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We need to stop using the word ‘progressive’

george-osborne-bullingdonThe vocabulary of the Labour moderniser is narrow and confusing. To start with there’s the word “moderniser” itself, denoting members of a kind of desperate tribute band to the original mid-nineties New Labour gaggle. “Reform” is another favourite – it’s a polite word for “destruction”, or at the very least wholesale privatisation. Welfare “reform”; public sector “reform”; student finance “reform”: to “reform” something, in Westminster slang, is to pound it into a smoking mound and then sell its parts as scrap.

It’s a fool’s errand trying to stay on top of all of these verbal weeds in our political garden. But I do make one exception – there is one weed so pervasive, so threatening to the garden’s diversity and vitality, that it must be uprooted at any cost in time or effort. The word “progressive” should cease to be used at all future Labour Party events.

“Progressive” was always meant to be a heavily diluted replacement for “leftwing” (or, God forbid, “socialist”). Rightwing politicians in formerly leftwing political parties – Labour, the USA’s Democrats, Australian Labor – have long found the word useful for describing their particular political brand. But the date on which the word “progressive” lost any remaining leftwing charge in UK politics was surely the 19th of this month, when, fresh from snatching thousands from the lowest-paid in tax credit cuts, obliterating support for poor students, and launching a new policy aimed at deterring the poor from having children, George Osborne published a Guardian column describing these measures as “progressive”. The Chancellor who has spent the last five years smashing the welfare state like so much china in an Oxford restaurant is now a “progressive”.

What does “progressive” mean, at the time of writing? It means that you are willing to state that it would be a good thing in principle if fewer people were poor. You can believe that the way to achieve this is Thatcherism, Macmillan-era patrician benevolence, 19th-century laissez-faire liberalism, or whatever else occurs; in short, to qualify as a “progressive”, you just need to not publicly make the feudal argument that poverty is God’s righteous judgement on the lower classes.

The Labour politicians who depend on this word to describe their politics need to tell us what they really mean by it. A person who really has something substantive to say should be able to think of more than one way of saying it, but one suspects that the party’s present leaders would be totally wrong-footed if they ever had to express their opinions without recourse to their small stockpile of focus group-approved buzzwords. “Progress” for whom, and at whose expense? A “fairer society” in what sense, and achieved by what means?

None of this is to say that the word “progressive” does not have a meaning. It signals a great deal about the speaker’s approach to time and to historical change. In short, “progressives” like change, but only when it’s the kind they’re used to: the world should keep “progressing” along more or less the same course it has been charting for the last three or four decades, which is to say it should continue to become a single, integrated global economy with a liberal social outlook and a largely post-democratic politics.

This temporal aspect of the message has proved particularly seductive to many on the Left. There is the vague but powerful notion that certain things – EU membership, light-touch regulation and phrases like “public-private partnership” – are badges of modernity, and therefore inherently desirable. When Tony Blair recently took time out of his busy schedule to advise Labour on how to be as highly popular as he is, he condemned Jeremy Corbyn’s policy platform, not on the grounds that it would not improve people’s lives, but simply because it “wouldn’t take the country forwards, it would take it backwards.”

This kind of argument – driven by an inexplicable faith that the information revolution is predestined to emancipate us rather than to further oppress us – has been picking up devotees for some time. Why bother renationalising the railways when, soon enough, we’ll all be transported around on the back of giant data clouds? Why oppose student finance cuts when Apple will probably invent something any minute now that allows you to eat for free for three straight years? It is gauche and embarrassing, in 2015, to still be worrying about something as primitive as gas bills; never mind if people are suffering around the country as an “app for that” fails to emerge. Technological change has only ever renewed and reignited struggles of class and power, and yet the “progressive” position is often to expect that, this time, it will magically dissolve them.

Numerous pundits have spent the time since May smugly intoning that “the left seeks heretics, the right seeks converts”. If we take the religious metaphor, and run with it a little, then the “progressive” political leaders are not “heretics” per se; they aren’t itinerant mystics whipping up trouble in country villages, but a clique of moribund cardinals debating the fine points of the transubstantiation doctrine while swathes of the flock outside are leaving the faith.

Shared by the official right and the official left, the doctrine of “progress” has established a suffocating political monopoly. If Ukip – which reaches across bounds of geography, class and even policy persuasion, and would have won scores of seats in May under a proportional voting system – is any one thing, it’s a rebellion against this high-handed sense that the medicine has already been agreed upon, and that the public just needs to shut up and take it. Knee-jerk pub reactionaries shouldn’t be the only people asking questions about the “progressive” idea. Stepping outside this wrong-headed narrative would enable the next Labour leader to see politics as the hot-blooded, volatile brawl it really is.


  1. Chris says:

    At last, someone not afraid to question the use of language to mean what the speaker says it means. Labours use of the ‘P’ word should be confined to describing taxation policies, not social and political outlooks. To be fair, the modernisers use of the word is entirely consistent with their project of delivering the Party into the hands of its professional class supporters. Clause 4 part iv of the old constitution held organised Labour and progressivists together, and was probably resented by sections of the middle class for that reason alone. Its questionable whether the poor and working classes have any stake in unfettered progressivism.
    Whilst we are at it, what about the appropriation of ‘radical’ to mean stopping doing something we were doing before, as the late Robin Cook pithily described it?

  2. David Pavett says:

    I entirely agree about the word “progressive” which now is simply a term of approbation (a hurrah word rather than a boo word) with zero analytical content. Everyone can lay claim to being a progressive.

    Educational discussion is littered with the term where it seems to have a rather smug function of claiming to be the ones in the know – often with little substantial justification.

    The poverty of left and centre-left vocabulary is what brought us to the situation where the Labour Party tried to take on the mantle of Disraelian one nation rhetoric in which all classes are assumed to have a common interest whereas the Tories have started to describe themselves as the workers’ party (a term abandoned by most of the left).

    I agree with Max Leak that left terminology shows its inadequacy in many different areas. Sorting this out is of course not a essentially a linguistic matter but rather one of poor conceptual development. That cannot be dealt with overnight. But we could at least, as ML suggests, start by dropping the now vacuous term “progressive”.

  3. swatantra says:

    I like the word.

    1. Tim Barlow says:

      Is that because you’re a Blairite or because it reminds you of Pink Floyd, Genesis et al?

      1. swatantra says:

        It describes a Party open to new ideas and change not stuck in the same drudge, but forever on the move, not stuck in a rut. ‘Labour’ is a so Victorian a concept involving dark satanic mills and prayer books and evoking dripping on toast, and master and servant.

        1. joh nReid says:

          don’t worry there was nothing socialist about militant but they still used it and nothing democratic about the CLPD

        2. Robert says:

          Love it Swat does his impression of Progressive.

  4. Billericaydickie says:

    It sums up Ken Livingstone and his ” Progressive London ” campaign. I don’t think he won.

  5. Chris says:

    I agree that “progressive” is a dodgy word. It’s frequently used by the kind of weak and wanky wet American identity politics libscum who should be the mortal enemies of true British socialists.

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