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The myth of the progressive majority

I must admit to quite liking the work of Dan Hodges, contributing editor of Labour Uncut; even though I have a different perspective to him, he writes intelligently, and thinks independently. Today he has published an interesting article about the so-called “progressive majority”, that is well worth considering, although his conclusions are, I think, wrong .

Dan observes:

RIP the progressive majority. “There never was any progressive majority strategy”, a member of Ed Miliband’s inner circle told me yesterday. “People have misunderstood the game plan. We’re not going to be making some desperate appeal to the Lib Dems. We’re going to be saying to them, ‘you’ve been duped, wouldn’t you be better off on board with us’”?

The claim that Labour’s leader never envisaged marching up Downing Street with a crowd of exultant liberal progressives is a touch disingenuous. “I want to see Labour become home to a new progressive majority”, Ed said in August. Labour must “earn the right to be the standard-bearer for the progressive majority in this country”, he repeated in January. “A yes vote would, above all, reflect confidence that there is a genuine progressive majority in this country”, he urged in May.

The trouble with politics is that sometimes concepts mean different things to different people, which leads to misunderstandings. So the language of progressivism is worth unpacking, to see why the concept is so slippery.

The Anglo-Saxon tradition of progressivism has its origin with nineteenth century writers like Sir James Mackintosh, Sir George Trevelyan and Thomas Babington Macauley; who presented what the British historian Herbert Butterfield described as “Whig History”, the characteristics of which were a teleological approach to human development, where those factors which contributed to the development of modern British constitutionalism, political liberalism and respect for the rule of law were deemed progressive, and all the obstacles they overcame were reactionary.

As a school of academic history this was probably already discredited by the end of the Edwardian era; however as a political and cultural tradition it still has deep roots in the British psyche. Whig history judged the past by the British present; and progressivism takes the characteristics of our modern, liberal, secular society as not only normative but exemplary. Indeed there is a sense of entitlement among advocates of liberal progress, which was evident in the recent YES to AV campaign that barely reached beyond the metropolitan intelligentsia; because ultimately they believed that the value of the change they wanted was self-evident, and they felt they already had the validation of history on their side.

Macauley himself not only popularised the celebration of this Whig view of progressive history with the massive best selling “History of England”, the assumptions behind which still influence common sense understandings of our national past; he was also responsible for introducing British models of civic administration into India; and created the common law legal systems of most of the African and South Asian colonies, still in place today.

The liberal tradition of progressive politics is therefore bound up not only with the admirable advocacy of political freedom, end of legal discrimination and promotion of liberty; but it also inherits a legacy of English arrogance, that can sit comfortably with the “decent left” agenda of muscular liberalism; and includes the metropolitan conceit that universal human culture by happy coincidence is the same as British culture.

Concepts of democracy which celebrate the individual legal equality of citizens, and their empowerment through the civic political process are indeed an essential part of left politics; but progressive liberalism is silent about the fact that the big economic decisions of our society are made by private corporations and banks outside democratic control. Freedom of speech in the public political arena does not necessarily mean freedom of speech at work; and voters can choose who runs their government or council; but cannot choose who makes the economic decisions affecting their livelihoods.

There is a second tradition of “progressive” politics, emanating from the Communist movement, which still has currency on the international and British left. The overlap of the two narratives of progress helps to explain the elusive nature of the concept.

Eric Hobsbawm writing in 1972 describes his view that “an ideology of progress implies one of evolution, possibly an inevitable evolution through stages of historical development. But … Marx … transferred the centre of argument from its rationality or desirability to its historic inevitability.”

This teleological concept of history as progress does indeed come from Marx, particularly the 1859 Preface

No social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed, and new superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society.

Mankind thus inevitably sets itself only such tasks as it is able to solve, since closer examination will always show that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution are already present or at least in the course of formation.

In broad outline, the Asiatic, ancient, feudal and modern bourgeois modes of production may be designated as epochs marking progress in the economic development of society.

For Marxists, progress was not just about increasing individual rights, but also about shifting the fundamental economic organisation of society, based upon an assumption that socialism was a necessary next stage after capitalism.

Not only did Marxists and liberals both share the language of progress, but the heroic decades of the Twentieth century saw the two concepts of progress being conflated in a common struggle against fascism which included both liberal defenders of progressive constitutional democracy and Marxists committed to social progress towards a post-capitalist order.

