Where is the progressive Left after Labour’s trouncing in UK?

On first principles, a strong showing by Labour in Great Britain seemed all but inevitable last week. The long running consequences of austerity, Conservative indifference to rising inequalities, the “bedroom” tax that disproportionately harms middle and low income families, and Tory threats against the National Health Service all seemed to create a very large natural voting constituency for Labour and Ed Miliband. So where does the progressive Left go now, following the first majority government for the Conservatives in decades?

This isn’t just a question for the people of Great Britain, because the conservative programs put forward by David Cameron’s party are echoed in most of the democracies of Europe and North America. And that program serves the affluent and powerful, not the ordinary working people who make up the majority of all countries. So what policies and programs do the parties of the progressive Left need to follow in order to rally electoral majorities in Britain, Germany, Australia, France, Canada, or the United States?

A confounding issue in the United States is the role of unrestricted mega-money in electoral politics. Another is the effectiveness with which Republican state legislatures have used their redistricting powers every ten years to create safe seats for their party that all but guarantee large majorities in the House of Representatives. But let’s put those points to the side and focus on the substance of politics: what are the big ideas and issues that the Left can pull together to mobilize their natural constituencies?

In this context a recent exchange between Martin O’Neill and Neal Lawson in Renewal is an important read (link). Lawson is an important thought leader and author on the future of the Left, emphasizing “new” issues like the bad effects of consumerism within modern society. O’Neill is a senior lecturer in moral and political philosophy at York, and an important contributor on the future of progressive social and political change.

The heart of O’Neill’s critique of Lawson and John Harris has to do with the role of the state in a just and progressive society. O’Neill believes Lawson and Harris concede too much to the anti-state ideology of the Right, and instead go in for a form of political activism that depends too much on advocacy for particular life-choice values (like anti-consumerism). He also believes they tend to be a bit starry-eyed about the potential for social change through crowd sourcing and social media. But O’Neill argues that a more just society requires the use of the powers of the state to offset and regulate the pernicious tendencies of the market by itself. Here is his view in a nutshell:

The next Labour government will need to overcome the party’s traditional timidity in acting resolutely to change the shape of the economy; the task at hand should be the important business of finding ways to use the power that the state possesses to create a country fit for its citizens, in which avoidable suffering is reduced, runway inequality is curtailed, and the lives of the disadvantaged are significantly improved.

Lawson’s response is also a powerful one. He believes that the kind of social democracy advocated by O’Neill has reached its end, and that the measures O’Neill advocates will not prevail. In fact, he seems to believe that there is no longer a constituency for these policies — even among the earlier allies of Labour.

To survive Labour has to break with austerity, not just be mildly better than the Tories. It must break with a singular and majoritarian politics and embrace PR and pluralism. It must totally link the politics of equality and environment, red and green. It is going to have to start to examine radical ideas like a basic income. Yes, much of that demands the state — I believe in the state — just not the Morrisonian model. If Keir Hardie was kicking around today he would not have built the Labour Party the way he did over a century ago. He would have built it around the culture and governance structures of the twenty-first century. Unless we renew Labour on that basis — it will die.

This exchange is profoundly worth reading. It suggests these two theorists believe that progressive politics are at a crossroads, and nothing like the existing approaches associated with the Labour Party (or the Democratic Party) will suffice.