Don’t give up on progressive politics

First published on ProgressOnline

‘This is your captain speaking. The new president of in the United States is … Donald Trump’. News that the Barack Obama’s successor is the rightwing orange demigod is met with groans on my flight as I head as far away from last night’s new as is humanly possible. The realisation that there is nowhere you can fly out of the sphere of influence of the 45th occupant of the Oval Office feels horrifying. Watching the results creep in it is hard to suggest a feeling of shock, the final result – as with Brexit – was present in the early results in Michigan. As Sunderland had foretold the inevitable news that Britain had rejected the European Union, Florida confirmed US voters had voted to reject a neoliberal world order of free trade and outsourcing, political elites and mass movement of people providing cheap labour. But as with Brexit, it is not clear what they voted to replace it with. Will Trump bring about a new wave of protectionism and government spending? Will the billionaire TV host and former Democrat donor not surround himself with a like-minded inner circle? Is he really going to build a wall, kick out immigrants, ban Muslims and separate families?

There are so many questions we ask ourselves. How did it happen? Could we have won anyway? Should and could we have sought to hold back globalisation? Are there reasonable things centre-left politicians could have done that would have been able to prevent this? If so, what were they and at what point could they have been? Are progressives destined to trash their own record, side and chances even when up against an ugliness as profound as Trump?

All I know is that 2016 has seen the worst year ever. Also, that all the wrong people have been left cheering. Not just Trump and his acolytes in Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin and Rudi Giuliani, but the populist rightwingers who are desperate to break through in other western democracys: Nigel Farage, Marian Le Pen and Geert Wilders. However, the loudest cheers of all will surely come from within the Duma. Vladimir Putin is stronger today than at any point before. This is a victory for Russian foreign policy they could have only dreamt of in the Cold War.

At the other extreme are bitter Bernie Sanders supporters who trashed a ‘progressive who wants to get things done’ so much so that they damaged the Democrat candidate standing for the White House on the most progressive platform ever. Closer to home, John McDonnell and various parts of the revolutionary left will privately lift a glass with close confidants. Richard Burgeon and Neil Findlay seem to be almost enjoying the moment; equally, they have clarity about what happened in America in a way that they lack when up against the Tories and the Scottish National party respectfully. They will see this as yet more evidence the public are prepared to rip up the old order and elect Jeremy Corbyn. This is a stretch, at best.

I do not have words of hope at this time, but I do have three ‘don’ts’ for dispirited Labour members:

  1. Don’t … give up on progressive politics

This is not the time to throw the towel in with progressive politics in general or Labour politics in particular. While the prospects of both feel bleak right now, an articulate, coherent and genuinely new approach from that taken in the 1990s is more necessary than ever than ever before. It must be built. It will be hard work. Our pain must be bottled and deployed as we reach out to the dark places we must go to genuinely reconnect.

  1. Don’t … draw too many analogies

The result seems to confirm that if you cannot win on a ‘cosmopolitan coalition’ in the US, it is definitely not possible in the UK. There are obviously analogises with Brexit. But we should all guard against the glib and reach for something deeper. The answers we find may prove to be less than reassuring – but finding solace in wishful thinking will send us on a false errand.

  1. Don’t … lash out at the US and the voters

Hard to resist, I know. Social media will have a field day. Memes – many of them funny and perfectly capturing the moment – risk reinforcing The Donalds’ coalition. Unknowingly, it might also help spread, or worse embed, it in Western Europe. Virtue signalling will only separate those wanting to prevent a similar outcome in France next year – or at a UK general election, were an early poll be called – from the voters that are clearly frustrated. Equally, Americans here in the UK will have mixed emotions about the result – on both extremes. They should not, like our European Union national neighbours, feel they are not welcome or be judged for the fact Trump is making his way to the White House.


Richard Angell is director of Progress. He tweets at @RichardAngell

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