Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Letter from Amsterdam

‘Populism is now mainstream in right-wing politics’. That is the clear-sighted view of Gordon Bajnai, the former prime minister of Hungary who has emerged bloodied, but unbowed, from a brutal general election that was won by the right. It is an unashamedly European perspective, but one that is useful for looking at the United Kingdom Independence party and the Tories. It is easy to see the current split on the right as a big win for progressives. In the short term that is true, a divided right will lose to a united left. But in the long term the Tories will survive, changed but maybe strengthened.

This is the real warning from Europe – the right is changing in ways that are populist but also popular, and which are antithetical to progressive politics. Bajnai is pointing out a new right-wing playbook, a kind of ‘solidarity of nationalism’. One that openly identifies ‘the other’ as undeserving and more covertly makes cuts fall on the shoulders of non-voters. A poisonous ‘insider v outsider’ politics. Cameron and Osborne have drawn on this populism already in mobilising opinion against migrants and benefit claimants.

Is there an answer to this? Well, Bajnai observed that populism is politics without policy, but that the equal and opposite failing of the left technocracy is policy without politics. What the centre-left need to do is go back to the future and reclaim old-fashioned social democratic solidarity so we can share the pain of austerity and share the gains of growth. As Bajnai put it – ‘we are in this together, we laugh and cry together.’

This was discussed at a session of the Amsterdam conference ‘Making Progressive Politics Work’, organised by the Center for American Progress, the United Kingdom’s Policy Network and the Dutch Labour party thinktank the Wiardi Beckman Stichting.

The overall conference was a sustained engagement with the politics of successfully defeating the populism of the right and winning the coming electoral battles. But there was also an attempt – finally – to come to terms with the legacy of the third way. What have we learned, both positively and negatively?

It has been the bane of progressives that the era of Clinton, Blair and Schroder has been defined as one that accepted – in varying forms – a neo-liberal consensus. This is nonsense. Dangerous when propagated by our enemies and pernicious when promulgated by our friends. The reality is that the third way challenged and smashed the Reagan and Thatcher consensus and got people back to work, renewed the public sphere and restored education to centre stage in politics.

The greatest achievements of the third way were to create a space for progressive ideas and change and to provide a leadership with energy, hope and belief. The third way was for its time – but those achievements are ones we should never throw away.

‘I’m just a folk singer, not a composer.’ That was Governor Martin O’Malley’s description of his willingness to take ideas from any source and adapt them for the state of Maryland which he leads. That is a pretty good description – and defence – of what we do at international conferences. We describe our own challenges and listen to others describing theirs. We listen and learn. We argue and disagree. And we plagiarise. After all, we are internationalists. Helpfully, Policy Network have published a handbook of ideas on ‘Making Progressive Politics Work‘.


John McTernan is former political secretary at 10 Downing Street and was director of communications for former prime minister of Australia Julia Gillard. He writes The Last Word column on Progress and tweets @johnmcternan


Photo: Center for American Progress

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John McTernan

is former chief of staff to the leader of the Scottish Labour party. He is former political secretary at 10 Downing Street and was director of communications for former prime minister of Australia Julia Gillard. He tweets @johnmcternan


  • Nice article – I think. Q: Will you, John Mc T, be giving any [overt] support to Mr Axelrod in his temp’ capacity as Saviour of Labour? Your views would be appreciated as -at present- you make a lot of sense to me and it would be nice to know your standpoint on importing ‘brains’ from abroad at very high cost when we have brains like yours on our doorstep for a tenth of the cost?
    [That was a compliment to you btw]

  • Roy Steele summarises this piece with precision; ‘nice article, I think’.
    In other words, I don’t have a scoobie what your talking about Mr. McTernan but it sounds pretty impressive nevertheless.
    I know for sure what it is not about, and that is, policy. It is written quite deliberately in a language that ordinary voters don’t understand. It is meant to impress and frighten in equal measures.
    That seems to be a theme these days with Labour; the use of scare tactics.

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