The election, a decisive victory for Brexit and Johnson’s Conservatives, draws a curtain on a decade of disillusion.
The 2010s have been politically miserable, bookended by austerity and nationalism and an interest in the climate emergency only relatively recently ignited. Those, including myself, who desperately wanted to avoid Brexit have been defeated. And the contours of Johnson’s conservatism aren’t yet fully defined. If there is a moment to be fatalistic it is this one. Yet, that is simply not good enough.
In a heavily caveated piece a few weeks ago I suggested there was more to cheer for progressives – those who favour investment in public services, redistribution and economic security, human rights, internationalism and fair market economy – than might be assumed.
There is now some acceptance across the main parties, to wildly differing degrees admittedly, of the importance of investment in skills, regional rebalancing, decarbonisation, industrial investment, the NHS and improving the regulatory environment for work. The in-principle argument has been won in all these areas, the question is how and how fast.
Progressives will need to be policy entrepreneurs in the coming years, spotting opportunities to work with the Government and devolved administrations in order to embed and accelerate change. There is a humility to this process that requires the self-honesty that a radical new dawn may not be around the corner; there is work to be done now.
Given that the Government, with the exception of Brexit, is a relatively blank slate, there will be opportunities. None of this means failing to speak truth to power when it is failing to act, especially when it comes to climate change. Progressive should be clear and honest but also opportunistic in the coming years. As Extinction Rebellion advocate: tell the truth and act now.
Whilst the UK will now leave the EU, that is not the end of conversation. There is a choice for those who wanted to retain EU membership: forever look back and re-join or seek to engage in a more persuasive politics of seeking to retain close cooperation albeit as non-members.
The latter position will find a more sympathetic audience than the former for some time: there is a very strong case to be made that the UK should anchor its international relationships in European political economy, regulatory standards, and values rather than US ones. This impacts the environment, citizenship not least the sacrosanct status of EU citizens in the UK, the products and services we buy, our data that should be safeguarded for public good, and the food we eat. This conversation is yet to begin in earnest.
A third tenet of Extinction Rebellion is ‘beyond politics’ and here is where progressive can again make a difference. The creative protest and clarity of story characteristic of Extinction Rebellion is itself an inspiration. There are many more spaces beyond politics where progressives are already making a difference.
In our own work here in the RSA we see Fellows and other civic and public changemakers setting up community banks and convening communities, business, civil society and policy makers around the future of food, health, rural areas and the environment. We are able to bring citizens together with decision-makers in business – not least technology giants - and politics as we work to support deliberative democratic processes.
A movement of places seeking to experiment with Universal Basic Income has emerged and we see new collective leadership in cities such as Plymouth and Brighton to open out and engage the passion to learn throughout life. Social care pioneers work to find new ways of working that provide better care. Designers seek to rethink economic and environmental systems and innovate for social good. We see social innovators rethink the means to develop a new bundle in support of economic security. This barely scratches the surface of the change we can see connected as it is into communities and global relationships.
The RSA is but one institution amongst many from universities to progressive business and media to civil society amongst which there are abundant possibilities. Across civil society there are entrepreneurs and innovators working day in, day out to see change. Trade unions experiment with new ways to bring atomised workers together and develop worker voice. A movement of community businesses is gathering pace supported by Power to Change and others. Places such as Preston experiment with community wealth building, a means of nourishing locally beneficial economies. Business are starting to question their purpose, aware that they must retain the commitment of and motivate a more progressive generation.
None of this is to be complacent. The scale of what’s required is enormous. Our ‘lifeworld’ is out of sync with the big systems – money, power, technology and the biosphere - with which we all must wrestle. General elections are opportunities to consider a system reset and this one accelerated the current course rather than switched tracks. Yet, if progressives are determined, opportunistic and entrepreneurial there is hope.
The answers ultimately haven’t been provided by a hollow political centre, the ideological left, or the commonsensical centre-left. A new politics will need to emerge if widespread system change is to be possible. That new politics could emerge out of a conversation between green politics and the politics of place, community and belonging: a democracy of green and town.
We’ll see. But for now, let’s act, let’s experiment, let’s seek change. If we so do today is not the end, it’s the beginning.