Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Hard truths for Labour

European social democracy is in crisis. Denmark, Finland, Portugal, Hungary, Greece, Spain, the Netherlands – no matter the local context, the retreat of the centre-left is near total. Even in those few outposts where we do wield power we are either on the back foot – as in France or Sweden – or do so only at the grace of a hegemonic centre-right party, as in Germany.

In this context, Labour’s crushing defeat – which on the campaign trail felt a far more cultural collapse than in 2010 – is just one example of a far bigger trend. We are not alone. And what we need now is a debate which goes beyond parochial policy concerns and explores the deeper explanations for this almost pathological decline.

Sifting through the wreckage reveals a squeeze coming from two distinct directions. First, from a resurgent and intellectually confident right. Second, from populist movements which – on the left at least – combine community-focused activism with a resistance to austerity and an aggrieved sense of nationhood.

It should not need saying, but it does: a rejection of the need to balance the books would be electoral suicide for the Labour party. Podemos-like populism has so far only benefited the centre-right at national elections, with the exceptional case of Greece only serving to prove the rule.

But we are not Spain or Greece and this is not 2011. In fact, we are not even Scotland where – as the Institute for Fiscal Studies pointed out during the election – the Scottish National party’s fiscal policies fail to match their anti-austerity rhetoric. Our economy is growing and the budget deficit stands at five per cent: even John Maynard Keynes would be balancing the books now. Or is Stafford Cripps, who delivered austerity budgets during the 1945 government that created the NHS and welfare state, now a ‘Tory’ too?

Yet to understand the emotional appeal of such parties we first need to realise that the anti-austerity message is about more than economic policy. Rather, what anti-austerity and nationalist movements across the continent express in equal measure is a popular resistance to ‘status quo’ technocracy. This is more obvious in Europe where the eurozone crisis has made national conflict and cultural issues the dominant political questions. Despite voters remaining – even in Greece – broadly pro-European, voters now want their parties to demonstrate a completely new level of aggression against distant elites when it comes to pursuing the national interest.

This hurts consensual, pro-European social democrats twice over. Not only because we came into being to represent the people not the elite. But also because rightwing, conservative and nationalist parties are usually perceived to have a deeper, more emotional affinity with the national culture and interest. However, clearly such forces are now at play in our own fragile union. During the election Labour appeared to Scotland as the European Union does to Greece: a foreign technocratic elite telling them they could not be trusted with their own affairs. Meanwhile, the Tories ruthlessly exploited English concerns about SNP influence to burnish their own patriotic credentials.

What are we to make of all this? That in a summer where all parts of the Labour movement need to hear hard truths, we need to absorb some of our own. A traditional modernising approach is not enough: what worked in 1997 – a message combining economic efficiency, social justice and strong leadership – fails to take account of the populist challenge. It must now be combined with a greater sense of patriotism and an understanding that that we need radical party, constitutional and devolutionary reform in order to try and dispel concerns about technocracy.

Mainstream social democracy faces an unbelievably daunting task. Not only do we need to restore our respective parties’ fortunes, we also need to restore wider trust in politics. Our Labour values must connect to a more obvious sense of national identity. Our party activism must do far more with communities than ask for their vote once every five years. And we must still deliver the centre-ground basics: fiscal responsibility, progressive ambition, acute antennae for the country’s concerns, and a tin-ear towards partisan preoccupations.

The United Kingdom is changing and Europe is floundering. We will need emotional intelligence and economic competence just to survive.


Tristram Hunt MP is shadow secretary of state for education and a vice-chair of Progress. He tweets @TristramHuntMP

Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.

It takes time, commitment and money to build a fight against the forces of conservatism. If you value the work Progress does, please support us by becoming a member, subscriber or donating.

Our work depends on you.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Tristram Hunt MP

is MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central and a vice-chair of Progress


  • “European social democracy is in crisis”. Is it? I think what Mr Hunt means here is that the British Labour Party is in crisis. European democracy is not in crisis.

    I almost agree with Mr Hunt when he states “Sifting through the wreckage reveals a squeeze coming from two distinct directions. First, from a resurgent and intellectually confident right. Second, from populist movements which – on the left at least – combine community-focused activism with a resistance to austerity and an aggrieved sense of nationhood.” The only word I would take issue with in this statement is the use of the adjective ‘aggrieved’ to describe the Europeans newly found sense of nationhood. From a Scottish perspective the success of the SNP is not because of any feeling of anger, it is about the desire to make our own decisions within the European family of nations. What can be wrong with that? The rest of Mr Hunt’s analysis I agree with, and would pose the question to Mr. Hunt what is wrong with a resurgent right, community activism and a strong sense of nationhood? Is that not the sign of a healthy democratic Europe and the opposite of “European social democracy is in crisis”.?

    I would suggest that rather than wring his hands at the quality and strength of the opposition Mr. Hunt looks for answers closer to home. Labour’s predicament is self inflicted. He should look at Labour’s performance when last in government. His proposed solution the “need (for) emotional intelligence and economic competence just to survive.” is not going to be enough for Labour’s survival. In fact I don’t even know what emotional intelligence is. Good luck anyway.

