Opinion: A Progress-ive Moment?

They say history never repeats itself, but when the Labour party is involved, you can be at least sure that it’ll rhyme. And once again, the far left of the party is indulging itself in an ideological battle. The target this time is the Blairite thinktank Progress, the GMB union having submitted a rule amendment to outlaw it as a part of the Labour party.

This represents a real chance for Lib Dems to realign the centre, a process which has already began with the Coalition, and liberal-leaning Cameronite Conservatives becoming closer to we Liberal Democrats than the right-wing fringes of his party. Blair and Ashdown’s historic aim was to gather the left together in a progressive alignment that would keep the right out of power — yet circumstances have made that an impossibility. Instead, we should be looking to further Clegg’s message of centrism and inclusion, ‘not left, not right – just liberal’ being a clarion call to liberals of both centre-left and right to join us in the middle.

After all, as Lib Dems we have much to offer. The era of the big state is over, the current economic crisis and debt mountain ignored for too long in favour of realpolitik arguments that see centrists in each party fighting against each other, when we should be united against the extremes.

Our message to Progress, and indeed to other people who have left the Labour party, disgusted by its kowtowing to the leftmost fringes, should be to welcome them to a liberal, centrist party that mixes economic responsibility with a social conscience, that wants to reform the EU, not withdraw from it, that wants a stronger, wealthier, more successful country.

The alternative is stepping back in fear of our own shadow, and allowing Blairites and moderates with liberal values to be snatched up by a Conservative party keen to seize the centre ground of politics. The argument for a third, independent political party in this country is weak enough at the moment without allowing the Conservatives to steal our thunder, the very ground that we should naturally be occupying.

For if we are ever to see a Liberal Democrat majority government, it will not be done by focusing solely on ourselves, and our own issues, but by reaching out to others and making it plain that they are part of our vision of a liberal Britain, a vision that needs urgent attention if it is ever to take place.

* Zadok Day is a Lib Dem activist based in Bury, and is co-Chair of Liberal Reform.

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28 Comments

  • Can I say rather than trying to convince a few compass members to join us – why don’t we get away from our keyboards and knock on a door and talk to some voters!

    I’d suggest Zadok did the same in Bury? How are the Lib Dems doing there?

  • I agree with both the spirit and the semantics. I know people disagree with the word centrist, but I welcome it as a way of getting away from the tired old right/left, big state/small sate ideas.

    But, back to Zadok’s piece, as the Labour party tries to get rid of it’s best asset (IMO) – shouldn’t we look to see what we can gain, in both members and thought/debate….

  • Davy – that’s an argument against doing anything tho. On the face of it , agree we need more members and we should convince people to join… – but if you’ll excuse me that’s a fairly glib dismissal of Zadok’s piece and it doesn’t really work for me against his argument.

  • Toby MacDonnell 17th Jun '12 - 3:07pm

    Geoffrey, if we incorperate Blairites or New Labourites into the Lib Dems, as a faction they will be in the minority on civil liberties, but together we can still support progressive social policies and pragmatic economic policies. When trying to build alliances, the thing to do is not to ask of people that they abandon their ideological ground in favour of our own, but that we find the common threads and common themes to agree on before getting into some real nitty-gritty debate on the stuff we disagree on.

  • Bill le Breton 17th Jun '12 - 4:01pm

    The best and safest way to grow a movement is not to recruit the activists of other parties but to gain the respect and support of those who previously supported other parties or none.

    Some came to our movement because we talked their language, campaigned on issues that mattered to them, their families and their communities, involved them and, when we secured office, kept our word.

    Some came first tactically and in support of another party, but this was our chance to demonstrate that we actually shared their values and that those who they supported previously did not really uphold those values when in office.

    As the political cycles fluctuate we sometimes found ourselves the new home for conservative supporters (I remember this well in the Eighties when the full horror of Thatcherism became apparent to them), sometimes we found ourselves the new home for Labour supporters, as when their policy over Iraq opened eyes.

    Our present leadership did not agree with this approach to building a movement. Perhaps it was too slow for them, perhaps they thought it was the reason that the Party that assembled at Conference didn’t support their ideas, perhaps they thought that there was an electorate out there that would support us if we only led on their message, pursued their policies.

    And they got their chance to prove themselves.

    The tragedy is that these are times when those who supported Labour, even in 2010, might have come to such a party as we once were. And, again, as with the Eighties, these are times when liberal minded conservatives might have flocked to us as a moderating influence on the Goves and Hunts and other right-wing Tories.

    But our leaders have positioned us elsewhere.

    There is not a chance in the world that significant numbers of Labour supporters will look to us as a haven – no matter who leads them or what they do to each other internally.

