Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Situation Vacant: the ProgCon vacuum

There can have been very few more top-down, elite-led projects in British political history than David Cameron's "progressive Conservatism".

I asked two insiders how many people in the party were fully behind this new Toryism. "Ten," said one, "but it's an important ten", wrote Jenni Russell.

To which the influential Tim Montgomerie of ConservativeHome responded that he could think of six of them.

But the Progressive Conservatism is thinning out ever further and alarmingly quickly.

As John Bercow takes up the Speakership, and lets go of his political views, to the relief and heartfelt disdain of his Tory colleagues, which of them will challenge the leadership from the backbenches to go further on social liberalism and equalities?


Meanwhile, the Progressive Conservative project at Demos launched with great fanfare by David Cameron and Oliver Letwin just five months ago has come to a shuddering halt, with Phillip Blond leaving Demos startlingly quickly.

Will anybody be picking up the mantle to fill out how the ProgCon project might resolve its various paradoxes? Was the high-profile launch the main point for the Cameroons themselves?

Even if David Cameron's sponsorship of it is an instrumental Tory governing strategy, he might need it to put up a better show than this.

I don't know the full story of the Demos split and have not spoken to the principals, so please do take this as speculative analysis.

Blond plans to launch his own ideas tank. Details are promised within days. (I reckon he would be well advised to steer clear of the label 'progressive' this time). What happens to the Tory-Demos flirtation is unclear.

The general word among the wonks at the ippr party was that Blond was pushed more than he jumped. This may be hearsay, though many in wonk-world have been aware of simmering tensions for some time.

Perhaps what pop bands call "unreconciliable artistic differences" might best cover the range of personality and intellectual clashes involved.

Richard Reeves and Phil Collins promoting a liberal and republican agenda, seeking kindred spirits across the Lib-Lab divide refounding the "Rainbow Circle" of the 1890s while seeking to engage liberal Tories too. This is a liberal progressive project.

Meanwhile, despite the 'progressive' branding, for Blond's Red Toryism it is liberalism - social and economic - which is to blame for the hollowing out of politics and society. The return of virtue and a new medievalism are promoted.

Yet again at Demos, Sonia Sodha and Julia Margo, recruited from ippr, promote a broadly social democratic approach to capabilities, stressing the need for interventions to tackle the most deep-seated inequalities in life chances.

When going head-to-head with Phillip Blond at the Compass conference, I suggested that the prize joust we really needed to hear was between Blond and Reeves on the case for and against the Demos liberal vision. Blond was rather keen on the idea and had proposed it himself; Reeves somewhat less so, he suggested.

Cross-party promiscuity seems to me par for the course for an institution like Demos: thinking across boundaries was pretty central to its ethos and mission from the early 1990s too. So I am rather bemused if government insiders have time to be perplexed by that, as yesterday's Guardian suggested. But some see James Purnell's engagement with Demos as perhaps signalling that Demos chair Phil Collins and director Richard Reeves believe that the space for influence may yet be rather more with the debates opening up across the centre and left, rather than those on the right.

Think-tanks can and should be pluralist, seeking to voice, house and greenhouse rather different political projects. It is part of the point. But there may be limits too. Perhaps the Demos split is another reminder that even the biggest of tents needs to pitch its tent hooks somewhere.

Meanwhile, the ProgCon project is surely going to struggle to recruit the missing troops if it runs out of generals too.

1 comment:

Chris Paul said...

Is this ProgCon tendancy - party within a party - actually the same group of ten as the far more convincing NeoCon tendancy?