The left in Europe has been guilty of what can be described as the “politics of evasion”: it has failed to confront the fundamental causes of its vulnerability, loss of trust and élan in past years . . .
If social democrats are to recover their ability to set the political agenda in an era of insecurity, complexity and constant change . . . we have to face up to hard truths and, if necessary, shatter the cosy and comfortable consensus that surrounds the deliberations of so many fora which social democratic parties inhabit.
So states the summary document of the Amsterdam process, a two-year project aimed at no less than the “ideological renewal of European Social Democracy” and a “new revisionism for the 21st century”.
It’s a collaboration between two European progressive think-tanks, the Wiardi Beckman Stichting (the “scientific bureau” of the Dutch Labour Party) and the UK-based Policy Network.
Their initial publication, the Policy Network’s Challenging the politics of evasion: the only way to renew European social democracy, continues this take-no-prisoners rhetoric.
The writers seem at first glance equally critical of the “third way” revisionists (“embarrassed by the various accommodations made in the mid-1990s with the perceived realities of international capitalism and globalisation”) and of traditionalists (accused of “complacency” in their demand for “a return to the eternal verities and truths that the revisionists allegedly lost”).
This impression is probably incorrect, however. The Policy Network is pretty closely associated with the Blairite wing of the UK Labour Party. Peter Mandelson is its president, and two of the three authors of Evasion, Patrick Diamond and Roger Liddle, have previously worked with or for both Mandelson and Tony Blair. The Policy Network is also the secretariat for the Progressive Governance Network, which has been bringing together progressive leaders from around the world (including New Zealand) for over a decade, so it is hardly on the fringes of recent trends in the movement.
As the report continues, it becomes apparent that what it is proposing is a refurbishment of the existing “revisionist” approach, amending some misjudgments and correcting some overreaches. Below are the five dimensions of their “way forward”, with some of my impressions of what they are proposing in each.
Greater clarity about the politics of globalisation: comprehensive reform of global economic governance; active measures to promote responsible business behaviour; and going beyond the ‘enabling state’-as-training-scheme to a “new era of industrial activism” — while stressing that none of this means that the “big state is back”.
Coming to terms with the centre-right response to the financial crisis: where conservatives capture traditional social democratic territory, such as the need for active government during the global recession, progressives should ’stand their ground’ rather than moving further left in response.
Understanding the weight of anxiety about moral and social decline: although rhetoric such as ‘broken Britain’ is exaggerated, progressives should acknowledge the unease it reflects by rediscovering traditional narratives about what makes a good citizen and the politics of virtue, perhaps drawing upon the work of US moral philosopher Michael Sandel.
Confronting confusion about the politics of redistribution and fairness: by framing welfare rights and responsibilities in a way that aligns with what UK Labour minister John Denham has called the “fairness code” of the general population, taking into account desert, opportunity, and the avoidance of material hardship.
A bold plan for the future that captures the imagination of social democracy’s natural allies, new and old: a coalition of modernising institutions, working with sister organisations and thinktanks throughout Europe, drawing on the experience of the US Democratic Leadership Council that helped to elect Bill Clinton.
Apart from perhaps the first of these, it’s not clear that this amounts to much change at the policy level (as opposed to strategy and messaging), but it does represent an attempt to articulate a clear and comprehensive post-crisis progressive programme.
It will be interesting to see where the Amsterdam process takes these initial broad-brush propositions.