Opinion: Liberal Democrats should stop using the word ‘progressive’

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.

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  • Matthew Huntbach 12th Jan '11 - 3:14pm

    I agree. The word “progressive” when used in this way is like the word “modernise”, it is meant to impose the notion that there is only one good way to change how things are and that is the way proposed by the self-described “progressive” or “moderniser” who is often using the term because s/he lacks arguments to support his/her position, or because s/he lacks the intelligence to be able to see there are alternatives, or because s/he lacks the liberal/democratic instinct to be able to accept there are alternatives.

    Part of my outrage against New Labour’s local government changes, which I have expressed here recently, came from the way they called it “modernisation” and used that to impose these poor, and in the case of executive mayors I stand why what i say – evil – ideas on the country using this subterfuge as if they were somehow inevitable. This was done in lieu of real logical arguments for them, it meant if you stood up against them, you were denounced as some sort of dinosaur who was asking the impossible. This was all part of the way New Labour, for all their adoption of right-wing economic policies, and “me too” to the Tory cult of the businessman, underneath still had the socialist mentality which elsewhere in the world led to so much nastiness. The deaths of millions under Stalin and Mao were accepted because somehow they were excused as an inevitable part of “progress” or “modernisation”.

    Tom, you are quite right to pick up on and criticise Clegg’s use of the term. It is another example of his sloppiness and general weakness as a thinker, just going along with what everyone else around him says or thinks in order to fit in with the crowd.

  • Foregone Conclusion 12th Jan '11 - 3:20pm

    Yes. This. A million times this. The fact that the Tories appear to have adopted the term as well makes it almost completely meaningless.

    (I would also like ‘fair’ to go into the rubbish bin as well, but I suppose that’s too much to ask for…)

  • Q: What two words best define the Liberal Democrats?

    A: ‘Liberal’ and ‘Democratic’.

    I can remember people trying to call these vacuous and say that every party embraced them, but in office and opposition, Labour failed in the first and partly in the second, and in office and opposition only some Conservatives are committed to the first, and only a similar few committed to the second.

  • Nick(not Clegg) 12th Jan '11 - 5:07pm

    The word “progressive” in politics has a long and honourable history.

    The Liberal Party was the “progressive” party, as opposed to the Conservative Party (and, before it , the Tory Party) which was “conservative”, long before the Labour Party came into existence.

    I do agree, however, that the word “progressiver” is not an accurate description of the Orange Book cabal who are now members of the Cameroon government and supporters of its regressive policies. I’m not sure what printable adjective would accurately describe them. Perhaps LibDem Voice’s next survey could invite suggestions.

  • toryboysnevergrowup 12th Jan '11 - 5:08pm

    “Let Liberal Democrats speak of justice, fairness, accountability, community, learning and liberty”

    As opposed to injustice, unfairness, unaccountability, selfishness, ignorance and servitude. Yes lets replace one meaningless word with six other “motherhood and apple pie” sentiments and then patronise Labour as a declining intellectual force. Perhaps it is LibDems who now need to find a bit of intellectual coherence after many years of trying to be all things to all people?

  • Nick (not Clegg) 12th Jan '11 - 6:01pm

    Sorry, the “r” at the end of the word “progressive” in the first line of my third para is a typo!

  • A fair point, toryboysnevergrowup.

    I think if you look at a local level at councils which have been controlled by Liberal Democrats for a reasonable period of time you will find that they tend to be open-minded and innovative, ready to experiment with new ideas about how to do things better. They tend to be decentralising and green. They tend to be led by people who are politically intelligent and who understand what liberalism is all about. They value the contribution made by all the members of the ruling group, and the public, but are ultimately disciplined about the way in which they operate. They keep in touch with the electorate and provide good value for money. There are a few non-Liberal Democrat councils which do some of these things (and not all Liberal Democrat councils do all of them either), but I think that list provides a reasonable definition of liberalism in action.

  • thomasjpaul 12th Jan '11 - 7:49pm

    Thanks for all the comments.

    toryboynevergrowsup: On the surface, your criticism is “fair”! Politics is about priorities though: Liberal Democrats prioritise these good things over other things which others might prioritise (e.g. strong leadership, free markets, equality of outcome, the common good). I’ve always been struck by a story Paddy Ashdown tells, that In rebuilding Bosnia, he and his team had to chose how to spend their limited funds. They chose to prioritise eduction, over everything else.

    The party has not been successful in standing up for itself and saying what it is for, but as tony hill and Orangjepan suggest, this does need to be at least as much about actions as words. The key is to find a theme, a story, whcih ties together the principles with the actions. Unfortunately for us, the right decisions are rarely those which are simply explained!

    Matthew Huntbach – I wasn’t suggesting that Nick Clegg is a weak thinker or sloppy, only that he and his team have tried something and it hasn’t worked. I’d rather they tried and failed than didn’t try at all.

    Adam Bell – ‘liberal’ does do fine, but one does need a few words to describe what that means. The preamble to the constitution is a good starting place, but for many of us our liberalism goes back to principles before that. I like the idea of a ‘family of meanings’, as i think that reflects the reality of our politics.

