How can we build a coalition on progressive issues?

8:13 am - January 16th 2009

by Jemima Olchawski    

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One of the big challenges for progressives is how we connect up campaigning on different issues to build effective coalitions for change. This is central to the mission of Liberal Conspiracy, recognizing that there are too few spaces where progressives from different perspectives come together to forge strategies for change.

The recession now brings this into sharp focus. There may be an opportunity to challenge the dominance of deregulation, to question inequality at the very top, and remake the public case for the role of the state.

Another instinct will be ‘charity begins at home’: the enormous effects on the developing world of rising food and energy prices have been a very minor theme of political and media discussion given a financial crisis and economic recession. This is the crucial year for a post-Kyoto climate change deal – by Copenhagen this December. Will the deal we need be credit crunched?

Last week Don Paskini mentioned that most people would prefer to cut foreign aid spending. Progressive campaigners will not want to choose between social justice at home or abroad, or the environment. Are we missing the opportunity to bring in new voices who could shift and reframe debates?

Sometimes, there are clear links we could develop. For example, socio-economic disadvantage in Britain is most heavily concentrated among British Bangladeshi and Pakistani communities, whose interest in development is very concretely demonstrated by the large sums transferred in private remittances to relatives.

Bangladesh is also on the frontline of the impact of climate change, showing why a debate about prioritising development or climate change could be self-defeating.

But there will be tensions and trade-offs too. Campaigners on development and the environment have recognized their causes are linked, while trade unionists have tried to build international links to domestic campaigning. But how far have they managed to fuse their agendas so far?

What does a joined up campaign for climate change and development look like? Can it bring in fair burden-sharing at home too? What would its key messages and demands be? And how will we make the trade-offs between important claims and values when they conflict?

Any single campaign has to unite those with different ideas and agendas – radical and more gradualist environmentalists; development campaigns which cooperate with governments or multinationals and those which challenge them.

If these pressures are greater in trying to develop broader coalitions, how can a campaigning strategy stay effective in achieving their goals?

This is also the case in campaigning across issues of gender, race, sexuality, disability, age and social class. Do we believe we are stronger together, or does the idea of support for building greater solidarity get trumped by the fear that our share of voice and the profile of our core issues will be reduced?

The scale of the issues in 2009 suggest that we might still be at the stage where we have more questions than answers.

So we wanted to make this challenge of ‘Making the Link’ to campaign for fairness one of the themes at the Fabian New Year conference on Saturday.

Conor Foley of this parish will be among our panelists, along with international development secretary Douglas Alexander and Rushanara Ali, Labour’s PPC for Bethnal Green and Bow, and others.

I will be chairing the session so would be interested to hear ideas which might inform and feed into this; good examples of this type of campaigning, or ideas of new things that civil society groups, the trade unions, or web-based campaigners should be doing? How might they look like in seeking to influence key moments in the next couple of years?

We aren’t going to solve these challenges this weekend – but I will report back on the issues, dilemmas and ideas which the discussion throws up.

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About the author
This is a guest post. Jemima is events director at the Fabian Society
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Economy ,Environment ,Foreign affairs ,Realpolitik ,Trade Unions

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Reader comments

“There may be an opportunity to challenge the dominance of deregulation … and remake the public case for the role of the state.”

Gee, I must be a regressive. I never knew.

I don`t like to annoy the lovely people of this site but I do object to the Orwellian use of this word ‘progressive ‘. Its not progress to go in the wrong direction how ever pleased with yourself you may be en route .In as much as this constituency seems to want to take us back to post war collectivism with 60s selfishness thrown in can I suggest the word “antiquarian ” as an alternative or perhaps “reactionary” if you prefer .

