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Building A Progressive Coalition

The (relatively new) leader of the British Labour Party, Ed Miliband, is turning out to be a very capable leader, and not just because his party is leading in opinion polls due to Conservative Prime Minister Cameron's harsh austerity measures.

Miliband -- in policy and communications -- has balanced recognition of the strengths of the market economy and an acknowledgement of 21st-century social and economic realities with traditional social democratic (or, more broadly, progressive) values of promoting strong social programs, helping the working poor, and valuing the role of government in helping the poor and middle-class. In the process, Labour is providing a clear contrast to the austerity-focused Conservatives.

Where Tony Blair's New Labour often pursued pragmatism -- accommodating the "centre" -- at the expense of idealism (at least in public statements), the Miliband-led Labour Party has assertively established a progressive identity.

A key component for Labour has been engaging members and the general public -- building a broad progressive coalition and appealing directly to the concerns of voters. Miliband has sought to build ties between the Labour Party and various civil society groups, expanding beyond the party's traditional union backers.

This is something made easier with the third-party Liberal Democrats being part of a coalition government with the Conservatives. In many ways, this is reminiscent of the 1920s when the old British Liberal Party got displaced as the centre-left contender for government by Labour, as Liberals aligned with Conservatives. Progressive Liberals in the 1920s went over to the growing Labour Party and conservative voters opted for Conservatives over Conservative-lite (an apt warning to liberal parties about leaning to the right when a social democratic party is a viable alternative).

Labour under Miliband -- in its communications on social media and other outlets -- has sought to drive home exactly how Cameron's austerity measures are harming the British people -- including the poor and middle class and youth faced with a difficult job market -- showing that it is not just an opposition for opposition's sake, but that very real issues are at stake. On Facebook and Twitter for example, Labour Party updates highlight clearly the numbers of police offers and nurses laid off, the number of early learning centres closed, and provides individual stories of people negatively affected by Tory policies.

On engaging party members and the general public, the party is seeking to put in place processes to garner greater rank and file input, and is encouraging the involvement of elected officials in advocacy on issues of local concern in their communities -- creating more direct engagement between the party and local communities and bringing these concerns to the leadership. While the term "grassroots" gets thrown around a lot, this is a real effort at genuine "grassroots" engagement.

To this end, the Labour Party hired an American community organizer -- Arnie Graf -- who had trained local leaders in Chicago to fight for issues such as housing and decent wages -- to bring these skills to the Labour Party, to train strong local leaders and connect the party to local communities -- attracting volunteers and supporters engaged and interested in these local concerns.

If applied in Canada, this could offer real potential for elected representatives -- who are too often stifled by party discipline -- to be real advocates for the communities and constituencies they represent, to have a more empowered role and, in turn, create a policy process better rooted in the concerns of constituents.

On constituency work, former deputy leader of the Labour Party, Denis Healey, wrote in his memoirs that:

"The busier a politician is with national or international affairs, the more important is his constituency case work. It is that above all which keeps him in touch with the problems of those he is supposed to represent, and teaches him how legislation at Westminster [Parliament] actually affects real people on the ground - or how powerless it is to help them."

Thus, for progressive political parties, substantive policies, rooted in the concerns of party members and the general public (through genuine consultation and engagement) is key -- policies aimed at combating real problems faced by the general public, aimed at building a broad progressive coalition to defeat conservative parties which, in many cases in both Britain and Canada, are increasingly driven by rightwing neo-conservative ideology.

In Canada, this would entail building a coalition of environmentalists (including many who would normally support the Green Party), social democrats, liberals, and Red Tories who hail from the Progressive half of the old Progressive Conservative Party. This would involve emphasis on environmental conservation, poverty-reduction, a strong social safety net (both protecting and enhancing it), and an emphasis on entrepreneurship and innovation.

Federally in Canada, the Liberals and the NDP are fighting for this space (with the NDP having the advantage as official opposition). In New Brunswick, the provincial Liberals as official opposition have the potential -- as they embark on their policy development process in 2013 -- to develop policies rooted in the concerns of New Brunswickers, appealing to this broad progressive coalition, with particular emphasis on issues such as poverty, unemployment, youth outmigration, on modernizing sectors such as agriculture and forestry, and enhancing sectors such as information technology and tourism.

The Labour Party, in charting an assertively progressive path, in seeking to root policies in local concerns and to empower volunteers and elected officials, and in embarking on a genuinely consultative policy process, is offering lessons worth learning for other progressive parties, including here in Canada.

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