RIP the “progressive majority”?

by David Lammy

RIP the “progressive majority”? So said many following the recent election results.

Two years ago there was a plausible argument for a “progressive moment”. Many thought the economic crash had changed politics irreversibly. That after a crisis of capitalism, voters had moved to the left. That a new generation, without the scars of the 80s, could simply move with them. That Obama’s victory in the States proved all this.

I had some sympathy with this and still do. In government, we never grasped the opportunity to shift the terms of debate beyond managerial concerns about better regulation. Because we allowed ethics and economics to remain strangers, the conversation quickly moved on from the causes of the crash to the size of the deficit.

However we interpret the history of the crash, the world has moved on. As others have both pointed out, the left now finds itself in electoral meltdown across Europe. The “progressive majority” argument did not wash with AV (which I supported), with many Labour voters ticking “no” precisely because they rejected that label. In the local elections, we regained ground we should never have lost in 2007. As Ed Miliband has acknowledged, there is an awful long way to go.

Meanwhile, the Conservatives prosper. David Cameron may not have won the general election, but he looks stronger, not weaker, than a year ago. The coalition and the capitulation of the Lib Dems to right wing economics makes it much easier to present what he is doing as in the national interest. Despite the cuts to services, tax rises and the gloomy mood of Britain, the Tories have more councillors than a week ago, when everyone expected the opposite.

All this should be a warning to progressive “purists”. Many hope to repeat on a national scale what Ken Livingstone’s achieved with two election victories in London. Ken is a coalition politician and a very skilled one. He managed to corral Labour, Liberal and Green voters together to create a viable majority in London. Progressive “purists” now would like to see Ed Miliband run on a similar ticket. With some justification, they point out that even though Ken missed out last time round, he out-performed Labour’s national share of the vote.

But Britain is not London. Its complexion is different and – as the local elections reaffirmed – the electoral system is different. Under AV the “progressive majority” strategy may have stood a chance in a national election. Under first past the post, it is doomed. Labour needs to win over both Lib Dem and Tory switchers. There were some signs of Labour reaching beyond this “progressive” coalition in the first major electoral test. Roughly half the council seats that Labour picked up came from the Tories. But there is an electoral mountain to climb. Every single Tory MP who won their seat from Labour in 2005 increased their majority in 2010. In half a dozen of those seats we were relegated to third. These are places we need to be winning in next time to secure a decisive majority.

In the new world of coalition politics, our task gets harder. The fall in Lib Dem support makes life easier for the Tories, enabling them to win more seats per vote. Throw in the gerrymandering of constituency boundaries and this will be even more the case. With the playing field tilted in favour of the Tories, it will be even more important to win again in places like Ilford North, Dartford, Thurrock, Peterborough, Derby North and Blackpool North.

Nationally, Labour must rediscover its appeal to those with conservative instincts. People who identify as progressives will worry that this means a return to pre-crash economics, combined with a little triangulation on crime and immigration. It cannot and must not be like this. Instead we should mine the labour tradition for ideas that can speak to small “c” conservative sensibilities.

When “socialist” became a word people only uttered at Labour party meetings, many of us latched onto the word “progressive”. It seemed to help define ourselves against the Tories – they were conservative, we were for progress. Moreover, “progressive” seemed to capture a sense of modernity, reform and change that was at the heart of the “New” Labour brand. It gestured towards the spirit of the age: freeing people to live the lives of their choosing. There was value in this – people responded to the language of aspiration, as well as the important measures that made Britain a more open and tolerant country.

It is not the whole story, however. The great achievement of blue Labour has been to remind us that there is more to the Labour tradition than this. It points out that Labour has always been as much about protecting and conserving – people, families, communities, sure start centres, the NHS – as it is for perpetual change. It understands that when people see their job become more insecure, when they see their family less and when they feel they no longer know their neighbours, this doesn’t always feel like progress. It cautions us not to fetishise “change” for the sake of it and respect the things people value in their lives. This is an insight shared by small ‘c’ conservatism and those on the Labour left.

