The decline of Labour as a coherent intellectual force is one of the defining features of recent British politics. No doubt the next few years will see a healthy process within Labour to seek to heal the wounds and to re-focus. I suggest that under the banner of ‘progressivism’ this process has started.
2010 saw commentators for the first time in the UK judging political propositions on the basis of whether they are ‘progressive’ or not. Ed Miliband’s own analysis is that in government Labour “…lost that sense of progressive mission.” But what on earth does progressive mean? What kind of progress are these people on about? Socialist progress? Liberal progress? Technological progress? Moral progress? Spiritual progress? Institutional progress? Economic progress?
‘Progressivism’ is a vacuous ‘big tent’ term designed to encompass (and draw to it) as many people as possible – and it is here that the danger lies.
In the battle of ideas, language is the ballgame. The moment your opponent starts using your words, thinking and conceptualising as you do, you have won. It is instructive to note that no one any more talks of ‘modernising’: whatever the dictionary says, in the UK this word is tainted with the centralised and target-driven public policy approach of the early Blair years. If socialists, woolly new labour types, and liberals all self-define as ‘progressive’ the impression given is that these three groups identify together rather than independently. The impression given is that Liberal Democrats are just a semi-autonomous branch of the Labour movement.
Liberal Democrats at all levels have been using the word ‘progressive’ a lot. A prime example is Nick Clegg’s Guardian comment piece in November, acutely and accurately adjudged by Jonathan Calder. Every time we use the word it strengthens Labour, and weakens ourselves. Liberal Democrats have our own lexicon – our own ideas of we they can be proud. We are an alternative to Labour, and it is folly to seek to play their ‘progressive’ game.
We should seek to be judged on our own terms. Are we building and safeguarding a fair, free and open society? Are we supporting people out of slavery to poverty, ignorance or conformity? Are we making power truly accountable to the people they serve? Are we making society serve all its members, whoever they are? Are we ensuring that people are safe, from pestilence, from war, from crime and free to live their lives to the full?
Let Liberal Democrats speak of justice, fairness, accountability, community, learning and liberty. Liberalism sees the government and community as forces for good: allowing and enabling people to blossom and flourish in their own way.
The coalition’s first budget should never have been sold as a ‘progressive’ budget. Nick Clegg should not talk about ‘progressive’ cuts. The budget was necessary, and as fair as the Liberal Democrats could make it in spite of our coalition partners. It may well have been ‘progressive’ too, but just don’t use the word.
Let’s make 2011 a time to capture the debate, and move it onto our own terms. Labour can call itself ‘progressive’ if it wants to, but it is for Liberal Democrats to make the case for a particular kind of progress: liberalism.