    Nor are we different enough within the Coalition for Conservative supporters to see us as an alternative.

    Our Rose Garden love-in, our enthusiasm for cuts, for plunging the Health Service into further reorganizations, and our apparent inconsistency over everything we say or do from pasties to tuition fees has seen three out of five of our supporters, yes sixty percent, and a huge swathe of membership, leave us.

    And the leadership’s belief that these would be replaced when our record on economic rigour brought recovery to the nation’s fortunes has been shown to be as illusionary as its belief in expansionary deficit reduction.

    This is not how you build a Liberal movement, it is how you blight the chances for Liberalism in this country for another 50 years. It is not how you unite a country, it is how you help divide it in dire times.

  • I’m with Geoffrey Payne on this, Disbanding a discredited think tank and distancing itself from the likes of Mendelssohn seems eminently sensible.

  • Robert O'Brien 17th Jun '12 - 4:24pm

    The labour party does not knowtow to its far left base, once in while they appease them with empty rhetoric. When push come to shove the labour party is far more interested in looking respectable than doing anything approaching far left .

  • Simon Titley 17th Jun '12 - 4:44pm

    The words ‘centre’ and ‘centrist’ should not be part of the Liberal Democrats’ lexicon.

    The problem with these words is that one is defining oneself in terms of other parties. By calling yourself a centrist, you are in effect saying “I’ll wait to see what the Conservatives and Labour say, then try to position myself between them.” Your politics then becomes nothing more than the outcome of tactical manoeuvring instead of Liberal values.

    This is not a question of whether one is a social liberal or economic liberal. Liberalism has intrinsic qualities that are not dependent on where the Conservatives and Labour happen to position themselves. Liberalism has sufficient positive qualities of its own to build a successful movement, without resort to the sort of vapid branding that ‘centrism’ represents.

  • ………………Our message to Progress, and indeed to other people who have left the Labour party, disgusted by its kowtowing to the leftmost fringes, should be to welcome them to a liberal, centrist party that mixes economic responsibility with a social conscience…………….

    LDV lamblasts the ‘Blair Years’; now, “At a single bound” we want to embrace these same believers.

    Sadly, I can understand your reasoning; after all, we’ve lost our ‘leftmost fringes’ along with many not-so-left.

  • Toby MacDonnell 17th Jun '12 - 7:20pm

    Anyone who supports “liberalism” seems to have a very particular idea of what liberalism means to them. The trouble arises if another “liberal” whose idea of “liberalism” diverges from theirs is judged to be not “one of the party” or “not one of us”. This is why we’re not just Liberal, but Liberal Democrats: every single narrative of Liberalism has a creditable thread running through it, be that our Heyekian neoliberals or our near-term moderate state capitalist liberals. As a collective, we are the sum of our liberal constitutents who come from a wide range of liberal discources, be that the one nation Tories of the 80s, the anti-war Blairites of the early 21st Century, the neoliberals or the social liberals of the Liberal and SDP Alliance.

    Arguing for the exclusion of any liberal group throws their baby out with their bathwater. Perhaps we object to the Heyekian ideal of peak market efficency, but how else to we re-corodinate monetary value with material value except through allowing bubbles to burst and recessions to force restructuring and reallocation of scarce resources? Perhaps we regard Keynesian stimulus as the state’s perversion of market value, but how else do we improve or preserve our infrastructure and skill base as a foundation for future economic growth and ensure standards of living in the near-to-medium term? What all liberals fundementally agree on though is that the law should be evenly adhered to and applied in the interests of a meritous society: that’s what we mean when we talk about preserving freedoms, rights, or liberties even if we argue about the optimum balance between those three constituencies.

    As democrats, we believe that even if these differences are ultimately unsolveable an open and frank debate will yeild an optimum balance relative to the situation in which we find ourselves. We sign up to the democratic process in the full knowledge that we are making a trade off between our our own beliefs with the beliefs of others in exchange for a chance to affect our collective policy: we contractually obligate ourselves to adhere to the collective will in exchange for a chance for our will to win out over others in the public discource of reason. This is the extent to which democrats approve of tyranny, and it is finally balanced with our liberal instincts by our ability to add to the debate.

    The parties we exclude from our liberal discource are the parties which are revolutionary or counter-revolutionary: the reactive forces who close their minds to alternatives to their utopia. Although every liberal has a differing standard of what constiutes a reactionary, I think that we can broadly agree that the elements on the right of the Tory party and the left of the Labour party are beyond the pale for most of us. For what it’s worth, I don’t believe that democrats should sacrafice their voice for their utopia because the democratic contract is a cornerstone of our utopia and we must be prepared to live by it even when it deprives us of other aspects of our ideal.

