Can Europe Make It?

Losing elections and other windows of opportunity

"Progressives have a particular set of hurdles... most of which boil down to convincing others they can 'get things done'."

Rosemary Bechler
20 October 2020
Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1932.
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Wikicommons/ FDR Presidential Library. Some rights reserved.

"When you lose an election in a democracy, you deserve to.” It’s a good soundbite – Keir Starmer is always at his most sure-footed when he is shafting his predecessor. But of course it isn’t true, at least of modern democracies as we now know them: and the upcoming US election is surely a case in point. Which is more detrimental to this case, I wonder – the fact that Trump is already poised, were something to go wrong, to accuse democracy of malfunctioning, or the fact that so many Americans, in that eventuality, might be inclined to believe him?

Progressives have a particular set of hurdles when it comes to democratic elections today, most of which boil down to convincing others they can “get things done” – whether this is Brexit or frankly anything else. One neglected factor is the electoral metaphor of backing a winner. Generations of impotent populaces have treated their vote as their one throw of the dice every five years. Fear of backing a loser is a real force to be reckoned with.

For progressives, circumventing this involves a complicated two-step. One STEP: First we have to articulate people's discontent at the diabolical state of things. Two STEP: then instil hope, with little tangible evidence, that this can nevertheless be transformed. All too easily the right breezing in, calling us ‘doom and gloomsters’, head us off at the pass before STEP 2. It involves considerable tact.

Two recent examples will suffice. The first is the Deep Adaptation debate prompted among Extinction Rebellion (XR) members and hosted on OurEconomy this summer. Arguably Extinction Rebellion, by dramatically alerting people to the full climate threat and yet insisting that much could be done by 2030 (not 2050) has hit this sweet spot of potential political change. It must certainly be galling to those who took the trouble to include XR as radical extremists in the Prevent programme, that David Attenborough – “the story of how we came to make our biggest mistake … and how if we act now, we can yet put it right” and Prince Charles – “ it is vital… that we make truly transformative progress along the road to net zero by 2030” – between them take up exactly this message.

My second example is Professor Christina Pagel’s timely intervention published on September 29, 'Covid: The libertarian population immunity strategy is wrong-headed & dangerous.' Christina is the member of Independent SAGE recently rolled out by the BBC to provide ‘balance’ for their revived interest in population immunity advocacy. Pagel’s article is a longer version of her rebuttal. She begins with six reasons why a deliberate strategy of ‘herd immunity’ might lead to unacceptable levels of illness and death. For example, we cannot seal off the variously vulnerable who constitute between 20 and 30% of the population, somewhere between 12 and 20 million people; moreover, such a strategy would make existing inequalities worse – COVID would spread more rapidly and severely in COVID-unsafe work and home environments while more advantaged communities remain relatively protected. But the triumph of her argument is the last section, entitled, ‘We know how to suppress the virus without lockdown’ – where, having pulled no punches, she nevertheless makes it to Step Two.

Pointing to the countries that continue to suppress the virus with far less impact on their economies, she concedes that “we still do not have a test and trace system that is fit for purpose” and that “given the current rise in cases and hospitalisations, we do need more restrictions to halt the spread of COVID until testing and tracing can take much of the strain”. But we can do it she insists, and moreover “this is a matter of weeks, not months” because, “we have good evidence as to how it should be done: a de-centralised local strategy, and partnership between local government, public health bodies, primary care and local communities” – evidence presumably like the local test-and-trace systems with which desperate local authorities plugged the holes in Dido Harding’s colander – some of which quickly reached 98-100% of their targets.

But we can do it she insists, and moreover "this is a matter of weeks, not months”.

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COVID has been a bit of a game-changer in both cases, so thoroughly has its relentless exposures seen off business-as-usual. Certainly in infecting the demagogues, it is no respecter of elections. But more importantly, now, when progressives do manage to reach STEP 2 and what can really be done to save lives and build-back-better – these suggestions have acquired a boldness, scope and gravitas that we have not been able to hear for a while...
Sir David King, Independent SAGE (Oct.2): “8 months in we still don't have an operative Test and Trace system. It's still not too late. We are saying to the government, time to hand over to the public health sector. ”

Sarah O’Connor in the FT, (September 29): “Prime Minister Boris Johnson invoked the legacy of Franklin D Roosevelt in June, promising a “New Deal” akin to the US president’s efforts to combat the Depression. One of the FDR government’s boldest decisions was to become ‘employer of last resort’… The UK government should create jobs too: real roles that equip the economy for the future. Britain has a shortage of care workers, which are undoubtedly jobs with prospects, given the ageing population… It would take an extra 180,000 care workers just to bring the ratio of carers to the over-70s population back to its 2014 peak... "

... though many of them were surely lurking in Jeremy Corbyn’s election manifestos.

This piece was first published in the October 1 Splinters edition.

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