Sunday, 14 June 2009

Do progressive Conservatives believe in progress?

This is - more or less - my opening argument in the Demos debate at Compass conference - Labour v Conservative: Who is more progressive? between myself and Phillip Blond, director of the Demos progressive conservatism project.

I am going to argue for Labour as a home for progress in British politics - and for rebuilding and reviving Labour as still one of the best hopes for progress that we have.

I won't defend everything the government has done - because I don't always agree with it. But it is worth remembering to argue for it when we do agree with much of what it has done, so I want to argue for Labour in government, as well as for a more ambitious and values-based Labour agenda in government.

I am not going to claim that Labour owns the politics of progress - or is the exclusive home of progressive politics. It doesn't and it can't. I think other parties - including the Greens and LibDems - are often important voices for progress in British politics, and much progressive energy is outside party politics. I want Labour to recognise that so that the party can play its part in a broader progressive movement.

But I do not personally regard the Conservative Party as a force for progress in British politics: I regard it as primarily a force for conservatism. I acknowledge and recognise those who self-define as progressive in the Conservative Party. I am very glad to share a platform with the most intelligent of them, in Phillip Blond of Demos of the Red Tory project. They are a new, exotic, rare and I hope not already endangered species. I wish there were more of them.

The progressive left

But first it is my job first to make a positive case for Labour.

Addressing the question "Who's Progressive Now?" depends on some idea of what "progressive" means. As John Harris has just said, this is part of the problem. It is a label capable of being stretched beyond all meaning - political positioning in search of a positive Guardian editorial for those who are not quite sure who they are and what they stand for. Or its about what you can call yourselves without putting anybody off. Forward, Not Back. The Future, Not the Past. David Cameron posing as heir to Blair. A daring raid on your political opponents' dictionary.

For all of that, I think it can mean something - and that it is a banner under which Labour and the broader liberal-left does and should march.

Let me make three points.

- An argument about the idea of progress
- An argument about the history of progress
- An argument about the challenges of now.

The first claim as to why the left can stake a claim to the progressive banner is a simple one.

We believe in progress, and the right often does not.

Progressives believe that societies can make progress: and that,our societies have made progress.

This can be a dangerous idea - conservatives rightly warn us that mankind is imperfect, against the dangers and excesses of utopianism. They have a point. But progessives believe in the possibility, and the reality of human progress.

So we prefer the 21st century to the 19th century, or indeed the 14th century. There is no doubt about it for us.

Does Philip - for the progressive right - agree?

Now not all change is progress - when we think about environmental degradation, and growing social and economic inequality. And the left can do nostalgia with the best of them. We don't believe in £80 million footballers. But that can go too far. Pride in the historic achievements of the post-war Labour can turn into the idea of a better yesterday. "Fair shares" is an animating progressive idea - but sometimes we give the impression we think that the good news about climate change is that we might need to bring back rationing. I think we have to be careful about that.

A foundational issue. Equality and human rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is only 60 years old - and don't forget that almost nobody who signed it believed what they were signing up to. The Europeans had their Empires - the British were only slowly beginning to dissolve ours. The Americans were a generation of political struggle away from enfranchising blacks in the south. The iron curtain was descending across the Soviet bloc.

The idea of human equality - that every life has value, and equal value - was novel and dangerous. The principle is rarely now challenged - however much these are promises that we struggle to live up to and fail to keep. This is a progressive achievement, primarily of the liberal-left working with others.

It is the same idea animates what it is to be progressive at home.

There should be no mystery about the vision thing - about what Labour is fundamentally for.

We are for a fairer and more equal society. We should be for the pursuit of equality and the protection of freedom - because more equal life chances are needed for us to be truly free.

This is the progressive idea of freedom. Autonomy. The chance to write our own life stories. For our life chances and outcomes to depend on our choices - not to be dictated by what we inherit in the lottery of birth, the circumstances of our parents, the constraints on pursuing a meaningful life placed by the grind of poverty, a lack of resources or capacity; by arbitrary constraints on what women are allowed to do; whether gay people can be seen and heard.

That is what has inspired the best of the left from Tawney onwards. We promote substantive equality - because we want to spread the freedom to be all that we can be.

A modern statement from a sister political tradition in Obama's inaugural: All are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full share of happiness.