3. Alisdair Cameron

I’m afraid that with Douglas Alexander and Rushanara Ali there,you’re going to be operating on a very peculiar notion of progressive. The Fabians and Sunder remain in my eyes, far too sympathetic to New Labour, and have been much too quiet on civil liberties, surveillance, authoritarianism, the capitulation to the (big) business lobby, indeed the unprincipled pursuit of preserving power for power’s sake that has become the hallmark of the likes of Purnell, Burnham, Smith etc

4. Mike Killingworth

The world’s population is predicted to peak at 9 billion people in 2070 (according to the estimate I’ve just found here.

No one supposes that the Earth can resource such a number enjoying the standard of living that we currently do in this country. Indeed, I have not seen a cogent estimate anywhere of how many people living as we do now it can sustain. The Deep Green philosopher Arne Naess – whose obituary appeared in yesterday’s Guardian – suggested 100 million!

More questions than answers indeed…

The world’s population is predicted to peak at 9 billion people in 2070 (according to the estimate I’ve just found here.

Yes but since this stopped being a selfish Western problem and became an incontinent third world problem it has fallen off the agenda .( No hair shirt , no interest)You will get no where with the Fabian society on that one .

Alisdair Cameron

Thanks. You are very much entitled to your view and lots of others here will agree with you.

I am on the pluralist wing of the Labour party. My personal view is that Labour is necessary but not sufficient for lasting social change. I was influenced, when I was about 18, by David Marquand’s progressive dilemma on that. There are inevitably tensions: there always are in politics, because different people have different values, interests, opinions and strategies. I have written something about that in reviewing Marquand’s new book (in which the Fabians are the villains to some extent)

You are of course free to reject that as wrong-headed, and anybody engaged with the Labour party as a lost cause. I am sure you are not alone. One important question is what is your strategy for progressive change. One of the choices for those of you who feel that, I suspect, is whether there is a pressure and voice strategy which tries to remain outside the (corrupting) influences of the political system; or whether there is also an interest in creating a governing coalition with a mixture of inside or outside strategies, and what those are.

Wherever you come out on that, I think anybody interested in progressive politics could – in different ways – pay more attention to the tone and style of the debates we have, and particularly to how we debate differences with respect. I fully admit that has not been a hallmark of new Labour – one of their worst features. It is not exactly a hallmark of some of their critics – one of their worst features too, in my no doubt fallible opinion. (Incidentally, I think this is one of Obama’s underrated strengths: he is a different style of centrist to new labour circa 1997: he sees virtue in admitting to not having the answers, which can enable him to share the problem).

Personally, like many people in the Labour party as well as outside it, I have tried to have a reasoned critique of the government on liberties issues, and have consistently been opposed and sceptical to the 90 days/42 days and to ID cards as part of that. The Fabians haven’t given it the same level of priority that we have to social inequality, for several reasons, including where we add something new to debates and can shift public/political debate or policy, as well as want we think is most important for pursuing left values. (For example, even if climate change or global poverty are the most important issue in the world, it doesn’t follow that it is necessarily the right place for any particular general progressive organisation – whether the Fabians, Liberal Conspiracy, the TUC or whoever).

I think it is good that Douglas Alexander accepted our invitation to come and debate this: we do take the view that getting ministers to engage in open public debates with a range of different critical voices is a good thing. You seem to think that is pointless. And I don’t see why you dismiss Rushanari Ali so easily and quickly. (It sounds a bit like a generic point about anybody who ever enters formal politics, especially the Labour party, but maybe thats wrong it is about something specific she has said or written that you fundamentally disagree with)

How exactly have we been deregulating of late? I think it is a bit of a progressive myth.

But why not debate the question, instead of the baneful influence of the Fabians.

