Blocl activism

The Alternative: Towards a New Progressive Politics

By Lisa Nandy, Caroline Lucas & Chris Bowers

The 2015 general election was a very dark moment for those who believe in a more compassionate and participative approach to government in the UK.

The first-past-the-post electoral system, based around two dominant political parties, simply does not deliver results that serve the UK in the twenty-first century.

We live in a networked society, and a world that is infinitely more complex and nuanced than it was in 1955. But politics has not responded.

The dominance of global capital has changed the face of our high streets – enabling astonishing rates of poverty to co-exist with extraordinary levels of wealth in one of the world’s richest countries – and has done little to deal with intractable problems facing many young people: unemployment, high housing costs and debt.

These concerns are not effectively addressed by, or represented in, our politics.

The Conservatives won an overall majority of twelve seats in the House of Commons on the basis of just 24.4 per cent of eligible voters. This was the most disproportionate result in British election history.

Increasingly, people are being denied a voice by the political system, a situation that is neither just nor sustainable.

It’s vital that any new politics is based on putting power back in the hands of people.

Out of the despair that traditional politics is failing, new movements are emerging that rekindle people’s imagination.

If our aim is a better society, this society cannot be built on foundations that allow some voices to be heard and not others.

For too many of us, work no longer pays enough to live on. The post-war contract – that if you work hard and do your bit you’ll be rewarded – is broken.

Whatever form cooperation takes, it must be built on the contribution of grass roots members and must not continue to concentrate power in the hands of party elites.

In a world as complex and rich as ours we need a political system that can offer an equally complex and rich response.

The more we find markets that are too free and states that are too remote and thus unable to deliver what society needs, the more there will be added motivation for the progressives to work together.

Do we seriously believe we can address the threats we face as a society and a planet by using mechanisms that leave around three-quarters of the voting public feeling disenfranchised and lacking any meaningful say in who forms their government?

If we don't, those who carry the hope for a better society, created by a better form of political governance, will have to be smart about the way they act over the next few years.


In the face of such chronic insecurity, and the poverty and inequality that scar our society, social security arguably has a more important role to play than ever.

Politicians are more likely to win backing not by appeasing the public mood but by demonstrating that they deserve respect.

The first step is to go back to fundamentals and try to shift the framing of the debate. This means no longer talking about ‘welfare’ as a synonym for social security.

We should never underestimate the power of language – particularly as used by prominent politicians and the media.

The increasingly negative language and tough stance adopted by New Labour when in office appears to have been associated with the erosion of support for ‘welfare’ among its supporters.

By constantly highlighting fraud and supposed ‘welfare dependency’, it reinforced the belief that these are endemic and that the system offers ‘something for nothing’.

Social security represents an end to which society aspires. It expresses the desire to achieve, security for all through social means.

Social security is a shared mechanism for safeguarding the economic security of us all.

This is an important message to get across because it helps to counter the dominant idea that ‘welfare’ is for them and is of no concern to ‘us’.

The underlying causes of poverty do not lie in individual behaviour, culture and attitudes, but in the failings of the market and of economic and social policies.

Today’s social security does not provide genuine security or prevent poverty and only relieves it inadequately, with the growing reliance on food banks merely the most visible tip of an iceberg of unmet needs.

Rather than an ambulance picking people up at the bottom of the cliff, social security needs to provide a protective fence that stops people who trip up from falling over the cliff in the first place.

Social security needs to provide genuine economic security in the face of not just an insecure labour market but also of family instability. This is particularly important for mothers who can be trapped in unsatisfactory or abusive relationships if they lack any independent income of their own.

The current culture of institutionalised suspicion needs to be replaced by a culture of human rights.

The current benefits freeze is invisible but its cumulative effects are immense.

If we want to create a social security system worthy of the name, there are two main options to consider: a revitalised, more inclusive contributory social insurance system or a universal basic income * .

