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The ascent of right-wing hegemony in an increasing number of countries in Europe is forcing progressives to rethink their agendas and strategies. For years it appeared that conservative authoritarianism is a peculiarity of a few unruly post-socialist countries of the old continent. In a post-Brexit age, with Norbert Hofer in Austria and Marine Le Pen in France close to power, it has become evident that progressive politics needs to change throughout Europe.

East Meets West

At the end of June in the aftermath of the Brexit shock, the Green Party of England and Wales has called for an electoral alliance to defeat the Tories at the next general election. This is a bold proposal that might deliver what is needed: a massive political innovation capable of reshaping the political landscape of the UK. Yet, there are several difficulties with such an approach, a failure to tackle them in due time might wreak havoc with such a cooperation. In our comment we offer some reflections from the perspective of progressive electoral politics in Hungary.

At first sight, a comparison between Hungarian politics and post-Brexit UK might seem a bit harsh. The Hungarian political system has degraded to an electoral authoritarian regime whereas the UK, though chaotic, is still a fully democratic country. However, the rise of illiberal authoritarianism and the hollowing-out of democracy is a Europe-wide phenomenon that can no longer be dismissed as an Eastern curiosity. In Hungary, after the newly elected 2010 government started to dismantle the democratic institutions it also introduced a new electoral law similar that of the UK. This new law made the Hungarian electoral system more majoritarian and forced the fragmented left-wing opposition to cooperate in order to win the next elections. The Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP), Democratic Coalition (DK), Together 2014 (Együtt), Dialogue for Hungary (PM) and the Liberals (MLP) joined forces forming an electoral alliance in early 2014. However, the progressive alliance fell short of replacing the illiberal right-wing government. With the potential exit of Scotland and the ensuing loss of progressive MPs in Westminster, progressives in the UK also have to face historical challenges calling for historical political innovations. We therefore think it is meaningful and useful to start a dialogue between East and West. In the hope that we can help such a dialogue get started, we point to some lessons we learnt from the failure of the Hungarian progressive alliance.

 

Don’t Underestimate the Power of Organisational Interests

Good intention and bold ideas are rarely enough to succeed in politics. They are necessary but ineffectual without power. In a democratic polity, power resides with political parties.

For any political leader to go against his/her interest, they require exceptional qualities. Furthermore, deciding on which party has the right to field a candidate in a constituency is a very difficult question. Local politicians and local party members who may have to step down would rightly feel betrayed and become quickly disillusioned. This could jeopardise one of the most important advantages of an electoral alliance: the unity of activists. Losing activists who are less enthusiastic to campaign for the nominee of a newly allied but long lasting political foe could cost any party several seats. In Hungary, activists of opposition parties were more likely to stay at home or go over to another district to help a nominee of their own party rather than campaign for the nominee of a political rival located in their own districts.

The legitimacy of candidates depends both on their personal qualities but also on the process of selection. Should party headquarters bargain over each district or should this be left to local organizations? Should selection be done behind closed doors or with the involvement of the public? These are a few questions that have to be answered early on. In Hungary, we proposed to hold primaries with the participation of every democratic opposition party: this would ensure that the process of selection is democratic and the results have the necessary legitimacy.

Another main organizational challenge is to how to control political egos. If the process of selection is not clearly defined from the onset, the power of organizational interests could push each party to fight for as many local nominees as possible and this could lead to an intensive period of infighting. It took the Hungarian opposition almost a year to reach an agreement on a common nominee for prime minister, as well as on the distribution of local candidates and potential seats among each other. Voters grew tired early on as they were not interested in internal power bargaining and became disillusioned with an opposition that failed to talk about things that concern the general population as opposed to their own narrow concerns. It was not a lack of good will and not even some odd political stupidity that led to the process of alliance formation turning into a horrendous and ineffectual ordeal. Rational political actors such as local candidates, local party members and affiliates were trying to maximize their interests, ending in a year-long cacophony. The lesson we learned from this was that controlling political egos and interests can only be done by strong procedural rules agreed early on, such as a multi-party transparent primaries system.