Blue Labour also cautions about excessive individualism. It reminds us to value not just in the rights of individuals, but also the quality of relationships between people. It understands that there is something between the individual and the state that is important to people’s lives. That Labour stands not just for liberty and equality, but also fraternity. This is why we worry about the family as a unit – stable relationships, good parenting and care for the elderly – not just children’s rights or women’s rights, important though they are. It is why we should care about immigration policies that set neighbour against neighbour, as people compete for scarce jobs, stretched services and somewhere to live. It is why we see the workplace not just as the site of market transactions, but somewhere where people should have a voice, be treated with respect and paid a wage they can live on. These are all values shared by much of Labour’s culturally conservative base and those swing voters that keep our leaders up at night.

Importantly, blue Labour also concerns itself with what people put into society, not just what they take out. It understands why many of our supporters feel equally uneasy about benefits fraud as they do about tax evasion. It is the same reason tax ought to focus more on unearned wealth, acquired through speculation, and less on income people earn through genuine enterprise and hard work. This goes to the very heart of our mission – we are, after all, a party of labour.

Blue Labour is not a panacea. But nor does it claim to be. Maurice Glasman, who coined the term, would dismiss such a suggestion himself, as would Marc Stears and Jonathan Rutherford, the other academics who have been fleshing out its core ideas. Maurice describes it as “a completely agitational idea to provoke a conversation about what went wrong with the Blair project”. It ought to be taken in that spirit: not as invitation for factionalism but as an opening salvo in a conversation that involves people who hail from different traditions across the party.

Let’s worry about hung parliaments if and when they arise. In the meantime, we would do well to remember that Labour itself has always been a coalition – of trade unionists, Christian socialists, NGOs and local community activists, human rights campaigners, environmentalists, feminists and anti-racists. The challenge is to combine the best of these traditions, fusing notions of mutual support, mutual respect and mutual responsibility with a healthy attitude towards self-expression, self-improvement and self-sufficiency. A decent society needs all these things, not just one half of the bargain. So too does a party ready to win elections again.

David Lammy is Labour MP for Tottenham.


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18 Responses to “RIP the “progressive majority”?”

  1. doreen ogden says:

    Even agreeing with the writers of blue labours values – I really really hate the name tag and find many people are confused with it. “One nation labour ” would be a lot easier to explain on the doorstep and actually speaks for itself.

  2. Richard says:

    I couldn’t agree more, Doreen.

  3. paul barker says:

    Your interpretation of the AV result seems a bit confused. Most of The Labour Party fought on the No side, in alliance with the Tories.” Labour” won The Referendum, it was the Progressive Labour minority that lost.

  4. taffarel says:

    The UK is merely returning to what it thankfully is; conservative.

    The conservatives have been the dominant force for 2/3 of the time with the other 1/3 in Labour’s hands until they bankrupt the nation.

    Cycle goes back and forth. etc, etc.

    ‘progressive majority’ what a load of rubbish. The labour party are so up their own arse. Blair, essentially got voted in as a tory.

    With Milliband you have no chance. Thankfully.

  5. Leon says:

    I think Doreen’s right, Chuka nailed this with calling it One Nation Labour. Blue Labour, while great political and media short hand, sounds like a marketing exercise and won’t be easy to explain to people outside the party…

  6. Bored says:

    Yawn very boring

  7. Agree Doreen, although it seems you can’t win. When Chuka proposed “One Nation Labour” the other day, one of the commenters said “Oh so you admit it’s fascism and you’re stealing Pauline Hanson’s policies?”. Some people just hate for the sake of hating!

  8. Chris Morris says:

    Doreen

    I think the Tories copyrighted ‘one nation conservative’ a while ago. When a few of them thought that way. Fortunately Smug Dave and his mob won’t persuade anyone that they do. Not even with Murdoch on their side, or maybe that’s especially with Murdoch on their side.

    Why do we need ‘new,’ ‘blue,’ ‘old’ or any damn prefix ? We are Labour, we should be proud of it, and the advertising industry is hardly full of examples of successful rebadging. Sellafield is as much of a problem whatever you call it, and I eat Marathon bars and ignore the Snickers label.

