Its all go at Demos at the moment.
Readers of Next Left could be forgiven for forgetting that last week, before all the debate over James Purnell and Open Left, the think-tank's Progressive Conservatism project issued its report, Recapitalising the Poor: Why Property is Not Theft, written by Max Wind-Cowie. (This is not be confused with Phillip Blond's ideas for 'recapitalising the poor' which appeared in The Guardian recently.)
Enthusiasts for what Rajiv Prabhakar calls the 'assets agenda' should certainly read the report and think about its policy proposals, which I think warrant further consideration. It is a serious and intelligent contribution to policy debate.
What also makes it interesting, however, is the way it encapsulates the delicate conceptual dance that is 'progressive conservatism' (a step to the left, ahem, a step to the right...)
The dance takes place around the concept of fairness. The report takes a concern for fairness as definitive of what it is to be progressive:
'In sharing the progressive objectives more commonly associated with the left, [progressive conservatives] are driven by a concern for fairness...'
Moreover, this is fairness understood in terms of the distributive outcomes of the market (and not, as in right-wing theories, simply in terms of the processes of the market). Thus, the report defines its objectives explicitly in terms of overcoming the blatant unfairness that the poorest section of the population own so little wealth - so much less, in relative terms, than they did in the 1970s:
'For progressive conservatives...it is a disappointment that between 1976 and 2003, the poorest half of the population went from owning 12 per cent of wealth to owning just 1 per cent.'
When we come to the question 'What is to be done?', however, the report asserts its conservative credentials. Looking at its various proposals, they all have one basic idea in common: asset-building amongst the poor is to be advanced overwhelmingly by alternative uses of public spending targeted at, or tax revenues taken from, the poor. The poor must have more assets. But they must be enabled to build them up in ways that do not challenge any of the existing entitlements - market or state entitlements - of the more affluent.
Well, you might say, what did I expect? This is, after all, a conservative policy document. It would be naive to expect it to embrace policies for asset-building that would involve some significant interclass redistribution.
True, except that this is also meant, of course, to be progressive conservatism - and, according to Max Wind-Cowie, the content of progressivism is given by the commitment to fairness. Given that defining, central commitment to fairness, doesn't one need to consider whether social classes hold their assets and other resources fairly before one asserts that asset-building for the poor must be financed largely at the poor's own expense?
For instance, one might ask: Is it fair that so many people have enjoyed completely unearned appreciations in housing wealth since 1997 (notwithstanding the recent fall back in house prices)? Is it fair that this capital gain, which has little to do with the personal effort of the asset-holders, remains in the pockets of house-owners rather than being shared out somewhat?
Or: Is it fair that capital gains are taxed at a much lower rate than income, giving the affluent an easy way to lower their tax bills by taking pay in assets rather than wages?
Or: Is it fair that the institution of inheritance is structured in our society so that some get a lot while others get little, and in a way that is correlated with other advantages of social class?
If you sign up to the importance of 'fairness', these are questions which have to be addressed. And when they are addressed, one is likely to come to the conclusion that some wealth-holders hold wealth unfairly, and that in a fair society, they would have this wealth taxed away. Insofar as we do not do this, then their property is theft.
Simply assuming, apparently as an axiom of conservative faith, that we are not to redistribute between social classes is inconsistent with the self-declared commitment to take fairness seriously.
What I take away from this report, then, is a clear sense of the way defining a 'progressive conservatism' really does seem to be squaring a philosophical circle. The concepts which define progressivism, notably that of fairness, have their own logic. Let them in, and they spread out in all directions, questioning this, interrogating that. Throwing up conservative boundaries, beyond which the progressive concepts are not allowed to pass, is arbitrary in intellectual terms.
The contradiction is neatly embodied in the report's use of a quotation from Tom Paine in its opening paragraph. In Agrarian Justice (1797), Paine famously argued that all citizens should receive a capital grant at age 21 'to begin the world':
‘When a young couple begin the world, the difference is exceedingly great whether they begin the world with nothing or with fifteen pounds apiece. With this aid they could buy a cow, and implements to cultivate a few acres of land; and instead of becoming burdens upon society...would be put in the way of becoming useful and profitable citizens.’
Over two hundred years on from the days when Tories were instigating crowds to burn effigies of Tom Paine, and calling for him to be hanged for treason, it is nice to see them finally appreciating the force of what he has to say.
Only they haven't quite got there. For Paine, of course, proposed to finance the universal capital grant by means of an inheritance tax. And that still seems to be the sort of uninhibited progressive thinking that would-be 'progressive Conservatives' feel unable to engage with.
Perhaps in another two hundred years, they might finally catch up?