Progressive Parties Can Win Elections When They Stay True to Their Values

05/10/2015 11:10 EDT | Updated 05/10/2016 05:59 EDT
Britain's Labour Party leader Ed Miliband waves as he leaves after delivering his resignation at a press conference in Westminster, London, Friday, May 8, 2015. The Conservative Party surged to a seemingly commanding lead in Britain's parliamentary General Election, with Prime Minister David Cameron remaining in 10 Downing Street.(AP Photo/Tim Ireland)

Britain's recent election was difficult for progressives, the Conservatives defied pollsters and won a majority government. Polls showed a neck-and-neck race between the Conservatives and Labour with a "hung" Parliament as the most likely outcome (i.e. a Parliament where no party would win a majority of the seats). Election Day presented a different reality, with a sound defeat of Labour.

Labour Party leader Ed Miliband had a good message, combating inequality and promoting "responsible capitalism." This included highlighting the need to combat economic inequality, as well as clamping down on unpaid internships and corporate tax evasion. The emphasis on "responsible capitalism" highlighted that, while abuses had to be curbed and a strong social safety net was importance, there were benefits of a free-market economy including innovation and entrepreneurship.

The goals of social justice, combating inequality, and promoting a green economy, are compatible with a market economy. Combating inequality promotes social inclusion as more people can participate in -- and contribute to -- the economy (education and skills are key parts of this goal). Innovation is key in developing a green and sustainable economy.

Progressives, in Western Europe and North America, need to build a winning 21st century coalition. The manufacturing working class has declined as a percentage of the population, not to mention many of them are voting for right-wing parties. It is important to include creative classes (hence the emphasis on entrepreneurship and skills) and service classes (emphasizing issues such as the minimum wage). Issues of multiculturalism, feminism, and environmentalism, are now important on the left in addition to more traditional progressive concerns about inequality.

Miliband and the Labour platform seemed to strike the right tones in this regard, a platform that was true to the progressive base while expanding the tent and recognizing the economic and social changes of the 21st century.

Tony Blair did win elections, he is actually the only Labour Party leader since the 1970s to do so. However, his hesitation to publicly champion progressive causes (even though the policies of his government were quietly combating poverty) and his desire to win over right-wing media, disillusioned many supporters. It also led to public cynicism with the perception of a politics focused on saying anything to get elected rather than trying to genuinely present a transformative agenda to the electorate.

Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with right wing U.S. president George W. Bush especially tainted Blair's legacy.

It is worth noting that Blair's facebook post of himself holding a "Vote Labour" sign largely met with derisive comments, bluntly highlighting his role in Iraq, saying he was not helping Miliband's cause.

Andrew Harrop, General Secretary of Britain's Fabian Society, a centre-left thinktank with ties to the Labour Party, has an insightful post on the challenges from Labour's electoral defeat. He emphasized the importance of being true to progressive values, that "authenticity means being true to your party's values and beliefs, not trimming with the wind." Harrop highlighted the danger of Labour losing its base to other leftwing parties, such as the Greens. The base must be on board while building a broad-tent coalition to win government.

Harrop highlights that the challenge of Scottish nationalism (not a left or right issue per se) as presenting a further obstacle to Labour. The Scottish National Party (SNP) swept away seats in Labour's heartland in Scotland. Meanwhile, Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron used fears of a Labour-SNP coalition to scare voters away from Labour in England.

Harrop wrote that while Miliband had a good message, he was not a convincing messenger. This emphasizes the importance of leadership, the importance of a party leader as chief spokesperson and salesperson for their party in the age of multi-platform media.

Picking up on Harrop's themes, Alberta could offer a model. In the NDP's stunning electoral win in what was considered a conservative province, Alberta NDP leader Rachel Notley was a charismatic and compelling leader who conveyed sincerity and conviction. She ran a campaign in the oil-rich province true to progressive values -- being a real alternative to the Tory government -- including increasing corporate taxes, reviewing oil company royalties, emphasizing environmental sustainability in the energy sector, and promoting a progressive taxation system.

There was a good message and a compelling messenger that propelled the Alberta NDP to victory in a changing, increasingly multicultural, and urbanizing province.

Progressives can win on a genuine left-of-centre platform, voters respect conviction and ideals. In all this, a strong message and a compelling messenger are key. If the Alberta NDP could score a stunning and surprising victory in Alberta, there could be hope for the British Labour Party's road back to government. There are not quick fixes, but it is not an insurmountable task.


Alberta Election Day 2015