It is all too common for supposedly progressive parties to pander to the mainstream.
In the UK, this is exemplified by New Labour, but comparably in the USA, it would be a stretch of the imagination to call the Democrats genuinely progressive. The result of this is political parties that were intended to strive for social progress instead conforming to the extension of many of the largest problems in society. In short: if something is difficult, they will not do it.
Political scientist Kirchheimer argued that political parties have changed dramatically in recent years. In his mind, political parties have abandoned their ideology. Instead, they attempt to appeal to the widest possible base of voters. He called them ‘catch-all parties’.
When the Labour Party was founded, it was a party of vehement socialists and trade unionists. The aim of the party was to achieve working-class representation in Parliament. Even into the late 20th century, it remained a Party dedicated to working-class values.
Thus the transformation Labour experienced from a working-class Party to the highly-polished and photogenic ‘catch-all’ Party is astonishing. This is the change that Kirchheimer described. The transformation from a progressive party to an election-winning machine. This does not mean that New Labour had no principles – but they were certainly watered down.
The problem with being a ‘catch-all’ or ‘moderate’ party is there is no moral basis. A party that simply panders to what is popular, or would face least resistance, is not offering any guidance. What is the ‘moderate’ opinion changes depending on when and where you are. A moderate political viewpoint in 19th century Britain, or even modern-day Saudi Arabia, would be almost dystopian to most people in Britain today.
Imagine you are in a room with ten people and ten puppies. Five of the people in the room are vehemently insisting that you should kill all the puppies because their yapping is annoying. The other five are disgusted and beg you to not harm any of the puppies. Being a moderate, you decide to kill five of the puppies. Was this the right thing to do, solely because it appealed to both sides?
This analogy may seem far-fetched. Nevertheless, politicians are regularly expected to decide between what is good and what is convenient.
Continuing with New Labour as our example, we could cite their failure to hold financial firms accountable, exacerbating the 2008 crash. The New Labour leadership knowingly caved in to the interests of financial firms, rather than tackle their unaccountable power. MP and academic David Marquand observed that other than some spending increases, New Labour “whistled a new-right tune”.
Undoubtedly, the necessary precautions would not have been taken under a Conservative government either. However, surely the purpose of progressive politics is to break the established consensus? If progressive parties pander to the established interests, or popular prejudices such as racism, they lose what makes them progressive.
Eventually, we reach the political situation we live in now. Catch-all parties failed to rein in the financial sector before 2008. Even under Miliband they failed to tackle the xenophobic attitudes that have resulted in the rise of the far-right and, arguably, Brexit. Despite this, many politicians’ attitudes have not changed. Self-proclaimed ‘moderate’ politicians call for a return to the catch-all model that has resulted so disastrously.
There is nothing wrong with policies that inspire the majority. But these policies must be crafted from hard logic and burning passion.
For example, between 2015-2017, Labour increased its vote share from 30%-40%. The Labour Party did this without being a catch-all party. It is not enough that policies be crafted solely to be uncontroversial and generally likeable. When a progressive party solely aims to be uncontroversial, they cease to be a progressive party.