Commentators from across the political spectrum are heralding Universal Basic Income (UBI) as an idea with a long history whose time has come.

Many of those predicting that the new age of automation will mean the loss of many traditional jobs see UBI as the answer.

Above all, it offers individuals a degree of genuine security in the face of whatever the labour market or family throws at them.

In the face of growing economic insecurity and the possible effects of technological change, the case for a scheme that guarantees each individual a modicum of financial security becomes more compelling.

It’s time that progressives stopped treating social security as a burden that ‘we’ bear on behalf of ‘them’, a ‘cost of economic failure’, a problem, and instead started seeing it as a key element in a good and fair society.(Ruth Lister - Professor of Social Policy, Loughborough University)


People are being economically marooned from the mainstream simply because of the places in which they live.

There is no shortage of regeneration initiatives coming from Whitehall, but much of them are directed towards areas of greatest population, like the so-called Northern Powerhouse. And, anyway, regeneration is not a case of one-size-fits-all.

We need to avoid the wrong type of regeneration, which means adopting a new approach to regeneration policy.

Wealth inequality in the UK has grown under successive Conservative and Labour governments to the point where Britain is now the most unequal country in Europe, where inner London is the richest area in the EU but parts of Wales are worse off than many parts of the former Soviet bloc.

Tackling inequality is at the heart of the progressive agenda; a government that sets the framework for an imaginative and creative regeneration programme based on specific local attributes would be making a profound and tangible contribution to narrowing the gap between the poorest and the rest.(Jonathan Edwards, Plaid Cymru Member of Parliament for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr).


The ways in which housing, planning and transport policies and trends now work are disadvantaging large numbers of people and starting to create space and opportunities for broad coalitions of change.

Across the country we can see problems caused by land hoarding by developers, growing levels of homelessness, poorly regulated private landlords, new and old car-dependent developments, poor and expensive public transport, too much traffic, a growing awareness and concern about levels of air pollution, and concerns about obesity and ill health caused by too little exercise.

These problems, driven by a malfunctioning housing market, can also help to cast light on the wider failures of free markets and can help create the conditions in which these failures can be challenged.

Hundreds of thousands of new homes are needed, but supply alone won't solve the problem unless we also change the nature of what is being built, where it is located, how it is serviced and how it is governed.

The conditions for change in housing might include restrictions on absentee ownership, more regulation of landlords and rents, open data on property ownership, and much stronger and more positive planning to restrict car-based urban sprawl and prevent the loss of social housing in inner cities.

We might even start to question the idea that everyone must own their own home, and move towards a more European-style renting culture, recognising that land speculation is much less entrenched in other European countries.

If we make these a central part of progressive campaigning, we might be surprised how much support we get.(Sian Berry, twice been the Green Party candidate for Mayor of London & Stephen Joseph, chief executive of Campaign for Better Transport)


From governments to anti-austerity opposition groups, the economic implications of the need to prevent irreversible climatic upheaval are not fully appreciated.

A range of estimates indicate that current commitments would leave the world facing between 2.7–4°C of warming. Anywhere in this range is a step beyond the point of potentially irreversible, catastrophic warming.

The Paris accord represents a world that talks the talk when it comes to environmental rhetoric yet turns its back on the environment when planning and shaping the economy of the future.

A new economic model is needed, judged not by how quickly it grows, but by how well it allows us all to thrive within planetary environmental boundaries.

The first steps of such a policy package not only touch on much-needed reforms of the finance sector, but tackle one of the other great crises facing Britain: housing.

It has long been known that there is no automatic link between economic growth and human development.

Beyond certain levels of income, links between rising consumption and well-being break down.

Globally we are casually consuming resources and producing waste faster than ecosystems can replace and safely absorb them. Our challenge is to learn how to flourish within planetary boundaries.

People on the left of economics cannot provide a meaningful alternative to neoliberalism simply by criticising austerity.

The new economic model has to make sense from an economic, social and environmental perspective.