    In practice, what this means is that we must be open to contributions to the discourse from both the Tory and Labour parties because the common threads between us are the foundations for a joint, democratic utopian effort: we accept that the power of all parties are deminished by subervience to a common effort, and should not be afraid to admit that and adbide by the conciquences of the democratic process and the exercise of the law we agreed to abide by by cooperating with the structures which permit us to exercise our voice and an oppertunity to seize power. Whether this means cross-party think-tank subscriptions, cross-party policy cooperations, cross-party conference representatives, or cross-party coalition government, we should be open to cooperating with people who share a policy ideal regardless of their background, as we ought to in our own party as democrats regardless of where our members may have defected from.

    As far as I can see, this played out very well in 2007 when we elected a leader who stood against the worst excesses of the New Labour government without excluding its progressive policies. The thing was that the Tories had exactly the same reaction to the left-wing hegemony we did and elected a leader who also reacted to the worst excesses of that government without sacraficing its market-based methods of reaching progressive social ideals. These two leaders were well placed to forge an alliance in 2010 on a series of common positions defined by their opposition to Labour.

    Trouble is, those positions were defined by 2007-2010, not 2010-2012. While the majority of us accepted the coalition at the time, the changing circumstances and sacrafices our party has made in the name of our democratic ideal has sufficiently alienated a range of our utopians who aren’t willing to kowtow to the consencus which has been built in collaboration with the Tory party. that they have left. The circumstances have changed since the writing of the coalition agreement, and the Liberal Democrats in government are leaning on Osborne to alter plan-A to account for the matter of growth, but I think the nessecary distance between the rulers and the ruled has been exacerbated by the lack of a more local democratic process to distribute resources on a local level: there is no democratic investment in the technocratic distribution of these scare commodities and that alienates the constituents who have to suffer them. Attempts to open out the decision making process have all been made on the national level through the proliferation of think tanks and institutes, which are as remote from the local situtation as Whitehall.

    In conclusion, liberalism is a broad church but democracy is broader still: in order to be either, we need to open ourselves to anyone wishing to subscribe to the liberal banner provided they are willing to subjegate themselves beneath the democratic ideal which runs parallel to our liberal utopias. Reactionaries will exclude themselves from this discource by their very nature of being unable to tolerate views which diverge from their own, In order to prevent such people from gaining undue influence, we must be prepared to cooperate with our ideological counterparts on the left and right who subscribe to other threads of the liberal family. The reason our current situation fails to accord with broader attitudes in the liberal spectrum is because there is a lag between changing attitudes filtering through to the empowered strata which was constituted under very particular oppositional circumstances. If we are to change this structural deficiency, we have to be prepared to play for power within the current system regardless of whomever we might be made to form alliances with.

  • I see Progress vs GMB as more of a battle between the power of Unions and the power of a limited number of wealthy donors to shape the destiny of a party.

  • Stephen Donnelly 17th Jun '12 - 10:46pm

    Bill Le Breton : ‘Our present leadership did not agree with this approach to building a movement. Perhaps it was too slow for them, perhaps they thought it was the reason that the Party that assembled at Conference didn’t support their ideas, perhaps they thought that there was an electorate out there that would support us if we only led on their message, pursued their policies.”.

    I don’t think there is any evidence at all for this, but at some time in the strategy that you describe we were always going to reach a point where we had to enter government and could no longer be all things to all people. We reached that point in the middle of an economic crisis and took a decision with the overwhelming support of ‘the Party assembled at Conference’ to enter in to a coalition. There is no point getting bitter and twisted about it. We are where we are. The question is where we go from here, and at least Zadok is making a positive contribution to that debate.

  • I don’t know that we would have the arguments to attract former members of “Progress” anyway, and until we resolve our lack of general popularity, and our clear debates over direction etc, we will not ourselves make progress. If the combined PR and messaging weight of Parliamentary Party and HQ can’t attract new members / supporters, how is the rest of the party, unless merely on a local campaign. I had worried for quite a few years that our community approaches would emphasise “doing well for local people” at the expense of having a national ideology, and when it came to the crunch it looks as though that is what has happened. I see descriptions of utopia, and utopians here. To that I would answer, we would all be revolutionaries if we thought change simple, but at least we want to be going in a good direction. That is what has been picked up by those leaving and left

  • Bill le Breton 18th Jun '12 - 8:25am

    Stephen, I supported going into Coalition (and wrote a supportive piece in the June 2010 Liberator) and am by no means bitter and twisted about being in Coalition today.

    Frustrated, yes, that our influence could and should have been much more beneficial to the country. Our influence could and should have turned Cameron into a latter day Disraeli – which was the basis of the Liberator piece.

