Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Different visions of progressive politics - the central issue?

It's now an annual occurrence. You can mark it in your diary with unerring accuracy.

Immediately after every election Labour declares an open-door policy towards disaffected LibDems to fight against the right-wing policies of tory ideology, by forming a 'progressive alliance' against conservatism.

Compass director Neal Lawson supports this tactic as he makes the case that for Labour the choice is now one between progressive tribalism, or progressive pluralism. He argues LibDems must work with Labour to prevent Conservatives from dictating the terms of government. And to this end the Compass think-tank recently opened up it's membership to other parties.

So either Labour must accept the claims of other parties to progressivism and work together on this basis, which he says will pave the way for a future coalition between Labour and LibDems, or the future will not be progressive.

It's a stark choice, but it is not a choice for the LibDems.

Lawson's approach has clear appeal to people with traditionally centre-left backgrounds. Using his attendance at a Fabian 'progressive fightback' conference Vince Cable warned that conservatives would be the beneficiaries of a return to a more polarised and tribal political discourse.

But George Eaton notes in the New Statesman how Nick Clegg dismissed the idea of any electoral pact between LibDems and Labour as he is determined that his party will stand their ground 'in the liberal centre of British politics.'

LibDem activist Alex Marsh explains that although Nick Clegg has identified himself as a radical and a 'centre progressive', Labour's choice between tribalism and pluralism has been an on-going and unresolved theme since the days when Paddy Ashdown and Tony Blair were leaders of their respective parties.

That was when, lest we forget, their secret agreement to tacitly support the practice of tactical voting in exchange for commitments on specific policy pledges resulted in their dramatic election success of 1997. For a moment it was patently obvious to all and sundry that the drubbing given to Major's tired and divided tories indicated a real will for a 'progressive' change in British political life.

That moment lasted only as long as it started to dawn on Blair that the size of his majority meant he could willfully disregard any policy commitments made to factions he was no longer purely dependant upon. Blair correctly - and cynically - calculated that he could occupy Downing Street as long as he could continue throwing crumbs of comfort in their direction.

Labour got into power, LibDems got a few extra seats and the public credited Labour for stealing a few headline-grabbing LibDem policies (such as independence for the Bank of England).

The somewhat overlooked consequence of that period was the way the language of this debate was effectively appropriated by the jubilant Labour spin-doctors with their presentation of 'progressive vs conservative' as an axiomatic divide. Such a view remains common, but it is by far the dominant view anywhere except on the left: so much does Labour style itself as holding values encompassed by progressivism that Blairite 'progressive values' have almost completely replaced the 'Labour values' so enthusiastically advocated by his predecessor and mentor, Neil Kinnock (such as in his conference address at Brighton in 1985 when he publicly denounced Derek Hatton).

So a 'progressive alliance' can be either an electoral strategy to win public support, or it can be a way to work together and advance a set of desirable policies.

If it is the former it leads to tactical votes or electoral pacts and the implicit deception of the public built into the blind assumption that specific progressive policies will be enacted since there are no formal arrangements, but where it is the latter it can lead to coalitions promising at least some concessions will be made to help the disadvantaged in society. A gamble or a guarantee.

Labour leader Ed Miliband is a clear advocate of the former, but LibDem leader Nick Clegg supports the latter.

Compass member and Labour voter Ed Paton-Williams provides an interesting insight into the thoughts of the 'progressive' left. Ed cites the defensiveness of LibDem hostility towards cooperation with Labour:
"it makes [LibDems] feel uncomfortable about their alliance with the Tories. Like considering the prospect of a progressive coalition makes them think about what could have been."
He adds his own scepticism about the commitment of LibDems to the progressive cause, stating,
"it’s difficult to comment on the extent to which Clegg, Cable and Alexander are following their hearts when it comes to the cuts. It’s certainly not a big leap from some of the Orange Book’s proposals."
Yet in the whole period since the general election from the point when the coalition discussions were being undertaken and it became clear Brown would not step aside, the leadership campaign and throughout Miliband-the-younger's time in the job, Labour has shown precious little inclination to accept any responsibility for the massive failings it oversaw (for example exclusively blaming bankers for the financial crisis, the massive assault on civil liberties under the guise of defending rights, even denying earlier support for  unpopular foreign military adventures), and even less intention to offer any alternative except a return to that system which collapsed under them (as indicated by retaining and promoting the same individuals - Miliband, Balls, Cooper etc - who were architects of it).

All of this simply allows the argument to be forwarded that the Cameron-Clegg coalition is actually a more progressive alliance than anything involving the current Labour leadership, and therefore that this wasn't just the only realistic choice, rather in fact that it was the best choice on offer at the time.