We have to challenge the notion that ‘consumerism to fuel economic growth’ is the only way to run an economy because nobody is particularly happy with the consumerism we have.

Neoliberal economics * seems to offer no other choice than to live in an economy of debt-fuelled, growth-addicted, disposable consumerism.

Inescapably, we are part of the material world, so how then can we develop a better and healthier connection to it?

The attractiveness of a ‘great reskilling’ has been taken up by the enormously successful Transition Town movement, prominent in the UK and spreading quickly internationally.

Key working policies, such as the shift to the norm of a shorter working week and schemes that guarantee people a basic income, have a track record of making life better for people from Europe to North America.

Persisting with an economic model that does not serve anyone, and is undermining the very life support systems we depend on for our survival, is fundamentally self-defeating.

A new politics must take back exactly what it means to live in the real world, and offer a better way for everyone to care for and thrive in it.

The government formed after the 2020 general election will have to take distinct policy decisions to allow the new economy to evolve.

If we can succeed, people may finally see environmental action as an inextricable part of a new political contract to reimagine Britain and a set of measures ready to be enacted by the post-2020 government.(Andrew Simms, a research associate at the Centre for Global Political Economy and a fellow of the New Economics Foundation).


In a world riddled with growing inequality and conflict, it is today the progressives’ belief in protecting the interests of the many not the few, which offers a much better way of meeting the new threats faced by humankind.

There are new, growing and universal threats to the whole planet from climate change, food and water insecurity. It is risible to suggest that market forces left to their own devices are any sort of a solution.

International terrorism, cyberattacks, unprecedented levels of migration, population growth, global poverty, cross-border crime and pandemics * - these global threats require global solutions.

The Middle East/Gulf region is a continuing source of huge threat and instability to the world.

An end to the apocalyptic Sunni–Shia battle, together with justice for the Palestinians and the Kurds, is a prerequisite to neutralising the global barbarity and mayhem spreading from this region.

The sheer scale and depth of the global threats of our era make ‘little Englander’ isolationism futile.

More demand for food and water means more demand for energy. Yet there are global energy shortages and volatile fuel prices, which are adding pressures for migration into countries like Britain

Some 200 million people (the size of Brazil’s population) are now on the move globally every year.

Europe-wide in nature, the refugee problem could only ever be solved by a Europe-wide solution.

What may appear domestic threats in any one country – like migration, food and water insecurity or drug and people trafficking – are invariably internationally rooted.

All this means that ‘foreign’ and ‘domestic’ policy are now inextricably intertwined. Multilateral, intergovernmental responses are therefore the only answer.

Because interests and problems are so globally interconnected, not only do they require collective action by governments, but we cannot sustain global stability without global justice.

The progressives’ values of human rights, democracy and equality therefore become not only moral imperatives, but also necessities for stable and sustainable development.

Progressives must drive forward an agenda of cooperation across the European Union for public investment and Keynesian growth, not the neoliberal austerity that both dominates and imperils Europe.

Europe needs also to be a serious global force to be reckoned with by the US and the emerging powers in the emerging multipolar world.

In January 2016, an Oxfam report highlighted obscene global inequality: the sixty-two richest billionaires have the same amount of wealth – $1.7 trillion – as the entire bottom half of the earth’s population

Progressives should insist that the benefits of globalisation are not at the expense of social responsibility and social justice.

Climate change provides perhaps the clearest case for concerted and urgent action by every nation coordinating together.

Only agreement among the major powers – north and south, east and west – will resolve the gridlock over effective global action to combat climate change.

Global climate change is binding our fates together, where in the past progressive internationalists were perhaps viewed as mere well-meaning idealists, we are now the new realists of our era.

Labour, Liberal and Green politics can therefore command the future foreign policy agenda. The stakes are so high we have a duty to work together internationally.(Peter Hain, Labour MP from 1991–2015 and a British government minister for twelve years)


There are challenges posed by high levels of immigration, and we should address them positively, not ignore them.