For me, achieving this is the animating goal for progressives. The question is who can best do that?

Phillip Blond has just spoken against this idea of liberal autonomy.

But I thought his analysis from Hobbes and Rousseau - that rampant individualism leads to an authoritarian state - was a more powerful critique of Thatcherism than of New Labour. I think Phillip has just blamed Thatcherism on the 1960s. Norman Tebbit and Maggie must have been in denial about that.

Where we have been illiberal - and we have certainly been illiberal in some areas - I don't think that is because of our liberalism. I think it is because we haven't been liberal enough.

And I don't accept Phillip's claim that leftists are always individualists. There is a strand of that social individualism. But what about the trade unions, mutualism and solidarity? Communitarian traditions are important on the left. But there has to be a balance between community and liberalism - we have to have the right to exit, to question, to make our own choices and can not have

Second, an argument from history. The Labour party has brought more progressive change to British society in the last century than any other institution, organisation or movement in the last century. Bar none.

it was that progressive idea of human emancipation that inspired campaigned for universal suffrage, the weekend and paid holidays, decolonisation, the NHS, the Open University, that made this a more civilised society in the last fifty years. There have been mistakes and setbacks, sometimes big mistakes. I am not going to defend tower blocks.

But we don't apologise for our role in creating the post-war welfare settlement.

The progressive right is still not quite sure about that.

We don't think Britain was freer in the 1930s because the state was smaller than it was after Beveridge and the creation of the NHS, as the New Right does

Phillip has just called the post-war settlement "the nationalisation of society". For conservatives, what they see as the crowding out of the voluntary by the citizenship guarantees of the state is often a matter of regret.

Now - here at the Compass conference, I know what some of you are thinking. But, Sunder, that was Old Labour.

Noble. Honourable. Betrayed. I know where you are coming from. But you are buying a Phillip Gould myth of both New Labour and Old Labour.

Labour in government was always about gradualist advance: a majority coalition to make progress possible. The late great Peter Townsend who sadly died last week did not just take to task Blair and Brown the Callaghan and Wilson governments; he lambasted "the extraordinary loss of socialist momentum between 1945 and 1951" under Attlee. Well, only up to a point. How we could do with some of that timidity today.

Yet it is also New Labour has been more Labour than it was (sadly) prepared to let on. New Labour - for its half-measures, its timidity, its mistakes - delivered progress that Old Labour wanted a century ago: a minimum wage. It brought about (however half-heartedly) the most significant devolution and pluralist constitutional changes since the Liberals of 1911.

Yes, the government was too optimistic, too accomodating of financial markets. It was part of a Faustian bargain to fund public investment and modest redistribution. But the last dozen years have not been a market fundamentalist project, whatever Neal Lawson tells you.

Market fundamentalists would never have introduced a minimum wage, done a fair bit to re-regulate the bottom end of the labour market, or raise taxes to invest much more in public services, to redistribute and reduce pensioner poverty a great deal and child poverty a fair bit. That stemmed that great rising idea of inequality which it inherited, though it never did enough to reverse it.

The argument should not be that the government did not do these things - it should be that they did not do enough of them. The argument is often more a question of degree than of fundamental direction. Above all, the argument should be that they did not make the argument as to why we were doing these things, and so did not create the public and political space.

We will get onto policy in the discussion. On the progressive tests our opponents set --- inequality and poverty, climate change, international development -- on dealing with a recession fairly, on who can bring political reform, well those are arguments we want; those are arguments we should be confident about winning.
Are conservatives progressive?

The conservative disposition is an important part of a society, and of a political debate. When there are calls for 'change', its tendency has been to say 'no' or 'must we really' or 'not yet' and 'slow down'. Somebody needs to set out that view. And it is natural that it is conservatives who do so. It is the point of conservatism to defend and protect what is against what might be.

It does mean that the Conservative Party has often been an enemy of the causes of progress in British history. Property feared democracy. When we got democracy, they proved rather good at, by representing the interests of the relatively advantaged and persuading others that was good for the rest of us too.

But I think historically it might surprise conservatives as to how much they have been allies for progressive causes - because of their conservatism. Conservatives don't want too much change; they do not go about accelerating or causing progress. But they do show a talent for living with it.