    We will not convince people by playing with words. We need to listen to what people worry about with Labour values and policies, then accept where we may be wrong and amend them. If we don’t think we are wrong we stand proud and get some credit for being what we say we are. Like the Tories. Hate them as I do – viscerally – they do just what it says on the tin. Do we ? Where are the authentic working class voices in our party today ?

    my am I in rant mode today. Sorry. Probably. And best wishes.
    Chris Morris

  9. Henrik says:

    @Chris Morris: and there, in a nutshell, is the big difference. Non-Labour types think you guys are wrong, you think anyone who doesn’t agree with you is evil and wicked. The only time people ever vote for Labour is when, temporarily, the people and policies on offer seem normal and sensible and the arguments are cogent and clear.

    As to authentic working class voices in the party today, come on. The Labour Party is the party of the public sector white-collar worker, the apparatchik, the politics wonk who’s never done a hand’s turn of proper work in their life and the media luvvie.

  10. Real Chris says:

    @Henrik

    Please, save us the clichés.

  11. Henrik says:

    @Real Chris – sure, how about “Labour is unelectable as long as you’re the party of the parasites”? Is that better?

  12. Chris Morris says:

    Henrik

    I am new to this. Maybe I should know you and what you stand for, but I don’t. Are you just a professional neinsager (big fan of Brecht, me), or do you have an alternative, preferably positive, suggestion ? If so, what is it please ?

    not sure about the usual best wishes, this time
    Chris Morris

    ps is your name really Henrik and if so may I ask where you come from (literally – the answer to my question above probably covers the figuratively bit).

    and pps – mistake to suggest that parasites are by definition harmful and a bad thing. If you don’t have an interest in natural history and evolution, don’t you even watch Stargate (Teal’c is my hero) ? Get an education, will you, or if you have got one don’t be so bloody lazy. Honestly, I don’t know whether to train some people or shake them. Not got my arrogant head on today then.

  13. Chris Morris says:

    @David Lammy (is that the way it works ?)

    this one’s for you, please, though a bit tangential.

    Thirty years ago, aged 29 and the administrator of The Prince of Wales'(RIP) and St Anne’s hospitals on your patch I could – just – afford to buy a two-bedroom terrace in Dowsett Road, helped by the fact that I could cycle to work and did not need to run a car, and the tube was a short walk through the park. So, young-ish professional, Labour voter. Got many of them these days ? How has the demographic changed there ? From our point of view, better or worse ? I would be surprised if it has remained static, and even more surprised if Dowsett Road is still first-time-buyer country.

    And does that influence your take on whether the progressive majority is still alive and kicking ? Or is it no big deal ?

    best wishes
    Chris Morris

    ps sold the house to a Lynn Dowsett – what are the odds ?

  14. Henrik says:

    @Chris: bin sozusagen kein Profi-Neinsager – more a sceptical, but generally benign neutral, watching from the sidelines and hoping Labour can create a credible Opposition, this being something any healthy democracy needs, to a Coalition with which I broadly agree.

    My alternative suggestion, which I have flogged to death hereabouts, is for Labour to make some effort, presumably through engagement with its membership rather than a very narrow slice of the party leadership and supporting wonkery, to develop an attractive and realisable narrative of why folk should want to vote for them. At the moment, the Party is seen as having been captured by producers – i.e. in the Health Service debate, the perception is that it represents the million or so NHS employees, rather than the patient, in the education debate, that it represents the teaching unions rather than the student… the list goes on. In order to be electable, Labour needs to regain an image as a mass popular party with an optimistic and inspiring programme.

    As to my origins, my parent were foreign, both of them, but I’m a card-carrying British subject, passport bought and paid for by birth and 22 years’ Regular Army service. No political affiliations.

  15. Chris Morris says:

    @Henrik
    wir konnten es alles auf deutsch sagen, wenn Sie wollen, und das macht Spass, nicht wahr ? Parlez – vous francais ? ou d’autres langues, au choix.

    but to the point. OK I never had the guts to serve – thought for all of 73 seconds about a short service commission after college. So with a father who was in the Parachute Regiment 1943-7 you have got my attention. Which regiment if I may ask ? Grune Teufel hoffentlich nicht ?