It is useful to note that such a teleological concept of history is alien to labourism. The Labour Party has historically been an alliance with the trade unions as institutions, and a political movement that has sought to modernise British society to make it more egalitarian and meritocratic. Trade unionism is based upon organising wage labour to increase its bargaining power as an integral part of capitalist production, distribution and exchange. The ideological and social parameters of trade unionism are delimited by seeking to represent the sectional interests of working people (or in some cases the professional salariat) within capitalism. It therefore seeks to improve the lot of the working classes, but not overthrow the profit system, or the institution of wage labour. As such there is no necessary sense of “progress”, indeed a lot of trade unionism is reactive and defensive.

The political expression of trade unionism has therefore been hostile to the greed, privilege and corruption of individual capitalists, and indeed hostile to the capitalist class collectively, but is not systematically opposed to the capitalist system.

And it is this inherent function of trade unionism that provides the envelope of labourism which contains the tension between class and nation. This operates at two levels; firstly that in seeking to form a national government the Labour Party has sought to reconcile both the governance of Britain in the mutual interests of all classes; while simultaneously advancing the sectional interest of the working classes. Secondly, the ideological limits of trade unionism seek to advance the interests of the working class by using the power of the existing state, and if necessary protecting its interests, and the economic foundations upon which it rests.

Centre-left critics of labourism have concentrated upon this conservative aspect. Indeed, the Labour Party has found it hard to contain some strands of otherwise social-democratic politics, such as those represented by Welsh and Scottish nationalism, anti-imperialism or consistent environmentalism. This has either led to temporary ruptures from labourism, where a significant popular political issue cannot find expression within the party, such as opposition to the Iraq war being expressed through Respect; or advocacy of a second front during WW2 through the Common Wealth Party; or it can lead to more permanent political forces developing, such as Plaid or the Green Party.

The language of progressivism therefore finds many different political manifestations. The tradition of Marxism Today in the 1980s and more latterly Compass have sought to transcend what they saw as tribal constraints of labourism by reaching out to “progressive” liberals. Their arguments have positive aspects in their critique of nostalgic iconography of traditional labourism; recognition that social changes since the high tide of labourism require adaptation and modernisation; and opposition to inertia. But it is an anaemic strategy which privileges the intellectual elite, and undervalues the expression of shared social democratic values by millions of Labour voters, and the robustness of the trade unions as institutions who act in the public good.

The agenda of Ken Livingstone’s Progressive London is subtly different, in that it locks down a number of political objectives; and seeks to build a coalition to defend and promote them, with specific reference to London elections that include a mayoral contests under AV, and assembly elections under the de’ Hondt system of PR.

Progressive London is a place where people can work together around the whole range of issues that this involves: working for social justice; improving living standards and the quality of life; protecting the environment; safety from crime; providing the very best public services; equality for all and vigorously opposing every form of discrimination whether on grounds of gender, race, ethnicity, religion, sexuality orientation, age or disability; supporting employment rights and trade unions; improving life for young Londoners; supporting cultural and artistic creativity and diversity; and supporting democracy and social progress internationally.

In this sense, Progressive London recognises that there are political traditions outwith the Labour Party committed to overlapping policy objectives; and seeks to build a coalition with them to secure those objectives

While this is a different strategy from the Blairite wheeze of triangulating around contentious issues to appeal to swing voters in marginal constituencies; it is not necessarily an opposing strategy, because the London elections have a different campaigning logic.

The weakness of the idea of a “Progressive Majority” is its complacency. Last week’s elections were good progress for Labour, but there were three serious problems that need recognition. Firstly, Labour made few inroads into the Conservative vote; secondly, that the collapse of the Liberals falls to the benefit of the Tories in some places; and thirdly that Scotland showed that where Labour fails to convince voters that they will be better off with a labour government, then we can still lose badly.

In reality, we should reject both grand narratives of Britain being either naturally conservative, or having a progressive majority. Labour has to win an election by convincing sufficient voters that Britain will be a better society, and that they and their families will have more security and prosperity under a Labour government.

This cannot be achieved either by triangulation or by appealing to semi-mythical progressive values. It will firstly be achieved by Labour speaking the same language as voters, without running away from difficult debates about issues like welfare, immigration and identity; and my experience of Ed Miliband is that he is impressive at this; but secondly we need to present a credible economic strategy for growth and jobs; and economic policy cannot be derived from focus groups and electoral considerations; to be credible it needs to be driven by what you genuinely believe is the right thing to do.

One Comment

  1. Scratch says:

    equality for all and vigorously opposing every form of discrimination whether on grounds of gender, race, ethnicity, religion, sexuality orientation, age or disability; supporting employment rights and trade unions; improving life for young Londoners;

    Is there an ideological or tactical reason they explicitly decline to mention class?

    Genuine question.

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