Steve Richards: We are all 'progressive' these days

Voters should stand back from this wily imprecision. The looseness of the term disguises vital differences
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The Independent Online

The most popular term in British politics is "progressive". There is no escape from it. Gordon Brown seeks to form a progressive consensus. David Cameron claims the Conservatives are the progressive party. Nick Clegg is a progressive. David Miliband is one too. So is Ken Livingstone. Tony Blair is a progressive. So is Ed Balls. George Osborne is also one. I could go on. Apparently we are all progressives now.

Lacking clear definition the word is easily applied without too many questions asked. For the Conservatives it serves to decontaminate a brand previously seen as nasty and extreme. Labour leaders have used the term to purge echoes of their party's past. Mr Blair rarely described himself as being on the left. Mr Brown does not do so either. In their view the term progressive is less threatening.

After Mr Brown first raised the prospect of a progressive consensus during a party conference speech when he was still Chancellor, I chaired a CBI fringe meeting immediately afterwards. The then director general of the CBI, Sir Digby Jones, asked the audience of business leaders if they felt part of the progressive consensus. All of them raised their hands. Conveniently Mr Brown had not defined what he hoped to achieve by forming such an alliance. Perhaps if he had done there would have less of a consensus.

There have always been issues that transcend to some extent traditional party divides. On the whole the Conservatives were more socially conservative and to some extent still are. But they have in their ranks those who are tolerant about gay people, single parents and couples living together without getting married, in the same way that Labour has some socially conservative figures.

These social issues matter hugely, but do not define the divide between parties. The same applies to big policy areas such as Europe. It is significant that the Conservatives are Eurosceptic, but Labour has been in that position too in the past and still has sceptics in its party. Similarly in relation to immigration, Labour has its doubters and so do the Conservatives. Both parties have advocates for immigration too. The same fluidity applies to civil liberties, foreign affairs and the environment.

The confusion between means and ends is the problem with the term "progressive". In the build-up to the 1979 election Margaret Thatcher could have argued, in precisely the same way as the Conservatives do now, that she was a "progressive". Without changing a single policy she could have declared en route to power: "Labour's high public spending and taxes are unfair. Unemployment is unfair and leads to inequalities. That is why we are running posters arguing that Labour isn't working. We are progressive because we will bring a stable economy and help the poor back to work. We are the new progressives because we are concerned about the inner cities. We are the progressives because we will scrap the rates that penalise so many of the less well off..." And so on.

The main arguments should be over how to achieve outcomes, not what most would agree to be worthy objectives. Here there is inevitably a degree of subjectivity about what is and is not progressive. In my view the current Government's approach to education is progressive. Ministers seem determined to end divisive selection policies of the past and ensure that kids from less well off areas get better training or qualifications after the age of 16.

In her intelligently argued speech at the TUC conference earlier this week, Harriet Harman pointed out that most people from less well off backgrounds were doomed to stay there. School leavers at the age of 16 were more doomed than others. This will change if they are better qualified. But I accept that others such as the new head of the think tank Demos, Richard Reeves, consider that the Conservatives' lightly regulated approach to education is more progressive. We shall see.

Similarly the environment is an issue where subjectivity rules. It is legitimate for the right to argue that markets will largely address the issue. Similarly the centre-left can claim vindication for its beliefs that governments are capable of making a constructive difference. But it is not progressive merely to be "green". The means is what matters.

I am not suggesting that Conservatives who claim to be progressive are necessarily insincere or that the current Government would not know what to do with a progressive consensus if it ever met one. I am arguing that the term has ceased to mean very much if anything at all. In the end there is a single divide that places people either on the left of centre or on the right and it relates to the state.

There is an important, divisive debate on the centre-left about the precise role of the state, but the participants are more or less united by an instinct that government is capable of being benevolent. Even the Blairite Stephen Byers, in an article yesterday, made the case for active government, and recognised that this was the issue that placed him in a different place to the Conservatives. Conversely the right is united by a suspicion of government activity in virtually all its forms, a suspicion that deepened considerably in the 1980s.

This is how it should be. There is always cross dressing on some policy areas and leaders will also take account of changed political contexts, but there is an essence of a division that is still in place. The reluctance on either side to make the divide too overt exposes a revealing lack of confidence in their relationships with voters.

In response the voters should stand back from all this wily imprecision. The looseness of the term "progressive", its comforting evasiveness, disguises important differences, even in this era where the centre ground is supposedly overcrowded. There are reasons why people choose to join one party rather than the other. Those reasons and the policies that accompany them are worth exploring and not woolly words that lead nowhere.