Brits prepare for years of minority government

By Paramjit Rai, Annie Cheung, Igor Delov, Amitav Rath, Andrew Cardozo


The British are getting used to the idea of minority Parliaments as voting patterns change and the two mainline parties, Conservative and Labour, lose ground to smaller parties, observed Nick Pearce, Director of the London-based Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), at a roundtable hosted by the Canadian Centre in Ottawa on May 6, 2014. “What are progressives thinking about in Britain?” was the roundtable theme, and Mr. Pearce, who was Head of the Policy Unit at No. 10 Downing Street during the Gordon Brown Labour administration, noted that progressives have to think deeply and better define the role of government as spending power has diminished and debt has to be controlled.  (For more info on the British think tank:   Comments from roundtable participants follow:


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Photographer: Goran Probic


Important lessons for us to learn

By Paramjit Rai, Arts consultant and educator

Thanks for arranging the round table. It is interesting to hear what is keeping the progressives awake at night across the cities in the UK.    I found it quite informative.

There hasn’t been a lot of coverage of the rise of UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party) here in the Canadian Press.  It is important to keep tabs on their rise and development, and perhaps help the left in the UK counter this with a more balanced view of a modern and vibrant multicultural UK.   There is a cautionary tale for Canadians in that we don’t have a similar far right party advocating  a return to a ‘pure Canada’, but the PQ’s attempt to rouse  Quebec ‘pur laine’ sentiment in the last election has some echoes in the populist sloganeering on the UKIP’s part.  We should always remain vigilant that such parties don’t attract too much of the political clout in any province.

Nick’s comments on Scotland and the upcoming referendum was also helpful. Here in Canada we live with a low level of anxiety around the idea of Quebec potentially separating from the rest of Canada, so this has great relevance for us as well. Again, it seems that the Canadian press reports more on the Royal family’s propaganda  rather than on topics that are of actual substance.

I think also it is always insightful to see how the UK’s role in international affairs is changing, be it  the European Union or in Middle East or Asia.  Canada is still a bit player in many international events, but it could learn from the lessons that the UK presents in the diplomatic world.


A pragmatic and progressive approach

by Annie Cheung

It seems to me, after listening to Nick Pearce’s talk “What are progressives thinking about in Britain?”, that the perspectives given were pragmatic. There was much less enthusiasm for endeavours relating to global governance, apart from some focused issues directly impacting on the British Isles, such as climate change and its impacts on local communities.  Well, a way of thinking globally, and acting locally!

Pragmatism, in itself a philosophic position, is the pursuit of what is doable by cross-cutting the schism of political theories and established practices.  Also, pragmatism, while embracing effectiveness, should seek to consider both long term impacts and broad impact on society. One should never forget that the measure of good governance ultimately is judged by the ability to deliver both health and happiness to the entire society!  According to Pearce, the strategies employed currently include forming political alliances with other political parties, the prioritizing of populist forms and agendas, and distancing from the monetary side of the tumultuous European Union.  Clearly the pragmatic stance draws a great deal from its unique cultural, historical, and existential contexts.  Therefore, what seems to be pragmatic and applicable in one country cannot be “cut & pasted” onto another.

What impressed me most was the amount of investment in public policy research and the thought processes that were brought to bear on the British political realities.  I hope we can have something approximating that support of a brain trust here in Canada!


Canadian Progressives should learn from Europe, challenge current orthodoxies

by Igor Delov, Executive Assistant at the Provincial Building and Construction Trades Council of Ontario

A couple of thoughts on the Nick Pearce event: it seemed to me that the consensus in the room was that the politics of today in most Western countries are not just fragmented, but fiercely more ideological and contested than perhaps ever before, and this, I think, is more pronounced in Europe and the United States than in Canada. The hollow populism of the ‘Cinque Stelle’ movement and the ‘Tea Party’ movement are good examples of how politics has become farcical as a result of notable shifts in the Western economies, where disenchanted masses of people have turned to a tabloid culture for answers, decrying the political establishment.  Mr. Grillo’s refusal to enter a governing coalition is a good example of this.  The zeal and creativity to critique, mixed with a total absence of leadership and sacrifice needed to see through solutions. In short, the new politics of the day are dominated by sound bites, script, posturing and useless ‘tweets’ that continue to deprive the citizenry of the depth we need to grasp complex issues if we are to ever tackle them meaningfully.  Political dysfunction appears to be the new norm and thus far, the political right has better-managed to profit from this (at least in the formal political realm).

My view is that as a result of economic globalization (i.e. the gradual erosion of the productive ‘baseload’ in manufacturing and other heavy industries away from the traditional cores of economic activity and into the peripheries of developing regions and states), it is now too late to revive the same type of traditional optimistic politics dominated by the ‘big tent’ approach that sustained the liberal narrative which touted inclusion, near full employment, and the promise of a better tomorrow, based on the achievements of today. Now, we have economic dislocation on a massive scale, a labour market fraught with precarious work, record consumer and government debt, and a hollowing out of the middle class. Evidently, working class people are pointing to ‘big government’ and ‘taxation’ as the source of their new economic woes, rather than pointing to corporate greed, tax cuts that don’t work and supply-side economics which gave rise to their problems in the first place.

