A New Progressive Era

BERLIN — 3 July 2017

3rd July 2017

Europe faces difficult questions as it shapes its future. As we discussed the task of reshaping Europe’s architecture and reinvigorating the spirit of European integration this afternoon, it was clear that the Franco-German relationship will play a vital role in driving Europe’s path forward.

Macron’s victory in France has lifted the spirits of many who want to see more reform within the EU and further integration, but many obstacles lay ahead. It is important for progressive leaders to redefine the role of Europe, and to focus on long-term change, rather than having their efforts entirely consumed by attempts to solve successive crises, one after another.

Critical to future change will be the reform of the Eurozone to ensure responsibilities and the wealth generated are distributed in an agreeable way amongst countries. European citizens also need to be able to feel more connected with Europe’s institutions on a personal level. This necessitates having strong and able leaders, who people perceive as an expression of European values at home and as able to represent their political will at the EU level.

3rd July 2017

This afternoon’s session on the digital economy begins with the critical question of whether the progressive left should aim to emulate and advance the successes of digital economy, or focus more on protecting citizens from the negative excesses of this developing sector.

The digital economy is still seen as a threat by the centre left, particularly with regard to its impact on the world of work. The growing ‘gig economy’ prompts fears over weakening workers’ rights, while the acceleration of automation and rapid developments in artificial intelligence pose a spectre of significant job losses.

But advanced digital technology and a growing digital sector also provides opportunities to modernise and improve our social welfare systems, as well as opening up new opportunities for work in developing industries. So, of course, progressives will need to be multi-faceted in their approach to the challenge.

Looking at services like Lyft and Uber, isn’t there a possibility to create these platforms as worker-owned cooperatives? Professor Stephen Silvia thinks so. It would be more palatable to the unions: a central argument against such services is the significantly limited protections and rights drivers have.

Reiner Hoffmann, president of the German Trade Union Confederation, agrees that what can be achieved in the future of the digital economy is unknown. We do not have a secure idea of what this economy will look like, but as old jobs are lost, there is no doubt new ones will be created. Trade unions as part of progressive movements must not just be voices of alarm, but active participants in ensuring the economy and labour market of the future work for the many.

Anousheh Karvar argues that it is not just the digital economy that is a considerable, disruptive transition and trend occurring in the industrial world. Geography, population change, investment and consumer habits are all driving forces of change in the labour market, with just as much significance.

Startups and technology companies get away with a lot. They are seen within the public mind as being exciting, innovative, and ‘doing good’, according to Laura Dornheim. Holding them to account is crucial, especially the Googles, Facebooks and Ubers of the world. They are not small startups anymore. They cannot hide behind a veil of good perceptions to allow cultures of sexism or tax avoidance to be nurtured and grow unchecked.

Integrating technology with healthcare is an example of enormous potential for the digital economy to contribute to positive social change. But it is paired with considerable risk. It does mean the replacement of jobs with automated methods. Jonathan Ashworth, UK Labour MP and Shadow Secretary of State for Health, looks to Brexit to offer analysis of people’s attitudes, either directly or indirectly, to technological automation. The backlash against the status quo in areas of Britain that backed leaving the EU was often a response from voters who felt their communities were not sharing in the dividends of a technologically advancing world, paired with the reduction of ample, secure work.

3rd July 2017

Inequality is set to become the most important issue of the 21st century.

Recognising that there are many forms of inequality: economic, social and political, progressives need to create an agenda that focuses on building job security, improving education, developing a system of pre-distribution with a greater role for social partners and unions, and a fairer tax system.

Politically, progressives should become the political voice of the middle class and lower earners. We must not focus solely on social justice, but we should also work to build solidarity and the idea of social responsibility between citizens. We must also not limit our thinking to the national level. The fight against inequality does not exist in isolation within states, and greater international co-operation will be a critical part of working to meet these challenges.

3rd July 2017

Our discussion on populism opens with a warning against complacency. As we look ahead to the German election later this year, and Macron’s success in France, it is possible to get a bit complacent about ebbing the tide of populism, at least in Western Europe, for the time being.

But it nonetheless remains a threat. It is not easy to know why it’s come back with venom at the present time, but we must ask how people who are not particularly involved in politics gain and develop their political views.

Although political preferences have been historically determined in large part by class and/or religion, industrial societies have come a long way since the populism of the 1930s and 40s. What has perhaps been one factor in determining opinion that has exerted influence consistently, throughout these times to the present day, is the idea of nationhood.

In the twentieth century, and particularly during the post-war years, the left has been part of the narrative of nation. All welfare states are national projects and that allowed the left to get in on representing this sentiment.

In recent years though, the rapid and unprecedented expansion of globalisation has fostered societies that have allowed some constituencies to feel left behind. And often those who have answered to this mood have been populists on the right.

But there is yet cause for optimism. Young voters, with an apparent desire for universalism and social justice, do derive their views from a similar sentiment of nation: but with the aim of progressive outcomes, just as those who created welfare states did before them.