Demos, a London-based think tank, asked me to contribute a short essay on what it means to be on the center-left today. It is one of a series of essays running as a part of a new Demos project called Open Left. You can find the essay, Meeting the Challenges of the 21st Century, and other interesting essays here.
I’m on the left because only the progressive moments in our history, and the progressive leaders who forge them, ensure that prosperity is shared more broadly and our country more prepared to face the future. The last century has seen an ebb and flow between right and left. In America we’ve had three broad periods. The first ran between the two Roosevelts: a battle to lock-down a new reform-minded politics born in the aftermath of economic upheaval in the “progressive era.” It was eventually captured by the Democrats. The second went from FDR to Reagan: an era of Democratic consolidation, which built America’s (still unfinished) social contract. The third began in 1980: a conservative ascendancy that saw its greatest triumphs in 1994 and 2004.
It’s worth remembering that until 2007 the conservative movement had achieved more political and ideological control over my country than at any time since the 1920s. Under President Obama that moment is passing, we hope for good – although battles, such as those being fought over the economy, healthcare, climate changes and immigration as I write, must be won to truly turn back the two-decade march. But the most important question from America’s recent past was – would conservatism mature to provide a credible alternative governing philosophy to replace 20th century progressivism? The Bush era answered that question. The answer is no. It is a lesson that the United Kingdom should learn carefully, as it toys with returning a once-discredited party of the right to political office.
But this next progressive era will not be dominated by the two-tired conservative and liberal ideologies of the past. So it falls to the progressive side to build a reinvented governing agenda capable of tackling the challenges of our time, and new political arrangements built around the capabilities of our fast-changing economy, media and people. Three challenges standout; three that are quite different from those we faced even a few decades ago when Bill Clinton and Tony Blair rethought what it meant to be on the centre-left.
Just as FDR tamed America’s industrial society, so now we must make the transition to a low carbon society-a societal transformation which if anything has been understated by our leaders. Everything from how we build and drive to how we power our mobile devices must change. This transformation will requires a great deal of money, innovations yet unimagined, and a public ready and willing not just to follow but to lead. It also needs a strong moral vision, and a role for the state unsuited to conservativism. And while the proposals offered by Ed Miliband and the Brown government this month are a good start, managing this transformation over the next three decades will make or break political careers and parties. Getting this right is a prerequisite for center-left success in the 21st century.
Second, we must re-imagine politics and government for an age when we are all connected. At some point in the next ten years just about everyone in the world will become knitted together through mobile devices and online. All that we know – communications, commerce, learning, socialising, politics, governing, even the concept of free and open societies themselves-will be changed by this powerful and ever more ubiquitous network. Harnessing the promise of this new age of mobile, and the radical democratization of information, knowledge and power it offers will be one of our the great projects of the center-left in the years to come.
Finally, we must come to terms with “the rise of the rest” as Fareed Zakaria has defined the emergent geopolitical reality of our day, this inexorable trend of developing nations like China, India, Mexico and Brazil taking their seat at the global table. In the years ahead these countries will surely produce Chinese Microsofts and Indian Nokias. Their economic maturation will mean that our countries will compete with both their inexpensive workers and a whole new set of globally competitive corporations, further intensifying already virulent global competition for our businesses, workers and students. Producing rising standards of living in the West will require much more investment in infrastructure, knowledge, skills and schools, and our people’s full partnership in understanding that success will require us to do more, to raise our game, or risk being left behind.
This “rise of the rest” will also require a remaking of the global institutions of governance and power. We have seen this process play out this year as the G20 begins to replace the G8, and the debate over how to remake the International Money Fund has begun in earnest. With only about 15 percent of the world’s people today of European descent, the ability for the governments of the West to be the primary managers of global affairs is coming to an end, a process that will not be easy for our governments to manage, or perhaps our people to accept.
The challenges in front of the center-left political parties of the West today are extraordinary, the greatest we have faced since the rise of European fascism seventy years ago. Today, as in the past, only a progressive vision is fit to meet them. Facing them forthrightly, and showing the courage to tackle them head-on will be perhaps the greatest test of them all.