    Scores of council groups have made the ‘transition’ that you describe and moved on, winning further support to gain in time a majority – it is how you communicate – how you negotiate – in that position that matters. How you campaign, how you position yourself, how you explain why sometimes you loose the argument in Coalition.

    To hold the two thirds of our vote who have left and to have gained further support we needed to communicate a moderating influence on the wilder ideas of the Conservatives..

    However, the leadership (see the Laws 22 Days in May) drove negotiations towards accelerated deficit reductions and not away from it – because privately it was their policy, if not Conference’s.

    They drove Tuition Fee policy for similar reasons. They could have insisted on no further disruptive reform to the NHS – they encouraged this and literally ‘signed up’ to it. They could have insisted on a Jenkins formulated AV + without recourse to a referendum – instead they argued to hold the referendum on a local election day.

    The leadership made clear prior to and following the election that it thought that there was a new constituency out there for us if we proved we could be tough and competent on the economy and that those who supported us for tactical reasons were a hindrance to us pursuing those necessary policies. Their belief in air war not ground war was symbolic of this.

    They wanted the great leap and not organic growth. This economic policy has proved a disaster for the country. It killed returning confidence – NGDP growth was + 5% at the time of the election. It is + 1.2% today. The debt has been made worse. The cuts deeper. The lack of investment greater. Unemployment higher. Welfare reform more extreme.

    Our support lies at 10% (polling) and 16% (local government elections). And while we continue to be associated so closely with Conservative policies there is no prospect of this rising. It has increased the number of black holes across the country and confined us to (by my reckoning) thirty constituencies and their councils which we alreadfy hold. Everywhere else is a desert.

    If Clegg was a CEO of a private sector firm who lost 2/3rd of his market on his watch he would have been sacked a long time ago.

  • Thanks to all for comments. Not much for me to come back on, I think, given others have argued my points – the concerns seem (correctly) to be around exactly what sort of people this invitation is going out to, and a desire to keep our party small-l liberal against the Blairite statist hordes. And I agree – Progress may not be everyone’s automatic idea of ‘liberals’, but they do represent the right of the Labour party in a way that the SDP did, and under similar situations may be forced into leaving. It seems only sensible that we make it clear that they’d be welcome in our party rather than allowing them to be hoovered up by the Cameron detoxification machine, as others sadly have. If Labour move leftwards, as looks likely, and Cameron is forced rightwards thanks to his backbenchers and UKIP, what will our response be?

    This is about moving forward, and from the comments here it seems some are all too happy to obsess over the past – references to the secret aims of the party leadership are (apart from being wrong) exactly what our enemies want us to focus on, instead of rebuilding and refocusing. It’s quite clear that we will not be acceptable to the electorate as left-of-Labour again after the coalition – claiming the centre ground and pushing the other parties towards their fringes should be a non-brainer. It’s not about Clegg, it’s about us.

  • mark fairclough 18th Jun '12 - 10:10am

    the best article theres been on here

  • Thanks, Mark! 🙂

    Mat, I am in favour of political plurality (obviously!) but without PR I think the best hope for liberalism is a strong liberal party…

  • Absolutely, Mat. We’re in coalition and of course are in favour of PR, plurality is written in our very bones.

  • Tony Blair believes he should lead the Labour Party into the 2015 election, incredible as this might seem today. He plans to throw out Ed Miliband when the polls turn against him, the Labour Party recognise that he is a loser, and they turn back in eternal gratitude to the Great Winner who they should never have abandoned. You read it here first.

    I’m not saying it will work. It’s a bit of a Walter Mitty dream. But Blair does dream it. It might possibly happen for him.

    You need messianic self-belief to be a Blair, and Tony has that. (We do not need to talk about Blair’s faith in God. We ought to be talking about God’s faith in Blair!)

    The new Messiah won’t want to have any truck with a small third party.

  • Toby MacDonnell 19th Jun '12 - 3:43am

    Simon: in truth, implicit in my point is the idea that both liberalism and the centre are not fixed values. While there are principles we can point to and call liberal instinctively, some things are ambiguous, which is why we need liberty in the first place to encourage plurality in debate: the mean will eventually emerge. Even if Blairites have divergent views on civil liberties, we do have common concerns: if they can’t win people over on their points, it will because their points are unconvincing and we shouldn’t be afraid to face those views just because we don’t agree with them instinctively.

    As for “pragmatic economic policies”, I chose the term precisely because I don’t feel that I am qualified to give gospel truth, but I think it would be fair to say that the balance between fiscal stimulus and deficit reduction would be the primary concern.

  • ……………………………Tony Blair believes he should lead the Labour Party into the 2015 election,. You read it here first……………….and Shergar will make an amazing comeback and, with Elvis as his jockey, win the 2015 Derby. You read it here first.

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