Once the alliance takes shape the establishment of effective campaign teams is also a difficult task requiring time. Group thinking can sabotage efficient operations and this can only be overcome by strong leadership and adequate timescales. During the few months left between time the the final agreement was reached on common candidates and the day of the election in 2014 opposition parties in Hungary failed to establish such efficient structures: campaign teams were not coordinated enough; whereas implementation of decisions was sluggish, causing serious logistical bottlenecks in the heat of the campaign. In the UK, looking at a potential snap election as early as November 2016, time might be the biggest constraint to establishing efficient joint structures for a progressive alliance. Establishing a completely new progressive party could be the most efficient solution in the long run, but are progressive parties in the UK ready to give up their organizational independence? What happens if the alliance fails? How should the new party or alliance be operated or dissolved? These questions need to be answered in advance.

 

Don’t Be Complacent with a Common Enemy

However, efficient and legitimate organizational structures are just the base upon which compelling politics can be built. Negative campaigning can be efficient, and the threat of a common enemy might be sufficient to bring together progressive parties to defeat the Tories and UKIP. Yet, the lack of a common positive vision about the future, the lack of a common political language and political culture that filters through the emotions of everyday voters could be a recipe for defeat. In 2014, Hungarian progressives lacked this vision and focused mostly on the technicalities of forming an alliance and blaming the illiberal government even for forcing them to cooperate. The atmosphere inside the alliance was therefore agonizing rather than hopeful. This lack of vision led to a failure to create strong engagement among voters and activists. Negative campaigning can be successful against a divisive politician rejected by large segments of the voters. However, if all the negativity thrown by progressives at Hungarian PM Viktor Orban failed to repel the majority of Hungarians, we doubt that a negative campaign targeted at Theresa May would do so. Even if such a campaign would work, asking people not to think of the elephant in the room might lead them to think of nothing else. Without a compelling positive moral and political vision the opposition will face a hard time just as it did in Hungary. Much has been written about the failure of progressives to offer a genuinely unique vision to combat neoconservative ideas. As Labour lost its core base and moved closer to the political centre, the party now is having a hard time re-inventing its identity and creating a compelling vision to the voters. Here’s our proposal for what such a vision could be based on:

The idea that freedom and social security are bound together should definitely be at the centre of a new progressive agenda. Masses are trust into existential anxiety by turbulent global forces of the market and national elites, instead of offering a remedy against the perils of globalisation, often make things even worse through pointless austerity. In such times being ready to offer new forms of social security is the only guarantee of freedom. Technocratic social liberalism won’t be enough to convince citizens that progressives mean to do more than mere window dressing or heartless maintenance of a system ripe with injustice.

The task ahead of progressives is daunting. Whereas politics is still contained in nation states our social problems go beyond national borders and so should the solutions. It would be foolish to blame the EU for home grown Tory austerity policies. Yet, it would be also foolish to think that the economic structure of Europe has nothing to do with the ever more intensive economic migration from the peripheries to the centres of European capitalism. There is no avoiding the fact that low wages and the lack of socio-economic progress in Eastern and Southern Europe has political consequences for the West and the North. Polish or Hungarian migrants in London, Portuguese migrants in Paris or Greek migrants in Berlin flee just as much from economic uncertainty at the periphery as do the Northern working and middle classes in the UK. There is no quick fix to these international tensions. But the time of muddling through, of burying our heads into sand is over. We need a European political dialogue on common social problems and on the future of progressive politics. East and the West might not be that far from each other after all.

Any Progressive Alliance has to be a Progressive Solution, both in terms of organization efficiency, leadership capacity and positive vision. If the proposed Progressive Alliance in the UK manages to deliver this solution, it might not only be the most important innovation in domestic politics, but also set an example for divided progressives throughout Europe.

Noemi Olah is a Hungarian campaign analyst and former campaign manager of Dialogue for Hungary Party.

Gabor Scheiring is the Chairman of the Progressive Hungary Foundation, a former MP in the Hungarian Parliament and a research associate at the University of Cambridge.