    Out of context words can have very little meaning. A list of buzz-words on its own will not change the word. Judiciously choen language can, however, capture the imagination. Liberalism isn’t a soft drink you can market with a slogan, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t think really carefully about how we frame the debate.

  • paul barker 12th Jan '11 - 7:53pm

    I cant agree that Progressive is a Labour word, certainly thats not how the Voters see it. There was a poll in 2009 asking people to say which Parties they saw as Progressive – Conservatives & LibDems took joint 1st place with 22% each, The Greens werent far behind on 17% & Labour trailed in 3rd with 12%.

  • William Summers 12th Jan '11 - 9:13pm

    ‘Progressive’ is becoming a bit of a lazy option, a bit like ‘engage’ I think. Thanks Tom – after reading this article I will endeavour to cut down my use of the word by at least 50%!

    I do however think there is a valid use (as mentioned by Duncan Stott in these comments) when it comes to economic progressiveness. Even on that however there is a lot of disagreement – e.g. the recent VAT hike which Osbourne implied was economically progressive when it clearly isn’t, and the student fees rise which is almost certainly economically progressive even though most people on the left would have you believe the opposite.

  • Spot on. Progressive not a useful argument. Fair is somthing people can agree is a good thing. Policies can be fair and progressive or fair and not progressive.

    Progressiveness is not always good thing, we shouldn’t pretend it is.

  • William Summers – I don’t think ‘progressive / regressive’ has any useful sense in economic discussions. So far as I can tell people say something is ‘progressive’ if it means well-off people pay more or the less-well-off pay less, and things are regressive either if the well-off pay less or the less-well-off pay more.

    If you follow those to extremes it becomes obvious that these terms only make sense if you believe in equality of outcome, as a socialist might. The policy which is optimally progressive woudl mean that the well-off give away so much that everyone has equal wealth.

  • Tom, do you really mean “Are we supporting people out of slavery to poverty, ignorance or conformity? “?! That wouldn’t be fair or progressive.

  • thomasjpaul 13th Jan '11 - 9:42am

    Devastating – lol. This part can indeed be read two ways. I hope it’s clear i’m refering to slavery to poverty, opposed to poverty being the goal!

    Bryonny G-H – I’m interested, but don’t know hat you mean by “shooting-arrow-on-a-graph type imagery”. Can you explain?

  • ‘Progressive’ is a technical term referring to the economic effects of fiscal policy. If the policy causes the wealthy to pay more as a proportion of their income than the poor, then a it is technically progressive. This is a clear and measurable meaning, and explains why, as William Summers said, the VAT rise was regressive but the tuition fee hike is in fact progressive.

    Mr Paul may not agree that progressive policies are often a good idea, but he should not muddy the waters around its meaning, Instead he should say that progressive policies are not what he wants to see. Equally, those who use the term to refer to the non-economic effects of policy are guilty of distorting its meaning as well.

    The word ‘progressive’ is not in fact vague- it has a specific and technical meaning.

  • I’d always thought of “progressive” as linked to a positive notion of social progress – and using state intervention to achieve this, so for example the fact that we don’t send children down mines anymore is progressive – it came about through legislation! Broadly it comes from 19th century religious social teaching and campaigns to get lawmakers to tackle those victorian type social issues like tenement housing and child labour. The american left have used it more than the british left, as US activists have always tried to eschew being labelled as or associated with socialist ideology.

    I think the term still has some value because many of the same victorian problems are still with is – damp overcrowded housing in which familes can’t afford fuel costs, exploited children etc, and the new slums of sink estates.

    As a lifelong libdem and party activist, I’m only interested in being part of a progressive political force – but with too many of the coalition policies I think we are abandoning the notion that government interventions can do much to tackle social issues, prefer market solutions and are cutting public services accordingly.

    I see only one progressive policy being pushed at the moment – the pupil premium, though this (also in the tory manifesto) only works out at £360 per year for each poor pupil, it is simply not being deliverred on the scale necessary to make a ‘big step’ change in the type education that kids from poor families can access in a way that will significantly change their lifechances.

    It’s really concerning that so many people in the Party are saying we should drop the term – this implies abandoning our progressive aspirations (like no-one being enslaved by poverty and ignorance as etched into our constitution)

    Is ‘should we abandon progressive’ the right question? The question I and others are wrestling with this is should people like me who self-identify as “progressive” and are dismayed at the extent to which we are now aligning ourselves with the tories, not just politically (as a matter of pragmatism and democratic outcome) but ideologically also, should take the step – with a heavy heart, and not withstanding deep bonds of friendship, loyalty and ties to the libdem community and networks – abandon the Party?

  • thomasjpaul 13th Jan '11 - 8:13pm

    Yes, what Oranjepan said!

    JamesS – I’m talking about ditching the word from our language, not ditching our vision.

    Alex – As I note above, by your definition the optimally ‘progressive’ policy would be one of equality of outcome, where no one is any more of less well off than the other. If people who believe in equality of outcome want to use the word then that’s OK, but no one else should – by your definition.

  • Have conservatives given progressive that negative spin it’s somewhat gotten? According to dictionary definition:
    Progressive ideas and actions are those supporting social and political change that aims to make a system fairer. This says it for me and underlines the contrary way conservative minds seem to usually work.

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