So Bernie Sanders might have narrowly lost the Democratic caucus in Iowa. A loss is a loss. But the battle of France was a loss. Dunkirk was a loss. We all know how that turned out in the end. The campaign – not only for the US presidency, but for the revival of social democracy in our time – is long.
The difference between the left and the right is that when the crisis hit for the left in the 1970s, the right was ready to exploit it. It had been working away in think tanks and strangely named societies for a long time, and it had not only it’s slogans but also its policies all worked out. But when the crisis hit for the neo-liberal right in 2008, the left was disorderly, disorganized, divided and demoralised, and neo-liberalism was able to weather the storm. The point is that not so much that change happens slowly – after all, both social democrats in the 1930s/40s and neo-liberals in the 1980s were able to bring about profound transformations of society within a decade or so. Rather, the point is that change comes in response to passionate, persistent pressure, backed by thorough intellectual and organisational preparation.
Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn, Podemos, Syriza – it does not really matter whether these leaders of the new social democratic movement ‘win’, for we are not yet at winning point. What matters is whether they can lay foundations and shift the sphere of debate.
For thirty-five years the left has had to fight on the right’s ground, on the ground of ‘individual choice’, ‘economic rationality’, ‘you cannot buck the market’, ‘on your bike’, ‘I’m alright, Jack’, ‘there is no alternative’, and ‘there is no such thing as society’. If the current generation of social democratic leaders don’t win office, but do force the right to fight on the left’s ground – changing the terms of political debate back to real economic issues, to poverty and inequality, the common good, to building genuine social security – then that is a great victory.
Basically, I think the overarching lesson of political change from the progressive era to the present day is that ‘office comes later’. That is to say that winning office comes only after the debate has been already won. Leaders who wish to be transformative should concentrate on winning the debate – then office will follow, enabling them to put their ideas into practice (e.g. Roosevelt, 1932; Atlee 1945, Thatcher 1979). If they seek office without winning the debate, all they will do is achieve hollow election victories that change little (e.g. Blair, 1997; Heath 1974; Obama, 2008). As a subsidiary point to this, I would say that those who are influential in winning the debate are not, usually, those who end up holding high office. Behind every Clement Atlee is a Harold Laski and a William Beveridge; behind every Margaret Thatcher is a Keith Joseph and a Milton Friedman.