BEST OF 2015

Leading debates from Policy Network


It has been another tumultuous year for the centre left in Britain and in Europe. Despite the year beginning with a glimmer of hope that Labour could return to its days as a party of government, this failed to come to fruition. Our election postmortem revealed that people feared a Labour government would plunge the British economy into chaos and perceived it to be out of touch on issues such as immigration and welfare.

Today, the prospect of Labour in government seems more remote than ever. A tug-of-war continues between Jeremy Corbyn and his followers on the one hand, and Labour's parliamentary group and voters on the other. But neither can be the winner when the Conservative government faces little scrutiny during this period of opposition in-fighting. 

Of course, the Conservatives are also fiercely divided over the upcoming referendum on EU membership. Roger Liddle's comprehensive book charts recent developments in this debate which leaves the UK teetering on the edge of Brexit. The refugee crisis and the Paris attacks keep the issue of free movement of people at the centre of this debate, the most difficult area of discussion in Britain's EU renegotiation.

The topic is also ammunition to Ukip's campaign. The populist party, while winning only a single seat in May's general election, has nonetheless played a disruptive role in Britain this year. It quadrupled its share of the vote and came second in almost 50 Labour seats, preventing Labour from winning at least an additional 13 seats. 

Yet the UK is not alone in its political fragmentation and populist backlash. The French regional elections were the latest mark in an unambiguous trend of surging populism, with the Front National edging closer to power. In June, the Social Democrat government in Denmark fell, not because they lost votes or seats (they didn't), but because of a rise in support for the populist right.

The year has also been marked by the abrupt rise, and equally quick stall, of the populist left. Podemos in Spain began the year on a high, leading the polls. Today, the party trails in fourth ahead of Spain's election on 20 December. The Greeks brought Alexis Tsipras and his anti-establishment, anti-austerity plaftorm Syriza to power in January. Yet, after countless negotiations and a referendum, Tsipras had to accept the EU's terms for a third bailout and to purge the party of its far left and populist proponents, a spectacular move which did not prevent him from being reelected in September.

The real worry is still about Hungary and, more recently, Poland, where rightwing populists are in power. New anti-immigrant and anti-gay laws, the restriction of judiciary independence and the tweaking of electoral rules pose a risk to the principles of liberal democracy. Progressives should not be tolerant of these infringements happening at the very core of the European Union.

Yet the underlying drivers of populist success – a mix of economic and cultural concerns and a disillusionment with the political class – cannot be ignored any longer. Populism is a signal of a deeper malaise. Restoring agency, a renewed array of safety nets, and democratic innovation that promotes deliberative practices and bottom-up contributions can help address the structural reasons behind populist success.

Overall, we end 2015 encouraging progressives to face up to fear and reclaim hope. Adjusting to the new realities of politics in the 'high-risk, high-opportunity' era' was the emerging theme from our annual Oxford conference organised jointly with Foundation for European Progressive Studies (Feps) and the Renner Institut, as well as from two high-level political seminars in Berlin and Paris hosted respectively by the German vice-chancellor Sigmar Gabriel and the French prime minister Manuel Valls. A look to Canada also offers some inspiration. The Liberals won a landslide majority by offering voters a positive, inclusive, pluralistic vision for the future of their country. 

Looking ahead to 2016, we will continue our progressive governance activities, in particular with a major international gathering Stockholm in May. Policy Network will also expand its work on progressive capitalism by focusing on democratising access to land, education and finance. It builds on recent work on Britain's dysfunctional housing market and the need for fiscal devolution, how to achieve corporate governance reform, and the European commission’s plan for a Capital Markets Union. Finally, as the EU referendum looms in the UK, we will be hosting a number of high-level conferences on European affairs and furthering our contribution to building a progressive case for Europe

Happy Christmas and a warm thanks to the network!

Throughout 2015 Policy Network has led debates on the key long-term trends shaping our societies.

Below are some of our highlights: