Paul Vallely: There's nothing 'progressive' about poverty

The jargon of political theory cannot disguise deeply divisive policies that advance the rich at the expense of the poor

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Over the years the Conservative party has hijacked all manner of adjectives in its repeated attempts to decontaminate its image as the Nasty Party. We have had Caring Conservatism, then Compassionate Conservatism and – until a time-bomb went off under the strategy last week – Progressive Conservatism. What these prefatory adjectives all share is that they embody values which only an eccentric, or perhaps a political philosopher, would even think of rejecting. It would be like not being in favour of justice and peace.

The judgement by the much respected Institute for Fiscal Studies – something else it is hard for the Tories to be against, since they repeatedly used its analysis as a stick with which to beat Gordon Brown when he was Prime Minister – is a significant political milestone in the life of the newish coalition government. George Osborne trumpeted his precipitate emergency budget as "fair and progressive" in May when he announced public spending cuts of £6bn. Not so, the IFS now tells us. Actually it is "clearly regressive" says its damning assessment. Far from being fair, the poorest families will see their incomes fall by an average of 5.2 per cent while the richest will lose just 1.1 per cent.

This ought not to have taken us by surprise. It is very hard for cuts to be progressive since most of them will fall on services on which the poor depend far more than the rich. Since more public spending is done in the poorer regions of the country – 42 per cent of jobs are in the public sector in Middlesbrough, for example – cuts are bound to damage poorer places. And if you put VAT up that is bound to hit the poor more because they spend a greater proportion of their income on goods and services than do the rich.

Indeed, the month after the Budget, the Financial Times published computer simulations that showed that a 10 per cent cut in benefits would reduce incomes in Wales by 3.6 per cent but by less than 0.5 per cent in wealthy inner London. A 20 per cent cut in public spending would hit the Labour-voting North far worse than the Tory-voting South-east.

But the IFS analysis put detail on this framework. The Osborne budget could only be deemed fiscally progressive if tax rises on the rich, introduced by his Labour predecessor and opposed by the Conservatives, were included – and if the coalition's £11bn cuts to housing and disability benefits and tax credits were excluded.

In taxation jargon, the term progressive covers any tax, such as income tax, that top earners pay at a higher rate than do the poor. A regressive tax, by contrast, is one which hits the poor hardest. But George Osborne and David Cameron have not been using the word in so limited a manner.

As far back as 2008 Cameron began to purloin the word which had previously been a favourite of Gordon Brown and Tony Blair. The Conservative leader saw it as a handy term to signal the Nice not Nasty Tory party without having to do the overt rebranding which had upset traditionalists when he replaced the party's Thatcherite torch logo with a smudgy green tree. In his party conference speech that year he proclaimed that Labour had promised social justice and economic efficiency but delivered neither and that "it is the Conservative Party that is the champion of progressive ideals in Britain today".

The following year, Osborne took up the theme at the launch of a project by the think-tank Demos entitled Progressive Conservatism. The "torch of progressive politics", he said, had been passed to the Conservatives. He even dredged up a "progressive" quote from Disraeli.

Then, in his 2009 conference speech, Cameron made the interesting claim that a progressive Conservative government would improve the condition of the poor by the very act of reducing the size of the State. The main problem of the poor, as one wag interpreted him, was not that they have too little money but that they have too much government.

But can you pursue left-wing ends with right-wing means? Progressive Conservatism is something of an oxymoron, since progress implies change and conserving, the opposite. Politics is full of bewildering contradictions, like the Third Way or the Radical Middle, but even the Cameroonian Danny Finkelstein mocked progressive as "the sort of word that communists used to use in the 1980s when they were organising conferences that they didn't want you to know were financed by the Soviet Union".

Yet progressive is particularly problematic. It is, presumably, not intended in the sense of progressive paralysis but rather progress toward something desirable. That notion has been implicit in British politics since the 19th century when Thomas Macaulay told the history of England from Magna Carta to the Glorious Revolution of 1688, condemning all who had defended savagery and ignorance and lauding those who brought us to the peace and prosperity of the democratic and scientific present.

It was a notion that another historian, Herbert Butterfield, denounced as The Whig Interpretation of History, ridiculing the glorification and distortion of the past to uphold a particular view of the present, as if the goal of history was to reach today. Butterfield preferred the notion that every generation is equidistant from eternity. But David Cameron is more a Whig than a Tory and shares Macaulay's teleological view of progress.

But if that is the theory, the whopping national deficit, derived from bailing out the Conservatives' friends in the banks, enforces a more ruthless reality. It takes us back to a Hobbesian vision of life as solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.

George Osborne's determination to balance the books within a single parliamentary term, with minimal tax increases, increasingly looks impossible to reconcile with a progressive preference to protect the poor, marginalised and vulnerable. Taking a scythe through the public sector will devastate the poorest people in the poorest parts of the nation.

Hopes that the voluntary sector can take the place of axed social services, or that the private sector will replace those public sector jobs in even the medium term, look pretty forlorn. A third of total voluntary sector funding currently comes from the public purse in what has amounted to a backdoor nationalisation of much charitable work. Cutting that will undermine the idea that some Big Society will step in to fill the social services gaps. The prospect of disadvantaged estates in Middlesbrough suddenly producing a wealth of talented social entrepreneurs seems as unlikely as that the private sector will be able to provide more than a few hundred jobs to replace the thousands that have vanished elsewhere.

"There is nothing progressive about condemning ourselves and our children to decades of debt, higher interest rates, fewer jobs," the Conservatives' coalition fig-leaf Nick Clegg insisted last week. Perhaps. But there is certainly nothing progressive about making the poorest pay most for that debt – and then using weasel words to try to disguise it.

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