Meanwhile Simon Kovar provides a heavyweight riposte writing in The Liberal magazine. He examines criticisms from the left that the so-called 'Orange Book' tendency is anti-progressive, noting that
"Progressivism has proved a slippery political concept. In historical terms, it has no anchorage in any one political tradition."
Simon highlights "the nourishment of individuality, a critique of political and economic privilege and monopoly, and the fostering of [active] citizenship" starting with a commitment to education as the basic tenets of liberalism exhibited in the Orange Book essays, which all self-describing progressives would automatically subscribe to under any normal circumstances.

Jonny Thakkar adds some intellectual firepower to this perspective in The Point magazine.

He states that "Leftists are already more conservative than they like to admit," - at least as far as the pace of change is concerned!

Certainly this is the basis of Labour's opposition to the coalition strategy for cutting the deficit and the opposition to voting reform in the AV referendum - which many left-wing figures believe would undermine their tribal voting bloc.

Furthermore, when we compare the basic issues of progressive politics we can see how it pans out in practice.

After 1997, the tactical votes which gave Blair an overwhelming parliamentary majority allowed him to deny his private pledge to put in place a constitutional convention for electoral reform, whereas the Cameron-Clegg coalition ensured the public a real choice in the ill-fated referendum on AV. Although neither case actually brought about change at least now a process of elimination has begun rather than simply maintaining the status quo as by right.

On the fundamental topic of fairness in fiscal policy a similar contrast is apparent. Under the Balls-Miliband axis Brown's Labour moved to abolish the 10p tax band as a way to show favour to the middle-classes, while the Clegg-Cable axis convinced Cameron to raise personal allowances as a way to incentivise employment and assist lower-income sections of society.

And even where Labour could boast depoliticising monetary policy in the national interest by giving the responsibility for setting interest rates to the MPC, their success was fatally undermined by a tendency towards controlling technocratic micro-management.

This produced a dangerous political bias among the appointed members of the committee which encouraged excessive private and public debt levels by keeping interest rates too low for too long and led to the unaccountable tri-partite regulatory system for banking which created a boom in speculation and allowed Treasury finances to grow overly-dependent on taxes from the city and equity trading (including house prices) as the means for funding for a range of politically-desirable, if overly-complex and inefficient, minority interest initiatives (such as tax credits).

So we can see the different interpretations of what a progressive alliance can be: it can be about political control, or it can be about the purposes political control is used for.

If you're prepared to ask yourself which is the more progressive then it is clear Labour has much work to do to regain any credibility on progressivism.

And this is what makes Labour's expressions of openness to cooperation in the interests of progressive politics not just dubious, but almost offensive. Labour in government sent a wrecking ball through any vestiges of credibility the current leadership pretends to maintain.

So the issue returns to the question of 'tribal or plural?'

Speaking in the self-proclaiming voicepiece of progressivism, Progress magazine, Labour's Douglas Alexander tentatively agrees with Vince Cable that progressives should fix their sights on ideological opponents, although the shadow foreign secretary appears more than happy to encourage party tribalism at the same time.

Alexander uses the example of SNP success in Scotland to highlight the fact that nobody has a monopoly on ideas and makes an indirect but nonetheless powerful attack on the current 'traditional' Labour leadership. But  perhaps he is viewing the political scenery from the distorted perspective of a Scottish dynamic and coming up with a paradoxic conclusion: he argues that a return to the centre-ground of British politics is the best way to advance Labour's electoral fortunes and thereby the progressive cause.

His denial of any Conservative claim to being progressive will come as a surprise to many grassroots supporters - people such as Adam Collyer, who promotes the view that the Conservative Party is built on progressive values (though the repeal of the Corn Laws may be gradually fading into complete obscurity).

It is also irksome for LibDems such as Nick Thornsby, who argues his party are the only consistent defender of progressive values.

All this reminds me of a profound pre-election comment from the defunct Letters From a Tory, who asked:
"Why is everyone so obsessed with being seen as progressive? Surely the whole point of politics is to be progressive and make long-lasting, fundamental and effective changes when faced with new challenges in government?"
Which means this argument is really about finding a deeper understanding of what politics is, and implies some real attempts to redefine the nature of contemporary political debate are happening before our eyes.

So, right-wingers are satisfied Cameron has detoxified their brand by using the coalition to move to the centre, and at the same time those on the left are upset LibDems have also moved towards the centre, suggesting this has made Nick Clegg 'toxic'.

I cannot disagree strongly enough with these two opposing extremes.

Left and right may define themselves as relative antitheses of each other, but centrism (if that's what we want to call liberal progressivism) cannot allow itself to be positioned as equidistant between each pole - these different visions of progressivism are the central issue over which the political battle is to be fought and centrism must be the synthesis of the two or it is nothing.

The most strident and rigorous Marxists, such as Ed Miliband's father, certainly understood that. It's a shame he doesn't.

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