The Alternative: Towards a New Progressive Politics Patrick Diamond and Maya Goodfellow each enjoy a new collection of essays from across the left – but questions around economic competence and the meaning of ‘progressive’ remain
It is not difficult to be sympathetic towards the central political proposition of The Alternative: ‘progressives’ ought to work together across partisan divides to advance social justice, environmental sustainability, and the public interest. Voters are fed up with tribalism and want politicians who can work together constructively by dealing with pressing national and international problems; it is counterproductive for Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Green party to fight one another electorally while the Conservatives are able to consolidate their political supremacy against a divided centre-left.
This still begs a deeper question: if cooperation is necessary to build a progressive future, what is it that actually unites centre-left forces across the fragmented political landscape of the United Kingdom? On the politics of identity, this collection includes passionate contributions from the Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru representatives; but, in practice, how compatible are nationalism and progressivism? First and foremost, progressives support a liberal international order in which nations cooperate to achieve shared goals; this is difficult to reconcile with a return to national self-determination, even the ‘civic nationalism’ of the SNP. The break-up of Britain would in all likelihood make a broadly social democratic, left-of-centre government in England less likely.
On the politics of economic policy, do progressives believe in a capitalist market economy or not? In the 1930s, the Labour party had great difficulty absorbing the teachings of John Maynard Keynes, among the greatest 20th century progressives, since Keynes sought to save the capitalist system rather than eradicate it in the name of socialism. This is not to say that Green scepticism about markets is unjustified: even those who broadly support a capitalist economy would accept that there are unresolved debates about how to regulate the excesses of financial markets, and deal with the limits to growth set by the ecology of the planet.
Nonetheless, if any kind of progressive alliance is to be a feasible proposition in British politics, the different tribes must have something distinctive to say that unites them about the economy. There is an insightful chapter in The Alternative about local economic strategies, for instance, but broader questions about the post-Brexit macroeconomic framework and the role of fiscal and monetary policy are left opaque or go unaddressed.
Clarity on central economic policy issues matters: what is most likely to impede the success of any progressive coalition is the Conservative party’s claim that the centre-left still cannot be trusted to manage the economy, particularly in conditions of uncertainty and volatility as Britain prepares to depart the European Union without agreement about its future trading relationships. In the aftermath of previous financial crises in 1931, 1947, 1949, 1967, 1976 and 2008, it was the right that was able to seize the political initiative. The risk is that, as in the past, the undoubted good intentions and admirable political energy of The Alternative are undermined by the glaring absence of economic credibility.
Patrick Diamond is university lecturer in public policy at Queen Mary, University of London, and co-chair of Policy Network
Across much of Europe the left is rethinking its purpose. In the United Kingdom it has been confronted with serious problems; shocked by a vote to leave the European Union, which came about off the back of a rightwing campaign fuelled by xenophobia, and dismayed by a Conservative victory at the last general election, it is in flux and trying to forge a new political vision. The Alternative sets out how that might look.
From across the left and centre-left, contributors from Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish National party, Green politicians and thinkers, and more, as well as journalists and activists, have created a collection of thoughtful essays. Compiled by what traditionally might be considered an unlikely trio of Lisa Nandy, Caroline Lucas and Chris Bowers, the aim of this ambitious book is to shine a light on potential areas of cross-party participation; to explore how ‘progressives’ (to use the editors’ slightly frustrating jargon, which they outline with a definition that does not quite satisfy) work together.
From Andrew Simms’ convincing argument on the necessity that ‘progressives’ lead the way on the environment to Katie Ghose’s treatise on electoral reform, this book taps into and lays out a rich vein of ideas that have long been circulating among the left and centre-left. It makes the case that some form of loose cooperation is vital if the left is to succeed.
Carys Afoko’s chapter on communicating political ideas makes for particularly interesting reading. Afoko charts how the Tories have in the past decade woven a message of economic competence that chimes with people, even if it runs counter to the facts. She persuasively argues against the left accepting the frames established by the right – which is reflected in Tim Farron’s passionate defence of immigration – and creates relatable narratives. Facts need to be turned into a narrative and political messages must be relevant.
One of the key ideas threaded through much of this carefully compiled intervention is the need to democratise political parties. At a time when people across the world are decrying elitist politics (albeit at times turning to privileged politicians dressed up in ‘normal’ clothes), the need for bottom-up organisation is of the utmost importance. In discussions about trade unions, the Scottish referendum and in contributions from Danish politician Uffe Elbœk and Labour and Liberal Democrat councillors, this collection of essays recognises that.
What is curious is Jeremy Corbyn is rarely mentioned. Of course, that might be due to the book’s focus beyond party politics. But, whether you agree with Corbyn or not, he is undoubtedly changing leftwing politics and the kind of movement discussed in this book is one his team are trying to create – it is puzzling there is little reference to that.
There are evident but not terminal flaws in cross-party collaboration, all of which are acknowledged by Nandy, Lucas and Bowers. As would be expected, there are unbridgeable divides among people from different political parties; not least the ultimate goal of independence that drives SNP and Plaid Cymru politicians but is unacceptable to others. What is more, many people who have long been tribal members of political parties will balk at the idea of cross-party partnerships. None of this obscures the content. Although it is surely impossible to agree with all of the ideas in this book, The Alternative makes for compelling and integral reading about how ‘progressives’ can work together.
Maya Goodfellow is a writer and researcher. She is a regular columnist for Media Diversified and LabourList
The Alternative: Towards a New Progressive Politics
Lisa Nandy MP, Caroline Lucas MP and Chris Bowers (Eds)
BiteBack Publishing | £12.99 | 368pp
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