The eclipse of progressivism and the transatlantic return to the center

For the time being, the left and the movements powering it must organize online, support the struggles of low wage workers suddenly deemed ‘essential’ after being dismissed as unimportant for so many years and prepare for the struggles ahead.


Although the Democratic primaries in the United States are a drawn out state by state process with varying rules for each contest, while the election of a leader for the British equivalent of that party, Labor, is a national affair with voting only allowed for members, how leadership contests in both have now played out offers some bracing insights into the future prospects of the left in what we might call the English speaking world.

What is most frustrating for progressives looking at both countries is the return of the same tired centrist politics after a few short years of hope driven by popular policy ideas brought forward by leaders who could really contrast themselves to the dominance of the right in their own parties, at least on economic issues, leaving the stage.

This is especially true under the current circumstances, when grassroots organizing and protest have been rendered impossible.

That the left as a political force in both the United States and U.K. is on the decline at a time when the solutions to the current health crisis, especially for the working people forced from their jobs through no fault of their own, will at best be rebranded, short term versions of progressive policy ideas dismissed as impractical just a few months ago, is a tragedy that will likely be with us long after the current crisis has ended.

As we might expect given the country’s longer commitment to social democracy over time, this is at present more true of the U.K., where Conservatives have enacted such policies as keeping workers employed by paying them 80% of their wages through the crisis.

In the United States, the rhetoric about the suffering of working people has been similar, but the relief offered thus far has been focused more on the top than the bottom or even the middle, with a bailout that mimics the worst aspects of the corporate welfare provided to the country’s banking industry in 2008 on an even more massive scale.

On April 4th, the results for the Labor leadership contest elevated Sir Keir Starmer to the party’s top spot, with the former Head of the Crown Prosecution Service getting a little over 56% of the vote. His self-labeling as a ‘socialist’ aside, the new leader, who handily defeated the second place finisher, Rebecca Long Bailey, considered the ideological successor to outgoing leader Jeremy Corbyn, represents the return to dominance of the ‘moderate’ Blairite wing of the party.

Starmer, who has the kind of semi-chiseled features we might expect in a politician in a B movie, was the opposition’s Shadow Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union prior to the last election in 2019. Despite divisions in the party over Brexit, Starmer made it clear throughout his tenure that he wished for the country to remain in the union and that he supported a second referendum. While the split in the Conservative government between the two sides was more visible at the time, it was clear that many Labor voters supported leaving the E.U.

While the endless squabbles about Brexit already seem to come from a more frivolous time, one of the main things that hurt Corbyn, especially in the country’s traditionally Labor supporting north in the 2019 election was the complicated stance on the issue (favoring a 2nd referendum on whatever deal he negotiated with the E.U. along with a Remain option on the ballot) forced on him by Labor Remainers like Starmer.

Corbyn, himself a long time Euro-skeptic of the left, who had rightfully faulted the E.U. for its lack of democracy over his career, has been proven right by the body’s response to the spread of the novel coronavirus. Had he been more willing to fight, Corbyn could have offered a different vision from the fantasy presented by rightwing Brexiters who seemed to believe that their country would somehow become the great trading power it had been in the 19th century but instead chose to try and balance these opposing views.

Regardless, Starmer’s election, at least after the complicated process to reach the threshold needed to participate in the party vote, was a simple, well run affair, with Labor’s almost 600,000 party members using a ranked system to vote either by internet or mail and no need for these voters to take the risk of going to the polls at a time when health officials in most countries are asking people to shelter in place in their homes. Unfortunately, the same could not be said for the Democratic primaries on the other side of the Atlantic.

With Senator Bernie Sanders effectively exiting the race for the Democratic nomination this past Wednesday, any momentum the American progressive movement had feels lost. A major blow not only to the American left but numerous movements around the world inspired by it

While the vicious smears circulated by much of the U.K. press, which I am tired of re-litigating, ultimately undid Corbynism, at the same time, the undemocratic processes of the Democratic Party make it seem in hindsight that, just like his British counterpart, Senator Sanders never had a chance.

The Democratic party establishment and their allies in major media have shown their power over the selection of their presidential candidate in myriad ways during this cycle, from stage managed endorsements to a deeply flawed and failed process in Iowa (to say nothing of suspicious discrepancies between exit polls and machine counts). However, the most egregious, even criminal abuse was going ahead with primary elections in several states during a pandemic, putting voters and poll workers at risk for what appeared to be purely political reasons.

Scenes in Wisconsin this past Tuesday should have terrified politicians (and citizens) on both sides of the American political spectrum. With just 5 of 180 polling places open in Milwaukee alone due to a lack of workers, lineups were much longer than they should have been and social distancing seemed like an impossibility in the most heavily populated parts of the state.

Most heartbreaking were the voices of those waiting to exercise their right as citizens, scared but resolute in their desire to have a voice not only in the presidential primary but in local and state contests and in filling a seat on the state’s already Republican controlled Supreme Court.

As Quinn Blackshere, 27, of Milwaukee told Buzzfeed News after standing in line two hours to cast her ballot, “People are strong and are willing to stand in these lines, but it’s not what’s best for us. This isn’t a fair choice to make.”

The majority of the blame for the debacle should be placed firmly on the shoulders of Republicans, from those in the state’s legislature who voted to go ahead with the vote as planned all the way up to the United States Supreme Court, which denied the state the right to extend the deadline for absentee ballots.

As Wisconsin’s Democratic governor, Tony Evers, who desperately tried to postpone the elections, explained at a recent press conference, “At every turn, they have fought, even all the way to the Supreme Court, even the most basic and commonsense proposals to ensure a safe and fair election. There’s no shame in changing course to keep people safe. And, quite frankly, to save lives. Our allegiance cannot be to party or ideology. It must be to the people of Wisconsin and their safety.”

Having said this, the presumed Democratic nominee, Joe Biden, whose campaign had called for the election to go ahead as planned, when asked by George Stephanoupolis of ABC News the day before the vote whether going ahead with it was, “wise”, said, “Whatever the science says, we should do,” without specifying that everything medical authorities had been saying for weeks demanded a postponement, instead engaging in empty platitudes about American democracy surviving earlier crises.

After the vote took place the following day, when speaking to CNN’s Chris Cuomo, the former vice president walked back his and his campaign’s previous statements, saying the election should have never taken place.

Also, while it was earlier in this crisis, it shouldn’t be forgotten that the party’s leadership, represented by DNC Chair Tom Perez, called for the Florida, Arizona and Illinois to go ahead with primaries on March 17th, with at least 2 poll workers in Florida later found to be infected.

After what has been revealed so starkly about the whole political class in most western countries by this ongoing health crisis, voters in both the U.S. and the U.K., especially on the left, will need to be wary of growing calls for ‘unity governments’, which will hamper the ability of formerly opposition parties to criticize government actions.

For the time being, the left and the movements powering it must organize online, support the struggles of low wage workers suddenly deemed ‘essential’ after being dismissed as unimportant for so many years and prepare for the struggles ahead.


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