So what progress owe most of all to the Conservative Party is that it has only occasionally and rarely been a madly reactionary party. It was Evelyn Waugh who said the problem with the Conservative party is that they have not turned the clock back a single second. They kept the NHS and entrenched the post-war settlement. They kept the race relations act. Again, we do not know what will endure and what will not. But they will not rip it all up. They will keep devolution and the minimum wage - though nobody thinks they would have introduced them.

This is the conservatism that knows that - for things to stay the same - sometimes they have to change a bit. This is the main way, in my view, that conservatism has related to progressive politics. Mostly conservatism has helped to be a midwife for progress, though only more rarely an initiator of it.

There are two bigger claims for Tory progressives.

- The first is the New Right claim for Thatcherism as a disruptive radical and indeed progressive project. The second (which is diametrically opposed) is the post-Thatcherite claim for the New Conservatives, the Red Tories, as progressives.

That Thatcherites had a problem with that conservative tradition. Keith Joseph pointed out that it simply does what the left wants more slowly. The Fabians had too much influence. There needed to be a counter-attack. They had a big idea: less state equals more freedom. I think this remains the dominant argument of the conservative movement. It is a coherent argument, though one I want to argue against.

But what happened? The promise a property-owning democracy turned into a massive concentration of wealth. And now we are told that inequality was unfortunate. They are sorry. They will put it right. But I am not sure it was an unintended by-product. Greater inequality was the point, according to Thatcher. Let our children grow tall, and some taller than others.

Now, we have the new alternative, opposing claim to the New Progressive Conservatism.

Now, conservatives say that inequality matters. Oliver Letwin has been reading John Rawls: everything will be judged by its impact on the worst-off. It is an excellent idea for that to be the core test of the Conservative manifesto, though I expect their manifesto will fail it.

The Conservative Party believes - says Mr Cameron - in Conservative means to Progressive Ends. But why does the Conservative Party believe in progressive ends? When did it start to do so? I believe the Conservative Party to be motivated by conservative ends - the defence of traditional institutions and interests. Oakeshott didn't believe in progressive ends: he didn't really believe in any ends at all.

And then we are told that the means will certainly not be the state. We have not been told what the means will be. That is a mystery.

Another question mark is over liberalism. Most progressive Conservatives are keen to be liberal. After all, social liberalism has happened. And it isn't so bad. Women, ethnic minorities, gay people. We're comfortable with that. Everyone should join in: look, have a seat. Well, I think that's progress. Meanwhile, Philip's Red Tories are anti-liberal, as we have been hearing.

But what Phillip has which is very interesting - is an economic policy which I think he has pinched some of from Neal Lawson of Compass. He wants to "recapitalise the poor". Well, I'll come on that march and I'll carry his banner for him. (I might add a little Fabian asterisk: when were they capitalised the first time?).

And I will come to a meeting to lobby George Osborne to argue with Phillip for that. But I look at George Osborne as Shadow Chancellor and he has only one concrete tax change: that is to recapitalise the rich And I don't need my asterisk for that one.

So what we don't know - and what I am sceptical about - is how many Red Tory revolutionaries there are in the Tory party.

Tony Blair said the Labour party would be modernised when it learned to love Peter Mandelson. Some people thought he was joking at the time, and here we are. The Tory party will be progressive when it loves Demos - and is marching behind Phillip for a massive redistribution of wealth and assets to the poor.

But how many Tory batallions does Demos have?

(Footnote: This isn't a transcript, but is from my speaking notes, adding the gist of the points I made in response to Phillip's opening argument).


John said...

All great points.

What I can't stand about Blonde's argument over public services, is his failure to realize that private property in healthcare budgets is regressive because it lowers the quality of care for the sickest and poorest by depriving them of resources they need, and removes democratic accountability from healthcare. The poor are generally not selfish and don't want privately owned healthcare, they want it guaranteed if and when they need it.

Blonde also fails to realize that progressive taxation and even much nationalization of enterprises have been a natural part of the democratic liberation of the proletariat and poor through their own demand.

John said...

Also, redistributing wealth and democracy is more progressive than redistributing capital, in almost every area of welfare from healthcare, under 18 education, childcare and even social care. The only areas capital (vouchers) may be the more progressive option is adult education (where the individual has almost complete control over the demand factors for it), running alongside a state system as well to address market failures.