Try a quick if unlikely thought experiment. The LibDems have won a parliamentary majority of 20 in the UK! I am sure even their greatest fans here don’t think that solves all of these problems. (Perhaps they will turn out to be exactly the same). the question was how progressives can build effective campaigns and coalitions

9. Alisdair Cameron

Sunder, I was being brief, but I was also being polite. Douglas Alexander has a poor record for listening (I’ve many connections north of the border, and his hauteur is legendary), so while it may appear good to have ministers attend, it’s better to get only those who’ll properly listen, otherwise your event becomes part of the non-progressive New labour window-dressing of seeming to be in touch, yet never taking anyone else’s view on board. I’ll accept that Rushanara Ali is relatively more ‘innocent’, but she is nonetheless terribly on-message, and has followed the ‘latter-day’ Establishment route for politics:into the project from teen years, gone to Uni (usually Oxbridge, doing PPE or SPS) done kiddy student playing at politics,become a wonk/think-tanker etc , researcher, maybe a light touch of lecturing,or gentle legal-eagling, or vol/com sector work normally as a strategist/policy-setter/executive rather than at the sharpest end, then a seat is found for you. It’s actually a very similar background to my own, and I despair at the lack of variety in prospective candidate’s life-experience.
At no point does the pathetic and risible politics-as-a-game mindset, the progress of favourite sons and daughters stop, and nor is the real world ever allowed to intrude upon ‘the project’. Sure you may get the visible black, brown and female figures, but check their backgrounds: bet it’s the usual track, and my goodness they’re on message.
It’s a fair point you raise about organised politics, and for me, a metaphorical cancer on the body politic is the strength of the respective party machineries and the manner in which they enforce rigid adherence to ‘the message’, inhibiting freshness of thought, dissension or debate, and hence retarding progress. I am on friendly terms with a couple of (older) Old Lab MPs and they are wily enough to be able to resist the pressures from the whips etc, but younger, more careerist MPs, already filtered for their obedience, may not, and the nation suffers as a consequence. I don’t believe that those in organised politics are a waste of time, at all, but believe that the tighter and tighter ways in which politics is organised and even displayed as a career option (which is kinda arrogant, surely) is thoroughly detrimental to both progress and democracy

I’d disagree with you utterly on the lack of priority of Civ libs, and when you say “The Fabians haven’t given it the same level of priority that we have to social inequality, for several reasons, including where we add something new to debates and can shift public/political debate or policy, as well as want we think is most important for pursuing left values.” I think you a treading a dangerous path. To remain relatively quiet on civ libs, and increased authoritarianism is to play to the Right’s strength, as they can always then continue to utter the Stalinist/Stasi jibes . The Left MUST disassociate itself from the controlling ststae and align itself with an ‘enabling’ or ’empowering’ stae (how Fabian is that..!)
In my opinion (and, hey, it’s just an opinion, so no need to get too prickly..) the Fabians ought to be using their prominence to leverage greater change for the Govt, rather than pushing at open doors over social inequality. I don’t dislike that Fabians by any stretch, just think they could and should be more vociferous, and active.
All the best (sincerely),

AC: I hear you, but I have to disagree.

Look, the Fabians are never going to be the SWP. That’s not the point of the Fabians. The point of the Fabians is to skate over endless liberal bickering about what ‘progressive’ really means and actually work to build – not a consensus, but a movement towards practical action.

I worked for the society for three months, and I saw a lot there that seemed a little too watery to count as really radical in my book. But, I’m 22 and professionally objectionable. I also saw nothing there that I could not respect. If you’re willing to stand up and call the Fabians Centrists, you really have no idea the extent of the problem we’ve got in this country. The Fabians are bridge-builders, researchers, professional moderate leftists, with good connections that they exploit to the full. I respect that. I respect that even though the Fabian Society rejected me for *two* jobs whilst I was interning there.

I stand by my original sentiment that LC needs to reflect Fabian views as part of a broad swathe of opinon, and not show any bias towards them. But I think that the voice of moderation is an important voice.

Presuming that I recover from this horrible cold, I will be there at the conference tomorrow, volunteering, showing people to seats and generally being smiley and demure, because I cannot afford a ticket and I very much want to hear some of the speeches, especiall the feminist one with Zohra and Catherine Redfern. I’ll be reporting on that for this site, you’ll be excited to hear…

But, I’m 22 and professionally objectionable

Ha , you are such an amateur . Observe the master and learn


I’m slightly worried that you’re about to ask me out on a date.