It is high time for progressive politicians to take a fresh approach that address the concerns head-on. We need to have positive solutions and a clear vision.

Firstly, immigrants are people too. They deserve opportunity and freedoms.

We must muster support for the millions displaced from Syria and elsewhere.

We need only to look to the National Health Service to see how important immigration is.

The challenge for progressive politicians is to formulate and articulate an immigration policy that makes the most of the many benefits of immigration while reassuring British nationals that the overall balance is right.

A good place to start is to accept that, without certain policies iHn place, immigration does not benefit everyone equally, all the time.

How can we make sure that migrants in the labour market do not undercut local wages? Proper enforcment of the minimum wage is vital.

We cannot continue to allow high-skilled immigration to make up for the continual failure to equip British people with the education needed.

More needs to be done to ensure that our school system gives children the best start in life, and that it is accessible to those at all stages of life.

British citizens are separated from their wives or husbands, if they hold foreign passports, if the British partner earns below 拢18,600. Or, to put that another way, almost half of the British population do not earn enough to fall in love with a foreigner.

The solution to a shortage of school places is to expand schools or build new ones, not to blame the migrants that are coming here to contribute to society. They should not be blamed for government incompetence.

Decades of failure to build sufficient housing, to provide adequate school places and to properly fund our NHS were exposed by the economic crisis in 2008, allowing migrants to become a convenient scapegoat for what had been a system left to crumble.

It is the job of progressive politicians to set out a programme for positive migration, one that voters can see is credible and works for them.

We need to show that progressives are just as concerned about, and willing to invest in, secure and well-managed borders.

It is the job of progressives to ensure that we do not allow immigration and asylum to get confused.

Anti-immigration rhetoric has been an easy win for the political right, and if progressives in politics hope to prevail, it is time to meet the challenge head-on and reclaim the debate.(Tim Farron, leader of the Liberal Democrats)


The right of people in work to organise themselves for the purpose of negotiating collectively is rightly considered a fundamental human right. Indeed, Article 23(4) of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights enshrines this.

Despite this, the British government’s Trade Union Act amounts to the biggest attack on organised labour in a generation.

It takes Britain’s highest paid director just forty-nine minutes to earn the same amount that a worker on the national minimum wage earns in a year. That is a sign of an industrial culture gone wrong, and an indicator that the relationship between capital and labour in this country is seriously awry.

The election of Margaret Thatcher’s government heralded an era of neoliberalism that would see workers’ share of wealth decline significantly. Working people have been living with the consequences ever since.

Barely were the Conservatives freed from the need for coalition compromises following the 2015 election than they published their Trade Union Act, which seeks to take Britain back to the dark ages of industrial relations.

Even the government’s own independent regulatory watchdog has said this Act is not fit for purpose. *

If an employer believes workers can't strike, they won't bother to bargain. And it’s not just about money.

An attack on our democracy would rightly be greeted with screams of a creeping dictatorship, yet few such screams are heard when workplace democracy is attacked.

Tackling inequality must be the lifeblood of a progressive government’s programme.

The OECD has calculated that the British economy would be more than 20 per cent bigger had the gap between rich and poor not widened since the 1980s.

Trade unions believe it’s time to ditch the free-market fundamentalism that landed us with the biggest crash since 1929, the deepest recession since the Great Depression and the longest crisis in our living standards since the Victorian era.

In place of austerity, we need policies to promote fair growth, long-term investment and good public services.

Any progressive politician worth his or her salt should campaign actively for strong, effective trade unions to be at the heart of our national life. (Frances O’Grady, General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress)


The result of the referendum (55 to 45 in percentage terms) is still the source of considerable grieving to Scottish nationalists – made worse by having a Conservative government at Westminster

What the independence movement did was create the sense that influencing things was suddenly possible, or could be if we built a better nation.

