Conference gauges the progress of progressives

Progressive leaders convene in Copenhagen to discuss the way forward for the left in tough economic times

PM Helle Thorning-Schmidt (Socialdemokraterne) is throwing something of a red house party this week by hosting a progressive governance conference in Copenhagen. This week marks eight years since Thorning-Schmidt became the leader of her party, and representatives of left-leaning parties from around the world are in town to discuss the future of progressive politics at a time when voters seem much more concerned about nuts and bolts issues like jobs than traditional leftist concerns like human rights and the environment.

A morning panel entitled ‘Governing as Progressives’ included, along with the prime minister, Ed Miliband, the leader of the UK Labour Party, Stefan Löfven, the leader of the Swedish Socialdemokraterna party, and Martin O’Malley, the Democratic governor of the US state of Maryland.

Early in the discussion, Thorning-Schmidt was praising the sense of social responsibility displayed by the average Danish public sector employee when she was interrupted by the moderator, Peter Mandelson, a former British cabinet minister.

"If things are going so well in the public sector, why are the teachers on strike then?" Mandelson asked. 

"They are not on strike, we locked them out," she replied, saying that the lockout was a specific dispute involving a small part of Denmark's huge public sector which accounts for 56 percent of the country's workforce.

Thorning-Schmidt acknowledged that her party was taking a beating in the polls and blamed that on her efforts to modernise and streamline Denmark’s public sector.

“The polls are not where we want them to be, but we have had to make some hard decisions," she said. "I believe when people begin to see the benefits, they will begin to turn around.” 

Thorning-Schmidt said that to the best of her knowledge, no sitting government in Europe is faring very well in the polls these days.

She added that one of the knocks against leftist governments has always been that they spend first and think later, a dangerous and unpopular cocktail in tough economic times. She said that her government’s tight fiscal policies showed that she could be trusted with the country’s wallet, even at the risk of alienating her base.

“I do not believe that a strong private sector is a right-wing issue,” she said in response to a question that suggested that she might be pandering too much to business and forgetting her constituents. “A thriving business community is what funds, and helps create, a strong welfare state.”

"Opportunity state"

O’Malley, perhaps realising that the concept of a “welfare state” would not play well politically back home, said that he preferred to call it an “opportunity state” and stressed that along with trimming government in Maryland, he has also raised taxes on those making the most money.

“I am not going to sugarcoat it,” he said. “Whenever we ask people to do more, it’s not as if they fire off confetti cannons and celebrate us. But we were re-elected by a larger margin than the first time out, so people must think that what we are doing is working.” O’Malley’s name comes up frequently as a possible Democratic presidential candidate in 2016.

To a person, the panellists agreed that the only way to inspire voters to turn left was to show tangible results. And they agreed that results in today’s world meant one thing: jobs.

The view from Britain and Sweden

Miliband, fresh from damning the late Margaret Thatcher with faint praise at her memorial at the House of Commons, said that his Labour party, currently in the opposition, has a hard time understanding the policies of British PM David Cameron’s coalition government.

“They don’t seem to be able to plan,” he said. “Why cut capital spending projects when borrowing rates are low and construction workers are out of work?”

Miliband said that Labour would be elected when it can show voters that it has a solid plan for the UK, as opposed to Cameron’s government, which in Miliband’s judgement got elected and only then started developing a strategy.

Löfven, whose Socialdemokraterna party finds itself in the unusual position of being in the opposition in Sweden, said that cuts have to be balanced with investments to create a sense of hope among a country’s citizens.

“You have to invest in things like education and training,” he said. “Good governmental policy creates a chance for innovation in the private sector that supports entrepreneurs. That is what government can do. The market cannot do it alone.”

Even issues like the environment and green jobs, long sacred cows of left-leaning governments, were framed within discussions on how they could be used to create jobs and business opportunities.

“The best way to retire a deficit is to create jobs,” said O’Malley. “It is about making smart investments in things like education and training.”

Mandelson asked why, if progressive policies were indeed working, their champions, from Barack Obama in the US to Thorning-Schmidt in Denmark, were taking such a beating in public opinion polls.

“One thing that the right does far better than we do is to not fight amongst itself in public,” said Thorning-Schmidt. “We on the left always appear to be bickering with each other, which creates insecurity and distrust among the voters.”