Who are the progressives in British politics?
At last, the gloves are off. After months of political discussion dominated by the expenses scandal – politics at its worst – a dogfight has begun between George Osborne and Peter Mandelson about the nature of progressive politics and, in particular, whether Labour or the Conservatives have the greater claim to that description.
Osborne kicked things off in his Demos speech yesterday, when he claimed that both he and his party were a progressive force. By quoting left of centre leaders – including Clinton, Obama, even Blair, Purnell and Milburn – as fellow progressives, he sought to portray Gordon Brown as the obstacle to progress. His claim was almost as audacious as Margaret Thatcher’s assertion in the 1980s that Aneurin Bevan would have supported Tory NHS policy (on that occasion, it took some wag in the press to point out that Nye had famously described the Tories as “lower than vermin” to end the spat).
Yet Osborne has clearly struck a nerve, since Mandelson has hit back quickly in today’s Guardian. This reminds me of Mandelson’s former role as proponent of rapid rebuttal in the early days of New Labour. Today, Mandelson writes: “To be a progressive is to believe that we can make a better society and improve the conditions of individual lives by acting together. Sometimes, through an active and accountable government that is responsive to local needs. Sometimes by challenging prejudice and helping the disadvantaged. Sometimes by unlocking individual potential through education and opportunity. It is to believe in the necessity of and value of social justice.”
My first thought is that this is actually a fairly good description of what it means to be a socialist. I’ve always felt that the main difference between socialism and liberalism is that liberalism speaks for individual emancipation whereas socialists argue that this cannot be achieved for one unless it is achieved for all. However, as socialism remains a touchy subject in British politics, let us simply say that it is good to see progressive politics allied with the needs of the collective.
As a trade unionist, I guess I would say that. The whole notion of trade unionism rests on the ability of working people to support each other, to achieve better pay and conditions at work, by acting collectively.
What gives this debate an extra twist is that nobody could have rebutted Osborne’s argument better than Mandelson. If Osborne is claiming that Blair was a fellow progressive, who better than über-Blairite Mandelson to come to Gordon Brown’s defence and to counter-attack on behalf of Labour?
This debate has much further to run and the TUC looks forward to contributing to it. For now, it is at least heartening to see progressivism becoming such a dominant idea in political discourse. In the 1980s, the political agenda was dominated by tax cuts. Nobody could seriously challenge for office without embracing that cause. This made things virtually impossible for a party of the left, which recognises that whilst nobody likes paying taxes, the collective needs of society, such as through the NHS or public sector education, requires a healthy tax base. If the dominant political idea of the 2010 election were to be the need for progressive solutions, that would really be beneficial for our economy and society.