Progressive but not centre-left? Best not to …

On Sunday we had an interesting juxtaposition.

The Observer declared that Ed Miliband ‘opens the door to future co-operation with the Liberal Democrats’, contrasting Tory policies with ‘progressive ones’ and inviting Liberal Democrats to join him on the side of progress. This resonates with his previous attempt to appeal to the putative ‘progressive majority’ as the banner under which left-leaning Lib Dems might align with Labour to dislodge the Tories.

While I was reading this Observer piece Nick Clegg was interviewed on Andrew Marr’s show. Lib Dem commentators have already noted that Nick’s performance contained some promising signs of differentiation from the Tories, although some of his comments on health reform were perhaps not quite what some would have hoped for (as noted, for example, on Caron’s Musings here) .

One thing that struck me during this interview was that Andrew Marr invited Nick Clegg to endorse the view that the Liberal Democrats are a party of the centre-left. Nick noticeably effected a bit of a swerve in order to avoid doing so. Instead he restated his view that the Liberal Democrats were a progressive party.

That is not surprising. It is a position he’s occupied for a while. At Spring Conference he stated emphatically that the Liberal Democrats were a party of the centre. But it was perhaps more striking than usual on Sunday because it came in the context of a discussion of Liberal Democrat differentiation from the Tories, which effectively entails taking positions that are to the left of the Tories. Whether that puts you in the centre or on the centre-left is a matter of judgement, I guess, depending on where you think the Tories are.

Nick is trying to stake out a position that is progressive but not of the left. I’m not sure this is a strategy that is likely to bear a great deal of fruit. For two reasons.

First, the “progressive but not (centre) left” position is rather vague. Few people would be able to state very clearly what the position might mean, how it might be represented, or the policy implications that might flow from it.

Second, in political discourse the left have, in my view, successfully laid claim to the term ‘progressive’. The Liberal Democrats might seek to appropriate the term and make claims to being similarly progressive. Or the Liberal Democrats might appropriate the term and try to redefine it, but that seems to me to be a strategy for creating nothing but confusion. The last thing the party needs to be doing is creating one sort of impression in the minds of voters while intending something different. That way lies discontent, as I think we know.

We might argue that Labour’s claims to be ‘progressive’ are highly suspect. Certainly that is the position that Nick and other Liberal Democrats have taken. Hence, it isn’t that we’re redefining the term so much as denying that Labour are progressive in their own terms. We might equally argue that the progressive majority in Britain is a myth and that the Liberal Democrats are the only ‘progressive’ party in town. The AV election result might be taken as lending support to that view. This is a line taken recently by Nick Thornsby here.

But I don’t think any of this really helps make the case for the Liberal Democrats. If the party is using ‘progressive’ in the same sense as Labour then that at least avoids one confusion. But that puts the party on the centre-left. From the electorate’s perspective it raises the question why vote Liberal Democrat rather than Labour. It equally raises the question as to why Nick Clegg won’t acknowledge that the party is centre-left. If, on the other hand, the party seeks the mantle of the true ‘progressive’ party, but uses a different understanding of ‘progressive’ to that which is in wider circulation then that just muddies the waters and obscures the message.

What’s needed is a much clearer statement of what Liberal Democracy means in its own terms. And what sort of policies flow from a commitment to achieving it.

We have recently seen plenty of press for the assessment that 75% of the Liberal Democrat manifesto has been implemented by the Coalition. Quite a bit of what has been implemented overlaps with the Tories’ own manifesto. Some of it represents important but rather modest initiatives. Is the electorate clear what this adds up to? Are they clear what the party stands for? It’s not just about ticking a set of policies off a list, it is holding on to – and communicating – the philosophy from which those policies flow.

The Preamble to the Federal Constitution is quite a stirring statement of what we are about. But in the age of the soundbite it is too unwieldy as a basis for political engagement. We need a better way of condensing and communicating that message. I don’t think the language of the ‘progressive’ is the right way to do it. Leave that for Mr Ed to wrestle with.

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