After a period of Western politics characterised by the threat of populism, a moment is emerging for a renewal of progressive politics. Emmanuel Macron, whose election win in 2017 started a fightback for progressives, has secured a second term in France. Olaf Scholz has become chancellor in Germany, Joe Biden is in the White House and Justin Trudeau is the Canadian prime minister.
But pockets of success do not, so far, represent a progressive moment of the type seen in the late 1990s when a wave of progressive parties came to power. To turn the current progressive moment into wider progressive renewal, deeper action is needed.
With so many opaque words used so freely in politics, what does progressive actually mean?
“Progressive” can be an amorphous term to many. When it is defined, it is often by opponents who frame it around managing the status quo, splitting the difference between left and right, forsaking values for power. None of these are correct in my view.
Progressive politics starts from a deep belief in social justice. That politics has the power to change lives, particularly for those who need a helping hand. It is based on a vision to improve citizens’ lives across the country, across divides, across backgrounds. Knowing that societies should be judged on how much we help those who need it. With a commitment that each person is equal, progressive politics aims to deliver equality of opportunity for all, creating a level playing field for success. Critically, progressives embrace the future, confront the challenges of our time and have an optimistic vision for society.
And it isn’t just a vision, it really matters, particularly to those most in need. Let’s take the example closest to home. It was recently the 25th anniversary of Labour’s election win in 1997. That Labour government was the most progressive of our time and transformed lives. It implemented the minimum wage to help the lowest paid in society. Lifted almost a million pensioners and more than half a million children out of poverty. Cut crime by a third, tripled spending on the NHS and doubled spending on education. Waiting times fell to their lowest on record and exam results improved, particularly in the worst schools. Rough sleeping dropped by two-thirds and homelessness fell dramatically. Peace was secured in Northern Ireland. The equalisation of the age of consent for gay men, the scrapping of section 28 and creation of civil partnerships created a fairer and more equal society.
The UK that Labour inherited in 1997 was falling behind globally, with crumbling infrastructure and those most in need cut adrift. The country Labour left in 2010 was fairer, more prosperous, with transformed public services. The London 2012 Olympic Games is a signpost moment for the type of country built under Labour, under progressive politics. In the ten years since the Olympics, the UK has fallen into a state of managed decline and is once again in danger of falling behind globally.
So, progressive politics matters, it changes lives and transforms society. In France, Macron has brought down unemployment levels to their lowest point since 2008. Obama presided over the biggest expansion of health-care coverage since 1965. But it doesn’t happen by accident. It requires a serious plan for the country linked to dynamic and capable people able to bring that to life.
The recent local elections in the UK show that progressive politics is on the path to recovery, but not yet on track to regaining power. Progressive politics has earned a right to be heard in the UK, but not yet to govern.
It’s time for renewed energy. For young people to get involved in a new type of politics that transcends traditional divides. That means creating space to debate big ideas and discuss what a progressive vision should look like. It means working with others to organise and build networks of future leaders that challenge and learn from each other. And it means creating a politics that is inspiring, forward-looking and led by a generation focused on influencing real change.
Progressive politics and leaders can, and must, create a plan that speaks to the whole of Britain, not only part of Britain.