Brett Gale
Friday, 19 June 2020

It’s time to learn our lessons

The last decade hasn’t really been kind to social democratic parties around the world. 

As the electoral stocks of right wing populists rose those of centre-left parties fell. 

In the United Kingdom Labour has lost three elections in a row.  In Germany, the Social Democrats, Germany’s oldest party, recorded its lowest ever vote in 2017.  In Italy, the governing Centre-Left Coalition finished third in the last election.  In Australia of course the ALP has also lost the last three elections (and drew the one before that).  And then there is Trump!

Across the globe, Right wing political parties have looked at the lessons of their victorious brethren and proceeded to whole heartedly adopt the same playbook with, more often than not, similar electoral results.  

Meanwhile, political parties of the left and centre-left have, with a few exceptions, looked at the mistakes made by their sister parties, discovered why they lost, and proceeded to emulate them.  With, unfortunately, the same predictable results. 

Take just one example – policy. 

Any successful election campaign relies on three important strands – the ability to genuinely connect with voters and reflect their concerns and their language, a substantial policy offering, and a clear narrative and vision of where you want to take a country. 

In recent elections losing parties of the centre-left have tended to concentrate almost exclusively on the middle of those strands at the expense of the other two.  In particular, one of the mistakes that losing campaigns have tended to repeat over and over is the lack of a coherent narrative.  

Social Democrats have gone to elections with an impressive suite of policies that would substantially improve the lives of the majority of citizens that they seek to govern, yet we’ve often lacked a compelling, simple, vision of why we want change. 

This contrasts mightily with our political opponents who often stand for election with no clear policies at all but a very simple message indeed.  

It would seem that those of us on the Centre-left have become good at developing a laundry list of policies and really bad at developing a narrative that can explain those policies.   

As Giuliano da Empoli, Senior Advisor to the former social-democratic Prime Minister of Italy, Matteo Renzi, points out in a new series of essays, “in the fight against the simple slogans of Matteo Salvini, who promised to stop immigration and implement a Flat Tax, and the Five Star Movement which promised a universal basic income, the PD  [Renzi’s party]proposed a baroque list of no less than 100 policy proposals without stating any clear priority”.

Or as former Obama adviser Ben La Bolt told a Chifley conference last year, “In 2016, Democrats ran on … detailed policy positions that checked the box across issue areas but didn’t allow one theme to break through”.

Or, take Australian Labor’s own post 2019 election review which stated, “Labor’s election policies were many and complex while the Coalitions were few and simple”, and “Labor did not craft a simple narrative that unified its many policies”. 

While losing elections and the chance to improve people’s lives is bad enough, the seeming inability of social democrats to learn from the mistakes of our peers is simply galling. 

So, perhaps if social democrats aren’t paying attention to our mistakes, we can at least pay attention to progressive successes when they occur. That’s why a recently released free ebook of essays by successful progressive campaigners is so timely.  

As the editor of that collection Matt Browne from Global Progress and the Center for American Progress puts it, “If progressives are to recover electorally as well as ideologically, we must now fundamentally rethink how we conduct politics itself”.

Insurgents: Inside a New Generation of Progressive Leadership examines the recent political successes (and in one case loss) of those who’ve successfully beaten back the scourge of right-wing populism.  It’s written by insiders in the campaigns of Jacinda Ardern, Justin Trudeau, and Emmanuel Macron amongst others.  

The booklet brings together a series of case studies from campaigners who helped deliver the few bright spots for social democrats in recent years.  Not all the victories examined therein are what called be termed traditional centre-left parties (the collection contains chapters on Macron and Trudeau for instance) but each of the successful campaigns has lessons worth paying attention to.  

As Matt Browne mentions in his introduction, four key themes of successful campaigns run through these essays – “authentic leadership, a sense of insurgency with a clarity of purpose, the ability to unify, and a willingness to experiment with organisational innovation”.

There are lessons on many levels contained in this collection from the need for progressives to better control their message to what might be called extending the role of democracy. 

The role of cut-through communication and progressive parties essentially becoming their own media outlets stands out as a key takeaway from this collection.  In particular the natural communication styles of Trudeau and Ardern as key elements of their victories are worth pondering.  As David Talbot points out in his Ardern essay, “The resonance of Ardern’s communication was helped immensely by her ability to plainly and compellingly articulate her views”. 

Additionally, in many ways the success of all of these campaigns rests on a proposition of finding new ways of mobilising new voters.  Or as Neera Tanden from the Center for American Progress suggests in her Foreword, “empowering ordinary citizens to become change makers in their own communities is an important first step towards a new progressive politics”.

Many of the lessons are common sense but its amazing how often they haven’t been followed by losing campaigns in recent years.  With incredibly important elections for the social democratic project occurring in the US and New Zealand later this year – learning the lessons of success may be as urgent as ever.  

I started by saying its been a bleak time for progressives around the world, however what these collective essays show is that there are paths to victory.  Above all this is a book of hope, and for that reason alone its worth reading.   

You can access the free book here

About Brett Gale:

Brett Gale is the Executive Director of the Chifley Research Centre.