Tony Blair's Speech at the Progressive Policy Institute
12th March 2020
Former Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and Executive Chairman of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change
Each day I wrestle with this question: does the centre ground have a demand problem or a supply problem? Are we failing because we're offering something voters don't want; or because we're failing to offer what they do want.
My conclusion – though constantly revisited - is we have a supply problem.
It’s a commonplace that we live in an era of authoritarian populism. The evidence seems clear. Right wing leaders ride the anger over immigration, globalisation and trade, whipping up discontent, demonising opponents, taking pleasure in offending liberal sensibilities. The election of President Trump, Brexit, a UK Government now with a thumping Conservative majority; European rightists on the march; Bolsanaro in Brazil, Duterte in the Philippines – the list goes on.
And there is at least some consensus around the origins of populism: the financial crisis; immigration; communities and people feeling left behind by globalisation; an out of touch elite tone deaf to people’s concerns; and of course, the revolutionary phenomenon of social media.
Politics is polarised; media is fragmented; even facts are contested. We're splitting into two worlds which don't talk to each other, listen to each other or much like each other.
This critique is well understood in Western Liberal politics.
The underlying assumption on parts of the left however is that electorates are driven by this dissatisfaction to desert the rational in favour of the irrational by voting for populists.
I think this assumption is lazy, complacent and profoundly lacking in self-criticism.
The challenge of Liberal Democracy is efficacy. It is the feeling that in the face of problems people want addressing, the prevailing powers will prevaricate, procrastinate, perambulate but never prosecute. People feel their world is changing without their consent and beyond their control and they want someone to fix it.
The populists are answering this feeling. People want things to move, to change, for leaders not to sit in front of the brick wall in endless contemplation, but to punch through it; if necessary, to offend in order to deliver. They want to see the job ‘done.’
And the more the Leader they elect is surrounded by opponents shouting and bawling in vehement denunciation, the more the Leader is validated.
In response, the Left is in two camps. The first represents the reincarnation of the old Left. They share the desire for radical change, they too say the system is rigged, and they feel that the moment they have spent a lifetime waiting for, has finally arrived. And they're bolstered by a young generation of radicals with a new agenda they believe they can align with the old.
The second are the folk that used to govern, are appalled at the revival of the old Left, preach moderation, but are derided as unexciting tinkerers in an era demanding change. They sound like an acoustic version of an old heavy rock anthem, better suited to a club than a stadium, and in any event still a song from the past.
The one offers the wrong sort of change; the other offers too little.
I spoke recently on the occasion of the Labour Party’s 120th birthday, of the four walls of impotence within which progressive politics risks imprisoning itself.
The first was misreading the lessons of the financial crash by believing that the public had turned sharply left on economic policy and against markets. In fact, people understood completely the difference between a failure of the financial markets and a failure of the entire system of private enterprise. They were anti greed but not anti wealth.
The second was mistaking acceptance of the failures of policy post 9/11 and anxiety over the high cost of military engagement for a belief that the West was essentially to blame for extremism. People never believed that and distrusts anyone who thinks it.
The third is to pick up the gauntlet thrown down by the right and entertain a culture war of identity which the progressive side is certain to lose.
And the fourth is to believe that what works for the right works for us, so to match their populism with our own.
The British Labour Party situated itself within these walls in December 2019 and went down to probably the worst defeat in our history.
But round the Western world today, in medium sized countries and above, let's say with populations over 20m, progressive politics is on the defensive. Not one traditional left of centre party is in majority power. Macron won by destroying the socialist Party of France. Traditional parties are riven between moderates and left, and both are losing.
To beat populism, we have to be politically competent, strategically focused and redefine the progressive challenge for the modern world.
We need competence in defence and offence. Defensively, we must recognise that populists exploit grievances; they don't invent them. The grievances are real and, yes, rational.
There is a problem with immigration if not properly controlled. Showing you will control it is the only way you gain permission to advocate it.
Tough action against those who threaten our security and way of life is justified. The primary duty of Government is to keep people safe.
Pride in your country is not something to be despised but to be celebrated.
Elements within our Universities and on campus who ‘no platform’ people with whom they disagree, when by no reasonable definition could the disagreement be said to be outside of the bounds of legitimacy, repel normal people. They will not elect Leaders who they think will be intimidated by such behaviour. And it’s no good saying they're a tiny minority, they have big cut through.
Very often I hear progressive politicians speak to the narrow activist audience for the cheers, not to the majority for silent approval.
These are the basic points of culture which if you're not touching, you're not listening.
Much more difficult is playing offence and here the challenge is economic. Stagnant incomes and a sense of breach in the generational promise i.e. the next generation will do better than this one, have led to disillusion about today and pessimism about tomorrow.
Hence the desire for change. But don't underestimate people’s intelligence.
They want change that is practical.
Those leading tough lives are wary of people promising revolutions; and those who are more comfortable don't want them.
Start with the real world. Analyse that without preconception, and it is clear whichever Government is in power will be dealing with a 21st C technology revolution every bit as game-changing as the Industrial revolution of the 19th C.
Unfortunately, policy makers and change makers are worlds apart.
Here is the 21st C progressive task: to harness technology for economic and social change in a manner which promotes fairness and opportunity.
This is today’s radical challenge.
It requires mobilisation of Government, Federal and Local. Individuals need to be educated and empowered to succeed in the new world of work and they can't do that on their own. And if properly understood and used, this revolution can cut the costs of essential services whilst improving radically their quality.
It fits completely with Green politics. The environment is no longer a single issue stacked alongside all the others. It is pervasive. It is about life choices. It is a whole political philosophy.
It is perfect for the renaissance of progressive politics.
But only if allied to realistic policy. Green politics is itself at an interesting political juncture. Green ‘New Deals’ both sides of the Atlantic which join forces with leftist economics endanger the very cause they claim to champion.
Instead they should learn from the German Green movement which is making huge electoral strides largely because it is perceived as moving with the grain of the market and working with private enterprise.
The doubling of Africa’s population and India taking its rightful place at the table of economic giants will mean that there is no answer to climate change other than finding the ways of consuming sustainably, which in turn means acceleration of the science and technology. So, that should be our ambition.
And it should be done practically in a way which maximises unity.
Those who want to make the case for radical change, make it best not by setting people against each other but by showing that shared purpose and common endeavour advance all of us together.
The more reasonable our demeanour the more palatable the change.
A leftist populism is wrong in principle and self destructive politically.
We win when we address the future in the language of reason.
There is an irony in the progressive predicament. Progressive values aren't the problem. Sensibly applied they're popular. We are the problem.
Our outrage inhibits our thought. Our attachment to ideological purity obscures our understanding. And our self discipline is in permanent collision with our propensity for self indulgence.
We will defeat populism when we weave a new narrative of optimism about the future by understanding it and embracing it. The challenge is one of our character and will.