It was the creation of a ‘can do’ culture * that energised and enthused many who never thought they were interested in politics in the first place.

What happened in the referendum campaign is what happens when politics becomes understandable.

The eighteen years of Conservative rule from 1979 to 1997 broke the social contract that had dated from the immediate post-war years.

The creation of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 allowed us to say that the neoliberal rejection of the caring society that emerged after the Second World War was anathema to us.

Why would you want to create policies that are harmful to society? Why don't we create a more human system?

If the progressives in England think the press is against them, consider this: thirty-six out of thirty-seven national newspapers were against Scottish independence.

The biggest lesson learned is that you simply have to have a system of proportional representation for elections. First-past-the-post fails everybody, even those who win under it, because they have little or no legitimacy.

All the progressive parties need to be committed to changing first-past-the-posT and there has to be reform of the House of Lords.

The House of Lords is an embarrassment, and it’s holding back a modern Britain.

There also needs to be a written constitution.

We should be committed to putting an end to homelessness and poverty, to fighting threats to the environment, and such like. As a society we need to set a standard, and a written constitution would do that.

Equally importantly, the constitution needs to be written by a broad stream of people from across society, not just by politicians and lawyers.

what I would say is that if the Conservatives continue to run the British government in the same way they currently are, then it will certainly hasten the break-up of the UK.

MHAIRI BLACK MP is the youngest member of the House of Commons. CHRIS LAW MP was elected to represent Dundee West


An initial glance at the outcome of the 2015 general election suggests a country that is divided down the middle so far as the level of support for and opposition to a ‘progressive’ outlook is concerned.

The progressive parties won nearly 49 per cent of the vote, the Conservatives and UKIP secured a little less than 51 per cent.

If we are to form an accurate assessment of the extent to which the public back the progressive ideas that are the focus of this book, we need to look more directly at voters’ views.

Our survey evidence in this chapter comes from the British Social Attitudes survey.

While concern about inequality is widespread, policies that transfer resources directly from the better-off to the less well-off do not necessarily secure public support.

Such an approach would present any future progressive government with a considerable challenge.

We should be cautious when it comes to public support for civil liberties.

There here are limits to the extent to which people feel that individuals should be able to exercise a ‘right’ to challenge the law and the state that stands behind that law.

Ssupport for the principle of environmentally responsible behaviour does not necessarily translate into a willingness to do something in practice, and especially if it might involve a financial penalty.

Progressives probably need to focus on ways in which we might be nudged and cajoled towards the path of environmental responsibility rather than approaches that might be regarded by voters as ‘punitive’.

It would seem that there is a considerable appetite among voters for having a bigger say.

The views that people express about devolution for England depend heavily on how the question is posed.

The experience of the Alternative Vote referendum should certainly serve as a reminder to progressives that the barriers to electoral reform are not necessarily confined to existing vested interests in the House of Commons. *

There is no simple answer to the question, ‘Is there a progressive majority in Britain?’ Sometimes progressive ideas have appeared popular, sometimes not.

A majority feel that Britain is too unequal, that civil liberties should be respected, that changes do need to be made in order to protect the environment, and that ordinary citizens do not have enough say in government decisions.

At the same time, however, this sentiment did not necessarily translate into support for specific measures.

If they are to realise their ambitions, progressives not only need to come together, but to do some hard thinking about policy when they do. * (John Curtice, president of the British Polling Council)


What motivated us to compile this set of essays is not simply the fact that a glance at modern-day British political reality suggests that, if the progressives don't work together, the next two decades are likely to be Conservative ones. It is also a sense that there has to be something better, and we have begun the process of articulating what it is. This could be the start of something big!

With every Conservative government, the distance that has to be travelled by the progressives becomes greater: our public services become more run down, young people lose hope, and the environmental crisis deepens. It doesn't have to be like this. The progressives have an unprecedented opportunity to review our politics. We need to seize it!