Thursday 20 May 2010

What progressive majority?

At some point in the immediate aftermath of the General Election, the Labour Party seems to have been transformed in the eyes of some from being one of the 'London Parties' (and I'm re-thinking my use of that terminology after reading this yesterday, since some people at least seem to be interpreting it in a way that I don't intend) to being part of the 'progressive majority' I'm not entirely sure how that apparent transformation happened. But I am sure that it's more apparent than real.

'Progressive' is one of those pretty meaningless labels which people use in politics to apply to those things we like; but insofar as it has any real meaning, it's surely more accurate when applied to individuals or policies than to complete parties.

Some of the policies of the Con/ Lib Dem coalition can certainly be reasonably described as being progressive. Didn't the Chartists demand both fixed term parliaments and the right to recall MPs? And replacing the House of Lords with an elected second chamber (although I'm worried about the occasional use of the qualifier 'partly') surely also deserves to be labelled as progressive.

On the other hand, the fact that the Labour Party was founded on progressive principles doesn't mean that it is necessarily a progressive party today – that idea is based more on sentiment and historical perception than on a rational analysis of its manifesto.

We need to be a bit more careful in our use of the term. There are certainly individuals in the Labour Party to whom I would be quite happy to apply the term progressive, although they're not necessarily in leadership roles. And I'd apply the same statement to the Lib Dems. And maybe even to some Tories, although their voices tend to be more muted.

If people are serious about putting together a long term progressive alliance – something which will probably be easier at a Welsh level than at a UK level – it seems to me that that is more about building bridges between individuals than between whole parties, and that when it comes to working at a party level, alliances are likely to be more about achieving specific objectives than entire programmes.

The Tory/ Lib Dem coalition can in this context can be interpreted more as a means to an end – achieving limited objectives at a point in time – than about being an end in itself, and it is on achievement of those objectives (particularly if they are likely to be all but irreversible), and the price paid for them, that the success or otherwise of the Lib Dems should be judged.

Criticising the Lib Dems for doing a deal, let alone criticising them on the basis that the partner they have chosen is not the most 'progressive', seems to me to make for good sound bites, but poor political debate. Complaining that they've 'let the Tories in' is as meaningless as the complaint that they have made about Plaid 'propping up Labour' in Cardiff – neither is a sensible basis for judging the coalition deal. Selling their souls for a seat in a ministerial car - now where have I heard that before? - is another example of the same sort of substitute for debate.

The questions should be – what have they achieved, and what price have they paid to get it?

At the moment, it looks to me that the price they have paid in economic terms is too high for the benefits gained in terms of progressive reform. That is, I think, on what any critique of what they have done should be based; not on the mere fact of being willing to pay a price for political reform.

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