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Home Opinion ‘Squeezed from both sides’: The state of the centre left in Europe
Labour • Europe • Progress

‘Squeezed from both sides’: The state of the centre left in Europe

Peter Mandelson - 03 December 2015

Good PR is not enough. 'New politics' needs new ideas and new policies in order to face up to the fresh challenges we face

Those of us who took responsibility for the third way’s original political project have not been greatly successful in helping the next generation to reinvent it, to take it forward and successfully reconcile the radical with the pragmatic in our politics. That really is the challenge now facing us.  

The core idea of the third way – how we combine an electoral offer of social justice and economic efficiency – has not been overtaken by any alternative on the left. But the truth is that none of us, from any of our different countries, have come up with complete answers or solutions to any of the new problems and conditions we are facing today.

There is a public backlash against established orthodoxies and we have become caught up in that as much as those on the centre right. We are all facing new, challenging, social-technology-driven, emotionally charged, and certainly draining new parties and movements in our politics. We are facing an emergence, in a chaotic and incoherent way, of a new politics, which all of us are trying to come to terms with.

The nature of power is shifting, and social democratic parties face a very bleak future if we do not come to terms with the shifts that are underway. That is why we have got to make haste to the ‘reinvention agency’ as quickly as we can in order to get some good advice.

Our task is to reconcile the formal and the informal in politics, as well as the radical and the pragmatic, and to find a new political organisational model fit for this century. We need to create a new paradigm that succeeds in bringing together the power of emerging new social movements and new ways of doing politics based on digital technology. 

It is easier to come to terms with the new politics in opposition than in government, and it is certainly difficult for parties like the UK Labour party, who are in opposition but seeking government, to reconcile those shifts in power and those changes which our politics are undergoing with the compromises and disciplines we inevitably have to operate in the real world.

By these yardsticks, I do not think any of us would say that we are doing terribly well so far. The traditional centre left in Europe has been pretty much disoriented by what is happening in politics since the financial crisis.

I do not think we have reacted – I do not think we have coped and managed – very well at all. The result is that the centre right in Europe is benefiting by default, not in my view by merit or by winning any great argument in our countries. I think there is little sense that this is the moment of victory for the rightwing smaller state or of some neoliberal triumph; I do not think anyone believes that anywhere in Europe.

Indeed, a lot of Europe’s centrist Christian democrats, who we face, often want the opposite of the small state and neoliberal policies; Angela Merkel coasted to her success in a very large sense by ‘out SPDing’ the SPD. So I do not think we should see this as a re-emergence, or a triumph, of centre-right politics – it is just that we on the centre left have simply not done well enough in our own response.

In one country after another, we have lost support previously held by the centre left, the Danish Social Democrats being the exception. They did lose power, but they increased their vote share; in contrast, others on the centre left, notably in Britain this year, have not done well because we have fallen through a gaping policy chasm. We have been unable to convince the public of our commitment to financial responsibility and discipline but nor have we been successful in convincing them of our ability to protect them from globalisation.

We have neither been efficient fiscal realists, nor successful protectionists. As a centre left, by and large, we have not known which way to turn, offering an unconvincing mix of fiscal retrenchment and protectionism. Different parties in different countries have turned in different ways and different directions. Some parties have decided to tack to the centre, to try and build a sort of political life raft with the right on the centre ground, as our sister parties have done in the Netherlands and Germany.

Others have chosen to move further to the left in an effort to recoup stray votes on the political margins, in many cases not especially leftwing but simply dejected and disillusioned and uninterested in voting.

Now, the result of this disarray on the part of the centre left has been a weakened mainstream in European politics alongside very dissatisfied people on the political margins. Nobody is happy; what’s more, it has produced, in most cases, some pretty weak governments in Europe, failing to undertake the tough reforms that are needed domestically. Matteo Renzi is probably an honourable exception to this because he has made sturdy efforts to reform in Italy, as the Social Democrat led government did in Denmark.

The marked failure to come to grips with the need for reform is at its clearest at the EU level and within the eurozone. European governance has become shackled by the complicated insurgency in Europe. It is a twin insurgency, on the one hand by northern radicals, mostly from the right, essentially rooted in cultural and identity politics, migration, anti-EU sentiment, and often just explicitly anti-foreigner. They are nationalists, crying out to ‘take back control’ of their countries again, as we saw in Britain with the UK Independence party.

On the other hand, we have the southern revisionists, generally coming from the left; their critique is of economics and of markets and above all, of austerity. The two sides have met somewhere in the middle with their shared opposition to globalisation. Their suspicion, if not outright rejection of the European Union, is based on seeing it as a neoliberal project, a means of amplifying and accelerating the impact of globalisation on their economies and societies, rather than doing what they think the EU should be doing, which is providing a shield against the changes wrought by globalisation.

I believe this antipathy towards the EU has been worked up by insurgents from their respective viewpoints in the north and in the south and is to a very large extent at the heart of the public problems that we have with the EU and the public resistance to further integration.

What has happened is that we have been squeezed incredibly painfully between these twin insurgencies. In the process, we have seen most of the old assumptions that have operated about economics and politics in Europe for the last 20 years becoming badly undermined.

Those assumptions that underpin Europe’s political mainstream have not just been damaged in some cases; they have been kicked and battered almost to death. The biggest casualty of all from this battering has been the third way itself. Why? It is very simple: the third way was an explicitly mainstream political project and mainstream orthodoxy has been discredited by the financial crisis with the responsibility for the crisis pinned on the whole of Europe’s mainstream political, financial and business elite.