So, if on the one hand we have economic decline driven by the success of right-wing ideas and policies that have accelerated income inequality, and on the other hand we have a less inclusive and less optimistic form of ‘politics’ in our midst, what can progressives do to reverse these trends? Apart from winning political power to implement sweeping progressive agendas, leveraging government procurement power is a common and popular way of reviving domestic economic development while achieving targeted socioeconomic outcomes to strengthen the middle class. This idea was entertained by Mr. Pearce in the discussion, and holds some promise. But I cannot see how government procurement alone can substitute the enormity of corporate prerogatives to control capital, make investment decisions, and rapidly shuffle human and other resources at the whim of a globalized marketplace that is now settling-in very comfortably and achieving the institutional backing of governments through an ever-growing list of free trade agreements and supra-national trade regimes (i.e. a marketplace that is alarmingly attaining its own legal personality). This should be a major concern for progressives because the direction that our economies are headed in will mean that fewer and fewer economic spheres will fall under the auspices of government regulation and will instead be regulated by locked-in regimes and institutions that have little to no input from ‘the people’ whatsoever.

Progressives should pose the question: why are governments even competing against each other for private capital in the first place? Why is the notion of a ‘national economy’ that liberals and social democrats fought for in the 1960s and 70s effectively dead? If progressives are resigned to the notion that ultimately ‘the market’ decides re-distributive outcomes in a completely unimpeded way, then there isn’t much point to objecting against income inequality and unchecked corporate power because they are an outcome of legitimate market forces over which government ought not to have any control. If however, there is an explicit commitment by progressives to 1) recognize the impressive capacity of ‘the market’ to create wealth and economic activity, and more importantly, 2) to insist that government exercise its power to force an equitable redistribution of wealth that maximizes participation in the economy through mass employment, fair taxation, etc. only then can we expect to reverse the course we are on.

However, for this to work, massive co-ordination would be required both within a given country and among other countries to minimize the risk of cheating. The European Union’s co-ordinated social policy (which came after the bloc’s economic integration) that individual states negotiated with each other is a good example of this, but by the looks of it, it has failed to meet the test of the 2008 recession as governments embraced austerity and cut social spending, exposing just how difficult it is to cast the safety net in the context of scarcity and crisis. Moreover, the mere thought of injecting some real planning into a capitalist economy to achieve greater welfare for the people would have many right-wing pundits crying fowl and unfortunately, many progressives are not prepared to advocate that route either.

I believe that the tension between economic freedom and equitable economic outcomes will never go away in the context of a capitalist ‘free market’ economy. All we can hope for is to incrementally minimize the impact of structurally-determined inequalities that stem from this tension. Progressives have to explicitly understand this before proposing any policy remedies. Failure to do so may lead to misdirected action, a false sense of righteous optimism, followed by terrible disappointment when that tension doesn’t disappear, ultimately culminating in the loss of political power come election time. Progressives therefore have to understand their limitations, and the limitations of government power in guaranteeing economic outcomes, in the context of a free enterprise economy. It’s better to embrace the good while having the perfect, instead of embracing the perfect without the good.

To their credit, over the years, right-wing activists and advocates of supply-side economics have used a very effective and winning formula in the United States and Canada, whereby they win government, wreaking havoc while in office (via cuts, deregulation, etc.), and then they turn around and say how government doesn’t work, how ineffective government is, and promise to get government out of the way, for which they are again rewarded by voters (not always, but more often than they should). This simple formula is at the heart of the Republican Party in every single campaign, and even though the Republicans are a conduit for corporate power, most voters who support them are working class people who repeatedly vote against their economic interests without even realizing it.


Three Points to Note for Canada

by Amitav Rath, CEO, Policy Research International

I found the discussions of issues led by Nick Pearce (Director of the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR)) and mediated by Andrew Cardozo, very stimulating and thought provoking. There were many interesting points made about the UK and many of relevance for progressives and for Canadians. For me personally, two or three issues had a particular resonance. The first key issue was on coalition governments in the UK and it links to the despair many of us feel with the present national government and possibilities  of change in leadership. Eight years of small mindedness, pettiness, and vindictiveness, has ended according to Andrew Coyne, who wrote recently, the government stumbles around — picking fights, settling scores, demeaning institutions and individuals alike in the pursuit of no principle- beyond the perpetuation of its own power. Many of us hope that they are indeed spinning out of control and it is positive that increasing numbers of Canadians , rising to 56 percent recently, double that of two years ago, have said in polls by Nanos and IRPP, that the Harper and Conservatives are doing a poor job. Some of us can only hope, and may be work, for a time when Conservatives polling at 28 per cent cannot overtake the progressives in Canada (the Liberals were at 33 per cent with New Democrats at 27 per cent last month) because of splits among the progressive voters. 

A second point that Nick clarified to my question of his statement of massive cuts to many important budgets for social welfare, health and education is that the actual spending by the UK government has actually risen, driven mainly by mandatory spending, which has gone up, while deep and swinging cuts have been made to the discretionary budget.  He further linked this to larger difficulties for progressive forces where by any new program by the government must also require new taxes, which has therefore limited the ambitions of the labour party in the UK. This suggests that policy thinking on the progressive side must be tougher and examine all current large government spending programs to examine how they can be made more efficient, and sometimes even eliminated, to make room for new initiatives. 

The final point links to the second, and leads from the emerging crisis in the climate change front. All economists agree that a necessary and efficient tool for reducing carbon emissions would require a carbon tax, at higher levels than in BC, across the country ( and most likely across all countries). When this was proposed by Dion earlier, the idea bombed across the country. It will be necessary to begin a dialogue how to introduce a carbon tax, with reductions in other personal levies, which can help build a more sustainable and equitable economy in Canada and provide a model for others. 

Nick Pearce, a leading progressive thinker in Britain is the Director of the London-based Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR)

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