre-left has been slow on the uptake – in most cases as it happens – and, thus, electorally punished. Labour’s strong performance in 2017 is an exception that proves the rule. In resisting paying anything much more than lip service to new ideas such as universal basic income, radical new ideas for local and national participatory democracy, sovereign wealth funds, redistribution of equity capital and a serious conversation about what we expect the state to do and how we pay for it, the centre-left has vacated space.

A whole array of political outsiders have stepped into this space. People are not just demanding answers; they want big shifts and real change.

Anthony Painter is the director of the action and research centre at the RSA and has edited a recent RSA collection Ideas for a 21st Century Enlightenment


The challenge for progressives around the world is whether we can be brave enough to reach out beyond the narrow confines of our core support and put together a policy agenda that answers voters’ legitimate concerns and sets out a clear pathway to a better future.

The centre wins when it looks out beyond the narrow confines of class or culture and builds a coalition of support across the country. A trap many progressives are falling into is doubling down on securing their own vote, stacking up the support of interest groups and not asking the hard questions of how to convince those of different views to support them.

In terms of the policy platform, the answer that stems from the above should be fairly obvious. We need radical but deliverable policies to secure the support of voters across the political divide.

The political context within which progressives now need to operate is one in which the right is defined by responding to fears about the pace of cultural change and the left by concerns of how the benefits of globalisation have been spread. At present, voters therefore face an offer of two competing versions of the past, which, in their own way, are both conservative political platforms. A nationalistic right focused on immigration and an old-style left obsessed with state power as the sole agent for improving lives.

The centre must have answers to the big policy questions animating voters today but these answers must be both radical and forward-looking. Put simply, this requires the creation and articulation of a unifying economic and social message. This will need to include the right policies on immigration that show voters we understand their legitimate concerns, for instance through the introduction of electronic ID cards. On the economy it will mean a total rethink on how we do tax and how we support people as the nature of work changes. On infrastructure it will mean rapidly accelerating plans to link people better both physically – through faster transport links – and virtually – through enhanced internet capabilities.

Critically, it also means having a vision of the future that is optimistic. For progressives this should mean absolutely owning the issue of technology. If we can put together the right agenda on how technology can improve public services, how it can underpin green jobs, with the right mix of answers on how to support people through the journey into the fourth industrial revolution, we have a viable route back to power.

Daniel Sleat is a special adviser to Rt Hon Tony Blair, executive chairman of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change


The need for social democratic renewal in Europe is self-evident after a decade or more of electoral disappointment. We have to be clear about our medium to long-term goals and honest about our successes and our failures. Whatever we did in government in the period before the 2007–09 crisis was insufficient; we failed to create inclusive societies populated by resilient citizens with a voice in the process of economic change. Too many people were left feeling like victims of forces beyond their control.

A useful first step would be to start talking honestly about capitalism again – recognising its strengths as an engine of growth and prosperity, and accepting its weaknesses; unregulated markets create far too many losers. We need therefore, to rethink the relationship between the market and the state. How are concentrations of market power to be controlled and held accountable? Does this require a massive extension of public ownership (I’m sceptical) or changes to the taxation of profits/dividends; a root and branch reform of corporate governance, with workers on boards, a separation of executive decision making and supervisory oversight; measures to enhance industrial democracy such as works councils with strong statutory rights; and a new regime under which corporations must provide comprehensive, transparent information about the management of the workforce?

Most importantly, perhaps, social democrats must affirm their commitment to innovative regional and industrial policies, ensuring that no community is left behind. The causes of Brexit and the rise of the far right have the same roots. A practical agenda for shared prosperity is critical to the success of the mainstream centre-left in the next decade.

And finally, we need to get serious about rebuilding a contribution-based model of social security, with a strong element of universalism, most obviously in the payment of child benefit. Policies like universal basic income are intellectually interesting diversions from this more important political task.

David Coats is the director of WorkMatters Consulting and a research fellow at the Smith Institute. He is the author of Fragments in the ruins: the renewal of social democracy, published by Policy Network


For more than 100 years social democracy was understood as the pursuit of socialist goals through the means of representative democracy with all the ideological compromises that that entailed. To win elections, social democrats moderated their programmes and were pragmatic about the ‘means’ to deliver socialist ‘ends’. In the post-war period, this approach delivered the welfare state and three decades of prosperity, but these results were obtained at a cost. With time, the state became too bureaucratic and too complacent about the market. In other words, social democracy started to lose its ‘social’ and ‘democratic’ values.

The current crisis of the centre-left is partly the result of this approach to social democracy. But progressives can reverse their electoral fortunes by rethinking this formula and placing the emphasis on the ‘democracy’ of social democracy. The focus on democracy has several advantages. Firstly, it is a simple concept that enjoys widespread support. Secondly, a social democratic take on democracy has many radical possibilities.

For social democrats democracy rests on a rich conception of citizenship that entails political, civic and social rights that are exercised in all dimensions of public life. Thus, democracy is not only about sound institutions, the rule of law and the election of representatives, but also about the democratisation of the economy, of the workplace, of local communities, and even of existing political institutions. In practical terms, it implies the regular use of citizens’ assemblies and participatory budgeting; it means workers on company boards, co-operatives and locally run public services; it means greater dialogue between citizens and representative institutions. In short, more democracy can be both the antidote to the atomism and sense of powerlessness promoted by turbo-capitalism and globalisation, and the much-needed tonic that renews social democracy.

Eunice Goes is a professor of politics at Richmond University and author of The Labour Party Under Ed Miliband: Trying But Failing to Renew Social Democracy published by Manchester University


Age is now the best predictor of how people cast their ballots. And age should now be a key factor in a renewal of progressive politics.