  • We need to be more careful when using Scotland in this discussion. While some points about the shift in Scottish opinion are valid, using Scotland and Nationalists as synonymous is wrong. A majority voted against independence and only half of those voting voted SNP.

  • “emotional intelligence”…
    is the ability to identify and manage your own emotions and the emotions of others.

    Richard, this seems to me an entirely apt phrase to use when analyzing emotion in current politics.

    When we last exchanged comments here:
    you have said that as SNP supporters “.. we are off regardless.”

    I am puzzled as to why you are still here.

    Tristram Hunt commenting about what Labour needs to do, says “…we must still deliver the centre-ground basics: fiscal responsibility, etc.”. That’s something important for the survival of our party, if not for the SNP’s.

    In drawing attention to emotion, rather than logic, he pointed out that the IFS says that “the SNP’s fiscal policies fail to match their anti-austerity rhetoric”.

    Now, although that is not our concern, I wonder if you believe it yourself and that is why you are still concerned to makes comments on this alien Labour forum.

    Why not start an ?

  • “It should not need saying, but it does: a rejection of the need to
    balance the books would be electoral suicide for the Labour party.”

    I absolutely agree. Maybe Jeremy Corbyn should be asked to comment on that.

  • It might be a less of a distorted argument if that presented below was also explained in terms of ‘balance’:

    Debt & proportion of GDP

    UK household debt was 98% of GDP
    • Non-financial corporate debt was 109% of GDP
    • Financial institution debt was 219% of GDP
    • Government debt was 81% of GDP
    • Total UK debt was 507% of GDP

    (all figures for the second quarter of 2011)

  • Interesting.
    Thinking of the top of my head…

    Household debt of an individual is not the country’s problem, after all the government doesn’t check when I want to borrow from a foreign bank.
    I imagine that corporate debt isn’t the country’s problem either since if people decide to lend to someone unsavory it’s not the country’s business.
    Financial institutions I am less sure about.
    Government debt is a problem.

    Can anyone help here?

  • John, you ask why I am still here., the truth is, I am a student of politics and history. I don’t come to gloat or as Ian Davidson xMP for Govan put it in the run up to last years Scottish referendum to ‘bayonet the wounded’ I am here to read and witness the death throes of a once great political movement.

  • Also the Scottish independence movement have a number of excellent internet sites. Wings Over Scotland, Bella Caledonia, and Newsnet Scotland are all recommended. I tend to spend more time on Labour Hame, Progress and Labour list. Its much better fun.

  • Richard,
    You write us off too soon.
    Look far enough into the future and you can see great changes coming:
    (1) The effect on our economy of the rise of China and India.
    (2) The realization that the Conservatives have no one else to blame.
    (3) The power of companies vs the state – and who really is in charge.
    (4) The discovery that the Conservatives were not on the people’s side.
    (5) The fact that Scotland and the UK can’t make it as socialist states.
    (6) The stresses that these forces will have on the EU.
    This is only the end of the beginning.

  • John, take it from me Labour have had their day, definitely in Scotland. Up here their biggest critics are their recent supporters. They are angry. They have come to the conclusion that the SLP has for years taken them for granted. That elected MPs and councillors have been in it for what they can get out of it. The party machine is toxic. FUBAR. At grassroots level they are fighting over the keys to the local Labour club. The party is being run /manipulated by two well paid sp ads McTernen and McDougal. A couple of faceless bullies.
    Down south the leadership contest is between three soft Tories and jc who I find quite impressive, as an impersonator. Like the Greek guy but older.
    The only hope for Labour is that the Tory’s screw up. It might happen. Maybe over Europe? Until then, my advice would be, embrace Europe, become unilateralists. Look at Japan. They are starting after 25years to see a stagnant economy as a good thing. But most importantly of all, don’t treat the SNP as your enemy. Support us to become full members of the European family.

  • Had their day in Scotland? Probably, but I don’t see the SNP offering a way forward that’s going to work. We shall see.
    As for bullies, no one should even attempt to defend bad behavior.
    Our most difficult job is to get Labour supporters to understand the economic facts.
    Good luck.

  • “As for bullies, no one should even attempt to defend bad behavior.”

    But yet you do so, in the very next sentence – demanding that people must be bullied into accepting your views, which have been rejected by even the vast majority of right wing economists!

  • John, I have to come back to your definition of ’emotional intelligence’. ” as the ability to identify and control your own emotions and the emotions of others”.
    My question to you John is, why would you want to control the emotions of others?

  • The important factors are the timescale over which you balance the books, and how you do it. Punishing the public for the sins of the elite is not the answer.

  • Your right Matt, I don’t. One thing I do know though, what ever it is, its not exclusive to the Labour Party. The Tories are a democratic party and I’m sure they would claim their policies are progressive rather than regressive.

Sign up to our daily roundup email