Why has it been the casualty, the great casualty? In my view, because above all the third way depended on continuing economic growth and it depended on the fruits and financial largesse from growth being available to redistribute and invest for the benefit of society as a whole. Society has kept demanding higher living standards, greater security and more fairness in society, and we did an incredibly good job in my view, certainly in Britain under the last Labour government, in redistributing the fruits of growth. But when growth dried up, the largesse ran out and we did not have an alternative – a replacement programme and set of policies – to put in its place.

Growing disappointment of people actually started before the financial crisis; people had been suffering stagnant wage growth from before the crisis began. Then following the crisis, people became much more aware and focussed on the unequal burdens and inequalities in society. Not surprisingly, there has been an explosion of demand by people for credible policies and leaders they can trust, rather than the pretenders and unbelievable policies they have been offered instead.

That is why in my view progressive politics is failing, and the modernisers in this situation have not risen to the task. For some reason – through a mixture of complacency, laziness, or debilitation in our politics – we just have not kept up with our thinking, with ideas and policies that would give our project fresh life, fresh power and drive, in the new political and economic circumstances that we have been confronted with since the financial crisis.

In conclusion, I would make a last important point. In the 1980s, when Labour was similarly confronted with the same sort of seismic challenges, at first we coped incredibly badly with them, and then got our act together. Before we really came to grips with our problems and the need for modernisation of our policies, we turned to better communications as the solution, to spray-paint our party, harvesting forests of roses and adorning our old wreck of a party, trying to win people back through a makeover of our appearance.

Yes, guilty as charged; I was responsible for a lot of this harvesting effort. And our symbolic red roses did play a part in the recovery of the Labour party because they indicated we were starting a new chapter. But we have to be clear, better communications strategy and PR were completely inadequate in tackling the political problems we had then just as they are now in the fresh challenges we face.

Just as was the case in the 1980s, new politics needs new ideas and new policies not just better PR. We have to find ways to address the economic hardships people are experiencing, the cultural anxieties they have and the disillusionment with the political establishment that is now endemic. We have to discover a new alignment between ourselves and the mass of voters, and a genuine new but credible authenticity if we are going to succeed in restoring our electoral roots.

We are not going to do that by reviving quasi-Marxism, or an ancient class struggle, or isolationist foreign policies as the new Labour party leadership offers in Britain.

And certainly Britain will not succeed in working out its future and organising itself better for the 21st century by exiting the European Union and trying to put down an anchor on some offshore island somewhere in the mid-Atlantic – exact location yet to be figured out. The truth is Britain is facing an existential battle as a country, as a European country, and I think the centre left, whatever else it has to do in the coming years (and it has an enormous job to undertake) needs to ensure that when the referendum comes, we make sure we do not lose that existential battle.

Peter Mandelson is president of Policy Network and former UK first secretary of state, business secretary and EU trade commissioner

This article is based on remarks first made at Policy Network’s AGM on the 9 September 2015

This is a contribution to Policy Network's work on Party Politics, Government and Elections .

Tags: Peter Mandelson


Russell Boncey
08 December 2015 15:46

I believe that antipathy towards the EU is an extension of a general feeling of rejection, of having no significant voice in central government. There is indeed an emotional wave of non-recognition amongst citizens, a feeling that policies are made in distant committees perceived as deaf to local issues. Public resistance to further European integration is but one manifestation of this feeling. Electoral abstention is another example. In this context of felt 'estrangement' by distance and perceived indifference, is it any surprise that breakaway regionalism is gaining ground in the UK and all over Europe? Citizens feel they might have more say, or at least have a greater chance of being heard by strong regional government, even if in practice more local government is not necessarily more democratic or impartial than a strongly centralized state. Furthermore, the center left has become conflated with the center right and its unflinching liberal orientation. Extreme solutions, including apparent confirmations of personal identity, have become emotionally available to an electorate seeking the reassurance of ‘clear cut’ policies that appear more decisive – and therefore more likely to resolve everyday real world problems - precisely because they ignore the interweaving complexities of national and transnational state-building. Peter Mandelson’s article is a refreshing acceptance of our failures as a center left group. I look forward to a future article laying out the center-left’s ideological commitments, together with a roadmap explaining how these commitments can make European lives safer, more prosperous and more fulfilling.

Wayne Green
05 December 2015 12:19

A very honest view point of issues that need to be examined, but one clear battle is that we have to be at the centre of Europe and to seek those progressive changes required within the cleavages of gobalisation in order to create new spaces and moments for change. A first step is to engage in s stronger more normative ingredient within the DNA in all polices, also to view profit for a noble cause. This will require to look at TIME and its influence on financial and economic systems. We must look at longer times spans to seek profitably and also we need to push for stronger planetary governance on key tax regimes polices and re balance the role of TNCs, whilst not restricting freedom of business. This can be achieved via strong moral and ethical policies within systems and structures. The issue of also of ownership public goods such as our water and air and promote the idea of bodies that are three ways governed, by the people, state and private sectors.on a national scale, get rid of the DWP and bring social security toward a citizenship income. Get rid of organisations attached to the DWP such as people plus who suck huge resources for little valued outcomes and put universities, local government and local public at the centre of creative communities. But first of all labour senior leaders need to engage fully with those who have ideas and in a sense bring together key planning groups for the long term. I note that church action on poverty has engaged on a national project already at the local level. what is a good society. Some of us have brought it down to Adur in Sussex, so already we have started. All can be achieved with commitment, but we all need help from the centers of influence of those at the centre left. With good valued polices and political economic structures, it can be done.

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The Policy Network Observatory promotes critical debate and reflection on progressive politics. It is centre-left orientated but determinedly challenges social democracy. It is pro-European but restlessly questions EU institutions and practices.

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