Millennials – born between 1980 and 2000 – have lived through the 2008 economic crises and their difficult transition to the job market, financial strains and delayed adulthood have contributed to a sense of uncertainty about their future prospects, when compared to previous generations such as the early-retiring, asset-rich baby boomers.

Against this backdrop, the past few years have seen an upsurge in interest in the concept of ‘intergenerational fairness’, centred on the concern that today’s young people cannot hope to achieve the same prosperity as older generations.

Age is, then, a critical new political cleavage that policy-makers should address and that progressives should tap into.

But intergenerational fairness is still a politically ambiguous concept and it needs to be replaced by a distinct political vision of what a fairer settlement between generations would look like. To this end, I would offer three recommendations:

Progressives, lead the conversation! The concept of intergenerational conflict and its political direction is still up for grabs. Progressives must be clear in their articulation: intergenerational fairness does not mean cutting pensions and setting baby boomers and millennials against each other in a race to the bottom. The progressive vision of intergenerational fairness is one which allows for a policy mix that would cater to expectations across generations.

Progressives, confront the tough choices! Don’t entertain the rhetoric of a war between generations but speak rather about intergenerational justice and how, under a new settlement, citizens would see interests fairly balanced.

Progressives, connect the dots! Intergenerational inequality is linked to other kinds of inequality Evidence shows that a sense of disadvantage is strongest when millennials are most exposed to liberalised economic systems and highly flexible labour markets. For an intergenerationally-redistributive policy to be defensible, it needs to target wealth within age cohorts. Otherwise it could actually become a regressive policy if it penalises an interest group such as baby boomers as a single category – not all seniors are equally well off.

Maria Freitas is a policy adviser at FEPS, the European progressive political foundation


There isn’t one ‘magic bullet’ which is going to save social democracy. But there are lessons we can learn in Britain from those countries that are translating innovative ideas into electoral success. What links these winning approaches can be described in two words – positivity and change.

I’m just back from New Zealand and what was striking meeting with prime minister Jacinda Ardern and her team was how their relentless positivity has been central to Kiwi Labour’s rapid renaissance. As the sharpest political analyst in Wellington, Josie Pagani, described the situation before Ardern’s overnight accession to the leadership on the eve of last year’s general election: “The message from Labour was often ‘your life is miserable, New Zealand is a dreadful place and getting worse, the world is scary, don’t let it in, and by the way you’re fat – vote for us!” It’s a message I find British Labour exudes all too often.

The Ardern antidote to that hasn’t been to turn the clock back and offer either a ‘third way-lite’ proposition or a rehashed vision of the seventies, but instead to redefine a politics of hope that is quintessentially social democratic but definitively forward-looking.

The policy that stands out is Kiwi Build – a scheme to spend $2bn into providing 100,000 affordable houses of the lifetime of the three-year parliament. That’s a lot of homes and a lot of money in a country of under five million people. What’s crucial about this policy is a word that the British left seems very uncomfortable with these days: aspiration. Whilst, rightly, the government is, taking other steps to help the poorest families, Kiwi Build is a policy unashamedly targeting middle-class, working, first-time buyers locked out of a booming property market. The scheme directly addresses the sense of economic imbalance felt by so many since the crash by saying ‘with a bit of help from the government your dream of home ownership can still become a reality’. In doing so it helps to rebuild confidence in the enabling role of the state that lies at the heart of our politics.

Ardern came to power under the slogan ‘Let’s Do This’. I would say to my fellow British progressives, let’s start to inject some of that positivity into our policy offer.

Matthew Laza is the director of Progressive Centre UK, a new network connecting British progressives to the world. He is a former adviser to Ed Miliband

UNITY NOT DIVISION – Polly Mackenzie

Philip Hammond is right. When explaining why MPs should support the Brexit compromise, he said the most important thing right now was to bring the country back together. The idea the pastry-thin Brexit deal can do this is, of course, laughable. But the goal is the right one.

A country cannot continue being this angry with itself forever. Young and old, north and south, white and black, leavers and remainers. Most political discourse at the moment seems to be about finding new ways to categorise the two tribes. Cosmopolitans and communitarians, says Stephen Kinnock. Somewheres and anywhere, says David Goodhart. Is the best we can hope for the simple triumph of my tribe over yours: the tyranny of the majority? Where has the ambition for a cohesive society gone?

To renew itself, not only the centre, but the left in general, needs to stop dividing people and start trying to unite them. Stop conducting intellectual purity tests and grasp the need to assume others are motivated by good intentions, even if they’ve come to the wrong conclusions.

National cohesion should be the ambition of our political and civic leaders in any era – but today, as Britain seeks to navigate change on an extraordinary scale, cohesion is essential. That’s because the biggest problems of our age are those that require collaborative, imaginative thinking that breaches rather than reinforcing tribal divisions. Demographic change and its impact on our public services; the transformations wrought on society and our economy by technology; immigration on an unprecedented and unceasing scale.

We need to renew deliberative democracy at every stage of our politics. Trust in people and engage with them to ask the big questions: like how do we win consent and legitimacy for taxation? How do we build the capacity for nation states to regulate, tax and police the digital economy? How we build an inclusive British identity that celebrates diversity without compromising on people’s need to a sense of community?

We can no longer assume that technocrats have the answers to these problems. Participatory democracy is the only way to return a sense of agency to those millions who were left behind by the economic model of the last generation.

Polly Mackenzie is the chief executive of Demos

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