European Progressives have much more to be proud about than just their tradition. There are many exciting examples of diverse contemporary initiatives, which undoubtedly could in-spire more confidence. And that is the key – since self-assurance and courage in proposing choices will be the defining factors in the battle that is upon Europeans in 2019.
There is no other movement like the Progressives. This statement is true regarding a handful of positive features, but it also indicates some proclivities that are difficult to handle. Social democrats frequently deliberate the roads that they did not take and ponder mistakes they made. That comes from a tradition of critical reflection. But currently it makes them particularly vulnerable. It is not appreciated as a sign of responsibility, and it is driving them to defensive positions at the same time. This short piece will argue a need for focusing on sources that could bring new confidence instead.
A spirit haunts the meetings of the future of social democracy. It is a hope that one day it will all stop: the headlines will no longer speak of death of social democracy in the light of one or another election, people will see the populists and others for whom they really are and return to the centre-left. Similar thoughts were a source of comfort in 2008, even though the pendulums don’t just swing back. Not when the political stages are changing profoundly.
There has been enough waiting, enough regretting and complaining about the successes of others. It is time to shake off the grim and move back into action. A new energy is primarily a matter of conviction – what Barack Obama showed saying yes, we can. The historical objective is to return to win the argument on how to shape a bet- ter future for everyone – regardless if to that end there is one competitor (like in the past) or many enemies (as it seems to be the case now).
This is a call to see beyond the curtain of pessimism and self-pity, while many encouraging examples of centre-left renewal are being overlooked. If instead of being singled out they were put in one, comprehensive story, they could represent the counterevidence to all those who foretell the end of social democracy worldwide. Giving it a try, one could see how they could work within a comprehensive narrative covering the fol- lowing aspects: the issue of new energy and leadership; the question of traditional values and their appeal; and the matter of setting defining ethical standards and setting new boundaries for politics.
The historical objective is to return to win the argument on how to shape
a better future for everyone.
To briefly touch upon the first, the following experiment was completed at a seminar for young progressives. Participants were asked to close their eyes and to imagine social democracy as if it was a person. Many reported that they saw the move- ment’s giants: Willy Brandt, Olof Palme…. They saw respectable and politically-smart elderly men, with whom they had only a kind of an intellectual connection. This was quite representative for how the European Millennials think and feel. But instead one can learn from the handful of successful examples that are around: Pedro Sanchez, Jeremy Corbyn , but also in their days Benoît Hamon or Matteo Renzi, were able to generate a new energy as candidates for leaders. Because of their authenticity and integrity; of their readiness to challenge the presumed home-runners; to risk all and to fight with a new agenda they succeeded in breaking out of stigmatising archetypes.
When it comes to traditional values, two claims have been endlessly repeated. First, that social democrats are victims of their own success and with the emancipation of the working class, the mission of the movement seems unclear. Second, that what people rally for today – excessive inequality or lack of solidarity – used to form the core of the centre-left agenda, while Progressives today seem invisible on those issues. While the first one is untrue, since it would imply that world is free from social injustice; the second prompts the question what could be done. And here, three examples are telling: the first is Portugal, where the PS-formed government using traditional values as guidelines to make bold choices. Austerity – no, public invest- ments – yes. The second is Sweden, where Stefan Löfven and the SAP campaigned unapologetically on a programme focused on quality jobs and welfare, bringing home more votes than expected and emerging as the only stabilising actor in pre-governmental bargaining. And the third is Austria, where against all odds, 40.000 people participated in a deliberative process of writing a new SPÖ programme. Their mobilisation showcases what Felipe Gonzalez recently said at a joint event with FEPS in Madrid: if you want to save representative democracy, you need to make it a participatory one indeed.
Finally, there is the issue of democracy itself. Much has been said about so-called traditional politics being under siege, many ‘isms’ (populism, neo-liberalism) have been stuck onto ‘the others’ which Progressives detest. But as someone said, the emblematic election of Donald Trump (and others) is not a crisis of social democracy, but an affliction of democracy as such. The fight that needs to be fought is not against them, but in favour of standards and principles of democracy. It is about remembering that it is an ideal for which so many have sacrificed so much. This is why Pedro Sanchez’s attempt to end the commemoration of Franco’s regime is so monumental. This is why Jacinda Ardern telling her opponents off when they asked about her
family planning during the campaign was cutting-edge. They were both about integrity and leading by example.
These are just few, selected examples– but many more could be chosen. The difference is in fact being made every day, but it is difficult to quote in times of disbelief. But they showcase that Progressives can become the movement they really aspire to be. The key is to start also seeing positives and allowing confidence to grow, to start believing and making bold choices. It is about trusting oneself, one’s genuine instincts and hopes that could be entrusted in Progressives again.