I prefer men who can spell.



Thanks. I agree you weren’t being impolite. While there is an obvious underlying political disagreement, I agree with several points you make – about the empowering state (and a less statist politics) and about the political class – though probably for you in a trimming, up to a point way. (This is what I am trying to say in my Marquand review. I think the point of a more equal society is about the distribution of freedom, as autonomy).

That relates to Laurie’s defence (thanks). I think you can be a gradualist and a radical, or a gradualist and a sellout. Or somewhere in between, like many of us. I doubt there is any effective progressive campaigning, particularly for deep social change – eg feminism – , that isn’t gradualist. That is triply important for those who want to make empowerment and participation seriously.

On civil liberties, I don’t think its faiir to say we have been quietist on it, despite having just strengthened that impression. It is an issue of scale and capacity that we have one primary research focus, which has been bringing equality and class back in. But we do try to give a decent level of priority to the other major progressive issues, We have done lots of events and discussions- quite a bit on the counter-productive approach to British Muslim integration. We are co-hosting a panel with Compass at the Modern Liberty convention, and have a Shirley Williams event the following month on this theme. I have often said it is a key area where Brown needed to change significantly (And I thought his On Liberty speech was excellent, but just don’t find that reflected in the politics or policy of his government).
I argued this was one of my five key tests of a ‘change’ agenda for Brown, eg in the conclusion of this Vision Thing paper on Not The Election Day in 07.

14. Alisdair Cameron

No worries, Sunder and laurie: I think we’re more in agreement than disagreement (and I’m not an SWP/Spartist type, but probably Old Labour than either of you, I’m guessing, albeit with
I’d aver that where we differ is really in the degree of disappointment/betrayal we feel at New Labour:)
I’m a tremendous fan of J.S Mill, and could not bear Brown’s attempted appropriation of Mill’s legacy: his analysis of Mill was pretty accurate, which has made Brown’s Govt’s practice all the more galling, especially on civ libs. It’s as if Brown knows what the ‘right’ thing to do morally and philosophically is, yet wilfully goes in quite the opposite direction.

I prefer men who can spell

haha! brilliant smackdown.

The thing is, I’ve been mulling over all this for the past few months too. There certainly needs to be more discussion about what sort of role the state has to play in terms of the economy.

I think part of the problem is that New Labour’s bad record on civil liberties instantly makes everyone think that any piece of legislation that is to do with another issue, say for example regulation of the financial sector, is about its own obsession with control-freakery. Whether that accusation is fair or not, it certainly seems to inform a lot of debate.

On the wider question – I certainly see one alliance coming together very strongly: and that is the green / economic / countryside alliance against Heathrow expansion.

I’ll be going to some of those protests at Heathrow too and reporting on them. In addition to that, I think tyhe Greens will have to make and win those arguments publicly too (as they have been doing) against Heathrow expansion and about the environment more generally.

Anyway, I’m looking forward to this debate…

On the point about the Fabians – obviously they’re not everyone’s cup of tea, but they’re also not the only group in town. There’s no necessity for them to focus on civil liberties if they feel other issues are their strengths, but that doesn’t mean other groups won’t.

The Convention on Civil Liberties people are mostly left-wing, who have joined forces with the right (David Davis was there at the launch event last night, and I have to say, quite good on the issue) to win over the issue. That the Fabians are getting involved is a good thing.

LP its news to me that you prefer men at all …”A socialist, feminist, deviant, reprobate, queer,addicted …… “

17. Mike Killingworth

[9] The kind of clientism AC describes has always been a feature of Labour politics – and probably not only theirs. It has always been a major obstacle to the creation of a Parliamentary Party with a radical commitment.

To be fair to the Fabians, they are only a “think tank” and this is not an issue they are designed to tackle. That requires a level of grass-roots activism which – whatever else you think about it – was present in the 1970s and 1980s and has been assiduously discouraged since.

