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‘Big Change’ and ‘Progressive Conservatisms’ - building coalitions for transitioning to Net Zero

Updated: Jan 18

The Double Shuffle as alliance builder


Achieving urgent transformative actions across society to reach Carbon Net Zero requires the building of durable social and political coalitions.  Societal change on this scale will be fought tooth and nail by fossil capitalism and much of the political Right, thus highlighting the critical issue of the ideology and politics of transitioning. 


The key arguments of opposition are already in plain sight - climate action is a middle class luxury that low income groups cannot afford. When people are hurting due to austerity and the cost-of-living crisis, regressive messages resonate. Winning the ideological battle cannot, therefore, be solely based on a rational case even though evidence-based argument is essential. A major strategy of the Right media is to sow the seeds of despair and cynicism so that people, feeling disempowered, withdraw inwards or direct their frustrations on immigrants.


Creating a coalition for 'Big change' needs to be based on material and ideological strategies. The concept of the Just Transition highlights the need for climate justice in which the most vulnerable are shielded from costs of climate action. This is why, for example, generous government support for public transport, vehicle scrappage, heat pumps and home insulation is absolutely essential for low income families in particular. Realistic progressive future visions need to be fed materially. But materiality in itself may be insufficient in the context of continuing ideological warfare in which the UK political Right (Conservatives, Reform and regressive think tanks) will seek to delay or dilute the necessary changes.


Coalition building for transitioning will also require a blending of radical and conservative discourses, in which the radical guides the scale of change and the conservative reassures. A very helpful way of understanding this kind of combinational approach is Stuart Hall's ‘Double Shuffle’.  A metaphor derived from leading and following dance movements, Hall originally employed the Double Shuffle to analyse the complexities of Blairite politics, comprising a dominant neoliberal element that provided the overall organising discourse, with a subordinate social democratic element to maintain New Labour’s political appeal to its core supporters.  


In an analysis of Conservative political hegemony I have also suggested that both Cameron and Johnson could also be seen as creating different types of Tory Double Shuffles to maintain political flexibility and to build Conservative alliances.  The Double Shuffles thus far could be characterised as ‘regressive combinational politics’, aimed at the acquisition and retention of political power but resulting in unstable settlements.

 

A Progressive Double Shuffle to win and to transition?


Given this recent history of combinational politics, a key question is whether there's the possibility of a progressive version that might both help Labour to win the upcoming General Election through a social coalition that embraces Red Wall and Blue Wall constituencies and accelerate a green transition when in government?


A Progressive Double Shuffle strategy applied to the Green and Just Transition could comprise the dominant element of green energy policies funded by government, in alliance with private sector investment to create new well-paid green jobs as well as offering generous subsidies for the public to transition to green home heating. 

 

This brings us to the subordinate role of ‘progressive conservatisms’.  By this I am referring to both the discourses, policies and activities that directly address people’s sense and experience of social identity, place and security.  Not only can this counter Right attacks on the green transition, they can also help cement support and participation in the transitioning process.


In contrast to regressive Double Shuffles that has existed largely as rhetoric, the progressive version must be based on real material changes that positively assist people to lead better sustainable lives.  This will be in stark contrast to neoliberal conservatism that has economically and socially undermined communities up and down the land, particularly in the North. Progressive conservatisms can be experienced as conserving and restoring of things that have been lost through neoliberal destruction. In this regard, there is the interesting concept of 'progressive nostalgia'. This more than a yearning for lost past. Rather, it is can be a vision of the near future that involves collective imagining and action to remake something of value that gathers meaning in a world of transitioning. Already there are vibrant plans for rebuilding localities in which people can work, live and learn in new and sustainable ways. What is needed is government and civic action.


Active government – national and local


There are many interesting and beneficial innovative ideas ready for implementation by a new Labour Government acting in alliance with local government and communities that could carry the blend of change and conserving - regenerating local high streets with new mixes of activity; supporting community policing and enhancing public protection; creating local jobs with a particular emphasis on apprenticeships for young people; making healthcare more accessible via local polyclinics to relieve pressure on hospitals.  The possibilities are endless.  But this is not just about necessary central government investment.  It’s equally about developing a vibrant, democratic and facilitating local governance and politics that reaches out to and involves communities. 


Virtues of big change and the little conservatisms


This brings us to the virtues that can align necessary progressive changes in people's lives and the little conservativisms that can restore.  The big change of transitioning arises not out of choice, but of necessity.  But this is not about the big state dragooning its citizens.  It must be about harnessing the values of individual and collective responsibility.  Personal freedom has been ideologized by the Conservative Party in its opposition to an active state and in support of private capital.  It treats freedom as a political and economic instrument rather than as a virtue.  Real human freedom, however, exists in alternative and deeper forms that can be guaranteed by a facilitating and protective state – individuals, families and communities enjoying the freedoms from want, disruption and insecurity.


Does Labour really understand the value of conservatisms?


Starmer’s Labour has clothed itself in conservative imagery and policy restraint.  While in many ways they are not Blairite, Starmer’s Labour have taken a leaf out of the New Labour election playbook with a defensive strategy to head off Tory attacks.  In this sense, a broken Conservative Party still exercises a residual political hegemony over Labour.  The dangers of Labour’s crude conservatisms, such as draping itself in the iconography of nationalism, are that they are failing to inspire and educate a weary electorate to prepare for the necessary big changes.  In the name of winning a few more voters, this less than authentic behaviour risks reducing Labour’s room for good government when it will be needed most.


There is an alternative - what can be termed an ‘honest progressive Double Shuffle’.  Labour can be upfront with people by stating clearly that big transitions are unavoidable. But that, at the same time, it understands the need to conserve and restore dignity in people’s lives.  These ideas do exist within Labour, reflected in recent books by Ed Miliband ‘Go Big’; Lisa Nandy’s ‘All in’ and the recent Jon Cruddas volume ‘A Century of Labour’.  The problem is that Kier Starmer has surrounded himself with a factional exclusionary group unwilling to discuss these ideas openly.  And that is precisely what’s needed as we approach a watershed General Election – open discussion on how to combine the needed radical changes with the conservatisms of place and protection.

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