Can progressive policy be good politics?
Last week the Centre for American Progress published a report, Creating Inclusive Prosperity, informally subtitled ‘Against Fatalism’. It is the culmination of a two-year long commission into the ‘defining issue of our generation’. That is that underwhelming growth, wage stagnation and increasing inequality is a toxic cocktail with profound implications for democracy. The implications for democracy as described by commission members include protecting democracy from xenophobic splinter parties as seen in Europe, stopping UKIP, and countering general disengagement from politics and mainstream political parties.
There are a number of things that are interesting about the report – it has a clarity of argument, lots of charts, some international case studies and analysis, but perhaps the central most interesting point came from a question from the floor when CAP held it’s launch event in Washington DC last week. The question was directed to Ed Balls (one of the report’s board of commissioners) and asked how his commitment to matching Conservative capital spending plans could be squared with the report’s case that this was the time (combination of low interest rates and high un/under-employment) for infrastructure investment. The question (and answer: in the UK we need to focus on productivity rather than growth) is important because it captures a critical issue for the ‘common progressive agenda’ outlined in the report – the ideas are all well and good, but how are you going to make them into an engaging case for a tired and dubious electorate?
There are no real surprises in the reports recommendations to reduce inequality – higher wages, more investment in education (from early years to apprenticeships), more family-friendly labor markets, importance of wage supplements, more long-term investment, regional/innovation clusters, global approaches to tax/trade etc.
There are some obvious gaps, particularly in the area of labor market policy, which focuses almost exclusively on young people, proposing Future Jobs Fund-type job guarantees and better apprenticeships. Improving labor force participation focuses on women and solutions focus on childcare and better-paid leave, particularly in the US, where rights to leave are currently a disaster. Both are, of course, important but little thought is given to how to really improve opportunities to work flexibly, or challenging the structure of work over a(n increasing) life cycle to support people to take time out when they want/need to.
There are best practice examples – particularly from Canada, Australia and Sweden, who weathered the financial crisis, highlighting the importance they place on financial regulation, industrial regulation and female participation in the labor market respectively. These are good examples but the report didn’t really make, or attempt to make the case for how they could be implemented in other, different, larger, economies and societies and what that would look like.
The Commissioners argued that they were presenting a crucial and practical report. On many occasions they correlated ignoring these suggestions with crises in democracy. EJ Dionne Jr (Washington Post columnist) captured the mood of many of the speakers when he said that the restoration of living standards are important to avoid undermining political systems, creating alienation, distemper and anger. He used 1930s Europe as a comparison, as a time that “democracies were no longer capable of dealing with the problems they have created”. These issues are indeed crucial, and they have focused on practical policy responses BUT that is very different from practical politics. There is very little in this report that is news to those with an understanding of the progressive agenda. The arguments are well made and the policy responses familiar. The question is, is that the issue? Similar, well-evidenced, arguments have been made by progressives since well before the financial crisis. I am not sure the problem is with policy – the problem is with politics, and despite the frequent references to the importance of this to the wider democratic process, that is not really addressed in the report.
Why have politicians found ideas like this so hard to promote? Ed Balls signs up to a thesis about long-term investment but feels he has to sell a general election story that focuses on the short-term – why? Why do good industrial relations matter more to Australian voters? Or, at least, not send them running for the hills? Would they feel the same if the export market for natural minerals crashed? Why are the Swedes better able to make a vote winning argument for significant long-term investment to increase the tax base? What, if anything, does the vote increase for the right there tell us about this? What was the impact for Canada’s financial industry of their regulatory approach? How important is that industry to Canada? Best practice examples are often presented as evidence that an approach works, but being able to learn from them requires more than just being able to point out to an electorate that an idea is happening elsewhere. This report doesn’t give us that ‘more’.
There has been a recent revisiting of the Dukakis Presidential run, of how his focus on policy over politics cost him the election. In the UK, as the general election approaches we are witnessing increasing numbers of politicians focusing on blame and describing problems, without a clear argument of what they would actually do differently. The rise of UKIP is in many ways testament to the power of moaning over the importance of solutions. Progressive politicians are still finding it easier to sign up to policy ideas, than to actually work out the politics of convincing voters to vote for them.