Where is Progressive Political Leadership?

By George Irvin

London is burning. The major western economies are now like a shipwreck waiting to happen. Although financial markets are inherently volatile and the real economy may not hit the rocks this week (or even next), we know that the financial system in Europe—which includes the UK—and America is increasingly fragile.[1] We desperately need to restore the confidence that leads to jobs and growth, but we have run out of economic tools to fix the economy. The limits of monetary policy have nearly been reached while the real answer—a co-ordinated fiscal stimulus—is ruled out by bone-headed right-wing politicians in Europe and the United States.[2]

The neo-liberal project to shrink the state—although driven by the right and accepted even by parts of the centre-left—is starting to bite hard. Even the financial markets are worried that the so-called debt crisis cannot be solved unless there is growth. Social-democrats should be shouting this simple fact from the roof tops. Instead, Ed Miliband in the UK and his social democratic friends in continental Europe and the USA busy themselves with minor matters and cave in on the major ones. In Britain, the Labour Party is debating the reform of the trade union vote in leadership elections. Political pundits wonder whether, when Parliament reconvenes, Ed will score sufficient PMQ points against David. In Berlin, former SPD Finance Minister Peer Steinbrück offers his support to Angela Merkel’s transfer union-obsessed government.[3] In Washington, a President whose social democratic leanings were applauded in Europe a few short years ago, hands the T-party Republicans budgetary victory on a plate.

The Guardian columnist Aditya Chakraborty recently wrote about the collapse of ‘statecraft’ going hand in hand with the rise of neo-liberalism.[4] One might well argue instead that statecraft, far from having disappeared, has become the exclusive (and well-funded) preserve of the right. Witness the ruthlessness with which the US Republicans have despatched Obama, or with which Cameron and Osborne have pursued their agenda to commodify the public realm and shrink the state. At a time when world-wide recession threatens every item on the social-democratic agenda—from climate change to growing inequality, decent jobs, pensions and affordable housing—where are the leaders of the left? Are they out addressing public meetings up and down the country, challenging the need for budgetary austerity, supporting the trade union campaign against cuts or explaining how the Tories are privatising the NHS? Decidedly not!

As Ed Miliband’s father argued, politics is far more about engaging with ordinary people than entertaining Parliament. We know from the 1930s and again from the late 1970s that right-wing populism thrives on economic insecurity and hardship. We are once again living in dangerous times. The left must summon all its energy to take its case to the public—or else risk calamitous defeat.
[1] See Nouriel Roubini: http://www.cnbc.com/id/44055868
[2] See Will Hutton: http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2011/aug/06/financial-system-a-madhouse
[3] See http://www.spiegel.de/international/europe/0,1518,775267,00.html
[4] See http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/jul/25/what-happened-to-statecraft

George Irvin is a Research Professor at the University of London (SOAS) and author of 'Super Rich: the Growth of Inequality in Britain and the United States', Cambridge, Polity Press, 2008.

Social Europe Journal