    As for me, only finally joined last year, although card-carrying union man all my working life. Godforsaken East Sussex Tory heartland – otherwise a nice place to live. In 2007 the CLP put up 3 candidates for about 400 votes. This time 22 candidates and 6138 votes, although no seats. That’s engagement, I suggest. That’s not watching from the sidelines. If you are a benign neutral (no such thing sir – they are always out for something. Cui bono ?) why bother here ? You don’t sound like a man who needs to waste his or anyone else’s time on a wind-up. Or do you see yourself as an agent provocateur ?

    I agree wholeheartedly about the need to regain not just an image but an arse-kicking reality as a mass popular party with an optimistic and inspiring programme. Back to Bert Brecht – you know Die Massnahme ? Just a word that came into my head, prompted by ‘mass popular’.

    Not sure this is the place to take a dialogue forward. But I would like to. Your call.

    this time, best wishes, for sure, either way.
    Chris Morris

  16. Chris Morris says:

    @Henrik

    ok, now you have my attention, and for what it’s worth, my unqualified best wishes. I would like to know more – but this is I think not the time or the place. I believe my email address will get past the moderator, and it’s Christophermwm@btinternet.com.

    I have fairly recently joined my wife in the Labour Party and we are doing our best to engage with our membership and the labour voters in our unpromising neck of the woods, actual and potential. I am unclear why a benign neutral would be apparently wasting his time here, but I am sure I have got that wrong. Unless you are actually an agent provocateur which seems a reasonable hypothesis. I mostly agree with your stance as presented. Yes, Labour has to change, and not just cosmetically. Bit surprised by your support for a Tory-led coalition with a vicious right-wing agenda, though. The name’s not Kitson by any chance ?

    And for starters, which regiment if I may ask ? I never had the balls to serve, thought about a short service commission for a whole 73 seconds, but I am inordinately proud of my father who at 85 is not in bad nick apart from the dodgy knees – a memento of his service 1943/7 in the Parachute Regiment as a private soldier. Your 22 years must surely have been as a Ruprecht, nicht wahr ?

    Hoffentlich hore ich von Ihnen. Sonst sei ewig glucklich.
    Chris Morris

  17. Real Chris says:

    @Chris Morris

    Do calm down, man. Don’t get so stressed out with the trolls.

  18. Chris Morris says:

    @Real Chris

    thanks, yes I do need to calm down. Not entirely my fault this one, as I could not find my first ie 6.42 response and presumed I had cocked up (it happens). Reality presumably is that it disappears at some point in moderation process. Anyway, I didn’t know so posted the 11.55 variation. I will know to be patient next time. Fat chance.

    As a rule I generate stress for others, rather than suffer from it. Any real Tory trolls out here, so be it. Not Henrik though who seems an interesting example of the species. Re Trolls. They are not so bad. Norse mythology background, they were the Frost Giants – not too difficult to get them onside (one of my avatars is Loki, another Logi). I am full of crap like that. But when out getting nominations for candidates in Wealden DC election behind enemy lines, a fair few Tories were willing to sign the papers, where we couldn’t find Labour people. Just a matter of asking nicely.

    So please tell me – is there a snowball’s chance in hell of a response from D Lammy to my question, or is that not how it works ? If so seems a bit of a swizz really and I have to ask what’s the point ? For him that is, not me. Almost vanity publishing – now that’s how I win friends and influence people. To be fair I guess he must be busy, but surely they do pop back from time to time to see how the ripples spread.

    If I sound a bit vexed, something to do with Wealden CLP: 3 candidates and 400 odd votes in the District Council Elections 2007, 22 candidates and 6183 votes in 2011, around 1500% improvement and significantly better than in the General Election. No seats, so small beer maybe, but we are smack in the middle of what a number of Labour people are describing as a desert. And yet no one seems to be interested in the reasons why ? If it stays that way I may not bother next time.

    I am trying hard to get tips from some of the people round here who know the ropes, and handing out my email address for the purpose. I am Christophermwm@btinternet.com. Why ‘Real’ Chris, and do you do tutorials ? Just as long as it’s not Real Madrid ‘cos there’s only one United.

    either way, my thanks and best wishes.
    Chris Morris

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