Steve Richards: So what does 'progressive' mean?

In claiming the mantle, Cameron has astutely seized terrain vacated by the Government
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The Independent Online

One of the more arresting and counterintuitive themes in British politics is the claim from David Cameron that the Conservatives are now the progressive party. The recent sharper divide over economic policy has not dampened Cameron's apparent progressive zeal. Yesterday afternoon he spoke at a conference organised by the think tank Demos, on the theme. Demos used to be closely associated with Tony Blair as he prepared for power. Cameron opened his speech by declaring that "It's nice to be back again at a Demos conference." The leader and the think tank are seeing quite a lot of each other.

For Cameron, the association and the event have symbolic potency. If he can convince the still vaguely defined progressives on the centre left that he is the leader for them, there is a chance that his party could win the next election by a Blair-sized majority. He would be at the head of another big, bulging tent, not seen since the early days of New Labour, full of supporters with contradictory aspirations.

In claiming the progressives' mantle, Cameron has astutely seized terrain vacated by the Government. Although Gordon Brown uses the phrase "progressive consensus", he has yet to form one. It was Ed Miliband who thought of the slogan that manages brilliantly to convey a sense of bold ambition and defensive caution. Roughly translated, it suggests Labour will be progressive when it is popular to be so.

In the meantime a desire to please certain newspapers, business leaders and theoretical non-Labour voters has led to a range of timid decisions in relation to policies connected with the environment and civil liberties. Brown did not come into politics in order to build runways at Heathrow or to impose 42 days detention, but such decisions creates some progressive space for Cameron to occupy.

In his speech yesterday, the Conservative leader gave some definition to what he means by "progressive", the most conveniently imprecise term in politics. His four goals in government would be fairness, in particular helping people out of poverty, equality of opportunity, a greener country and a safer one. He admitted other parties would share these objectives, but stressed that the key debate was over the means.

This distinction in itself was progress of sorts. Although Cameron's style and strategy still have many conspicuous echoes of Tony Blair's, the former Prime Minister argued often that objectives were what mattered and that Labour should not become too worked up about the means, an assertion that made politics close to meaningless. As Cameron acknowledged, the only divide of significance is over the means to ends that most sensible voters would seek. No party, for example, is in favour of increasing poverty. The debate is over how the level is reduced.

It is in relations to the means that the problems begin for Cameron. Objectives are always so much easier to define than the policies that will bring them about. Cameron argues for "creating frameworks rather than rules, influencing behaviour rather than dictating it, designing smart incentives rather than blunt regulation". In effect he was suggesting that exhortation or "cultural change" is more effective than more direct forms of intervention. As one cabinet minister commented to me later, "That would not have saved the banks."

On the central issue of the economy, Cameron delivered a Thatcherite homily about the importance of the Government living within its means. But his plans to cut public spending undermine the chances of implementing his doubtless sincerely held objectives.

Take the case of Michael Gove's education reforms, much cited these days when Conservatives seek to prove their progressive credentials. Even one of the Conservatives' heroes in this current government, the former schools minister Lord Adonis, has his doubts. I am told Adonis fears that under the Tory plans new schools will be set up expensively in leafy suburbs and, as there will be no overall increase in funding, there will be a redistribution of resources away from the poorer inner-city areas.

The policy would only work fairly with a big increase in spending, yet Cameron remains the only leader in the western world, with a chance of being in power soon, who calls for an overall cut in public spending plans.

The same problem applies to his plans for the voluntary sector playing a bigger part in tackling poverty. Senior figures in the voluntary sector tell me that, without a significant increase in resources, they will not be able to deliver. Instead of being flattered about the attentions from all the political parties, and the Conservatives in particular, they are alarmed that responsibilities will be transferred to them without the cash to go with them.

On other areas the details are hazy. How are they going to meet tough carbon emission targets? Who will be accountable to whom when they devolve power to local users of services, especially if those services are funded out of national taxation? Are they really progressive when they remain more clearly defined as a Eurosceptic party than at any point since Britain joined the EU?

Cameron has set out his stall. He is a leader who believes in a small state and that by doing less his government will succeed in bringing about progressive outcomes. The economic crisis has reinforced his view rather than challenged it: "The recession doesn't vindicate big government... It hammers the final nail in the coffin."

You will hear a different take from those banks, rail companies, car manufacturers and others who are pleading for the Government to do more. But at least Cameron has been consistent. In a very different pitch to President Obama, he has been adamant from the beginning of his leadership that progressive ends can be achieved by government doing much less.

He will have to be more precise about the details in the run-up to an election. At the moment the voters are passing judgement on the Government and giving it the thumbs down. Perhaps that will be enough to propel Cameron into Number 10, but the media culture in the run-up to an election demands policies that are coherent, joined up and credible. A party's manifesto is treated as a literal programme for government and scrutinised accordingly. At this point Cameron's progressive conservatism is still very much a work in progress.