I have the solution. Make me dictator for twenty minutes and I will use them to pass a decree requiring political parties to have 1,000 members in a constituency before they are allowed to fight it. Should none of them pass this bar, the MP would be selected at random from its electoral roll. That should fix the problem AC describes, leaving only the small matter of how I am to seize power in the first place…

Sunny I was quoting the authors description of herself which appears in large letters on on Penny Red

19. Mike Killingworth

[18] The persona that each of us presents on the internet may or may not be who we actually are…

The dominance of deregulation?

Feel free to point to any major deregulation of the past 10 years…

Now I agree that financial market regulators have done a bad job, but that is not because financial markets are unregulated – I can’t think of an area other than medicine which is more heavily regulated – but they have been *badly* regulated.

And financial regulation has increased dramatically over the last few years:

Your meta-narrative need deconstructing guys! Then, perhaps, we can work towards what can actually help people in this crisis.

Yeah, speaking as someone who works in the financial markets I would agree with that.

That was directed at cjcjc by the way

Oh dear, haven’t I said earlier trying to use those idiots from Samizdata as your bible is a bad idea Nick? I suggest you read something a bit more informed:

White House Philosophy Stoked Mortgage Bonfire


Deregulator Looks Back, Unswayed

And what makes your bible so much more reliable:)

There were multiple causes of this crisis and ‘too little regulation’ doesn’t cut it as an explanation. There was probably too much, but in the wrong place.

And in principle, how can it be said that the financial system is “unregulated” when governments retain a monopoly on legal currency and are allowed to create money by fiat. Surely that makes our situation one of the most regulated financial systems we could possibly have?

NM, queer /= lesbian. I like men. Just not you.

snoogles. x

My bible uses something like ‘facts’, which libertarians at Samizdata find difficult to deal with unless it fits their narrow self-important world-view.

You really expect me to believe a WhiteHouse press release, given the amount of crap Bush has come out with? Why not refute the articles instead?

Oh, and there’s also this:

The End of Libertarianism

That’s coming at it arse about face Sunny. , you kinky devil The activities of the banking sector have been akin to stealing or at best gambling but this has all happened despite an enormous amount of regulation not too little .
That red tape blizzard , designed by your lover boy Brown has failed. In this country it failed because the FSA had tick boxes and objectives but largely knew fuck all less nothing about the industry they were policing . Money has been wasted on the idiot compliance twit and his team of graduates for form filling , in our business this is actually outsourced . You need less regulation of course , but the right kind of regulation .Tougher on the transparency but otherwise letting markets police themsleves . Instead a calamity like Northern Rock slid into being unnoticed whilst hoards of checkers checked forms and required rain forests of literature to be sent to and fro read by no-one in its offices .
Take the Insurance Sector as a model .It has been entirely robust except AIG which was underwriting bank off balance sheet Liabilities and so was really a bank . With relatively easy entry the market for Reinsures simply would not let a fantasy of such a size grown. There are disasters true but they are part of the control mechanism , there are cheats and thieves of course but they are detected The reason it is in such a good state is because the basic question “ How much money have you got and what risks are you incurring “ , is always step one and as no-one will be saved everyone is very very careful. If you are rigorous about transparency and the people checking understand the business they are in you can stand back .You must also have relatively easy entry or single risks are too large.

I have to say that Newmania has a point. Anyone who works in banking will tell you there are no shortage of regulations to follow, I just don’t think they are neccessarily the right ones. As I have said before it’s like making people check the tyre pressure in their car every time they go out, ensure the upholstery is spotless and the spare tyre is inflated and then allowing them to drive the wrong way down the M1 at 100mph.

Exactly my point. We need less regulation, but in the right place and the recent decades have had no shortage of the volume of regulation.

And Sunny, I don’t need to defend Bush’s big government conservatism – I was only trying to illustrate a lot of the blame was mixed between the major parties. It is worth noting that Austrian economics (popular within libertarian thinking) was able to pinpoint the causes of the current crisis several years before it happened and it is just a pity that it isn’t given as much credence in mainstream policymaking at the moment:

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