John West - Labour supporter and journalist

Currently living in Paris, I'm a Labour member, activist and freelance journalist. I'll be writing mostly about missed opportunities, as I see them, and the necessity to rebuild Labour as a cohesive movement. We mustn't lose sight of reality, but we should sometimes challenge it.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Relative progress

I had a version of this article published in Tribune (21/10/05), so here it is on the web for posterity! Comments always welcome:

Progressive politics inspire some, but what good is the notion without the substance to give it direction?

Progress. Progress indeed. If a majority down to 66 is ‘progress’, my dictionary is either hopelessly incorrect or out of date. No less an authority than Tony Blair stood up at the Progress conference to praise the ‘progress’ his government has made in pointing the way forward towards a ‘broad-based political movement’. This, presumably, would be the same ‘broad-based political movement’ that won over only 20% of the electorate and has, if NEC rumour is to be believed, membership much below the credibility-benchmark of 200,000. In any case, on this basis he warned critics in his own party to avoid falling ‘for some modern version of the old left delusion that the problem with the progressive government is that it is not left enough.’

The real problem with ‘progress’ (‘forward or onward movement towards a destination’, as the Oxford defines it) is that it inherently contains no moral substance. To declare oneself a socialist, of whatever hue, is to at some level believe in equality and common ownership. Progressives have never been able to tightly define what they are because progress is, to different people, a different thing. The United States progressives of the early twentieth century were deeply suspicious of the federal state: an all-encompassing behemoth that would stamp out freedom. For the same reason, they were equally anti big business, and without the strong Labour movement Britain thankfully had; the diffuse aims of the movement never became coherent or meaningfully challenged the status quo.

For Blair, this is highly attractive. To be progressive, to him, is simply to tap into the zeitgeist – to appear modern. Lefties can cling to the hope that by progressive, he means socialist – this word banished from a bygone age – while the so-called ‘muscular liberals’ and soft right voters can admire the market rhetoric of a government that isn’t bothered about your colour or sexual preferences. In any case, like those with criticisms of ‘New’ Labour, to attack what calls itself ‘progressive’ is to file oneself as ‘anti-progress’, outmoded and obsolete. Clever marketing, Tone.

But those of us on the left concerned about domestic and global inequality, climate change and the geo-political and economic concerns of the future must challenge this orthodoxy head-on – and cannily. We should be bold in asserting that progress is nothing without purpose. A think-tank called ‘Progress’ might as well be called ‘Headway’, or ‘Forward Movement’. What matters is where we are going. And while Blair is right that we must not delude ourselves that the catchall solution to today’s problems is to cherry-pick the highlights of the 1983 manifesto, he is wrong to suggest – as always – that it’s his way or the highway.

What we must do is take our timeless principles and shape policies that deal with modern realities and look to the future. We might begin by looking at the successes this government has had.

The minimum wage has been a fabulous example of how government intervention and regulation can help shape a more effective market. Not only do some of our lowest paid workers have better pay, increasing their purchase power and quality of life, but also their spending is good for the economy. It’s no mistake that we’ve had 2 million extra jobs since the introduction of the minimum wage. To those who say the new jobs are low-paid and that workers are undervalued, we should reply by saying that this is work in progress - that we will do more because our objectives have not been met. To that end, we should sell tax credits for our poorest as what they are: tax cuts, which have to be applied for. But how about not having to fill in a form at all, but receiving the cut on the basis of your tax code – if you’re low paid, you get it. This might include the spouses of the rich doing a bit of work on the side, but it would benefit millions at a stroke and cut the bureaucracy that currently burdens the system.

What about Network Rail? An effectively nationalised body set up as a not-for-profit company – could this model work for the railways as a whole? The South Eastern franchise – taken quite rightly from the dreadful Connex – has seen massive improvements whilst being run in the short term in this way: what’s the incentive to put it to tender? Why not let it run as a pilot scheme to see if this is the best way to ensure accountable and yet well-managed public transport? We can guess what the outcome would be.

But we should not focus on our economy exclusively. We are told, constantly, that Africa must trade its way out of poverty – that we must tear down our trade barriers in order to let developing countries have their share. We on the left must be more sceptical of this ‘free lunch’ offer than we have been. We must ask ourselves what would happen. Would foreign investors ‘buy’ land from locals, rape the biodiversity and entrench government oligarchs? Would rationalisation in industrialised farms – that would be necessary to compete with the big European suppliers, even after subsidy had gone – lead to unemployment in a sector currently employing 80% of Africans? After all, they can’t just get a job at Tesco, or the nearest call centre. Is it desirable or sustainable to fly our green beans in from Kenya and Zimbabwe? Is it desirable, long-term, for Europe not to be self-sufficient in food? If we decide this isn’t ‘progress’, we will need to work hard, and quickly, with the help of experts and the cooperation of the communities in developing countries themselves to work out what is.

On civil liberties, is it ‘progress’ to detain people without even charging them for three months? Would progress towards a responsible and fair justice system involve asking the police for a checklist of what they want and defending legislation on the basis that this was what they wanted? If that’s right, we can frame health policy by asking doctors and nurses what they want (not the internal market Mk II, I’m guessing). In fact policy has to be formed on the basis of principle, with the input of not just one group but all interested parties. ID cards will not stop terrorists – the London bombers would all have had them – and will not stop identity theft (according to one highly regarded LSE report, it will make it easier for geeks thanks to the proposed database and could destroy witness protection as biometrics could be cross-matched by a bribed or blackmailed official) – let’s spend the upwards of £6 billion on policing and intelligence. Let’s allow intercept evidence to be used in court. Let’s never again see anti-terror legislation used to stifle peaceful demonstrators, or silence ‘difficult’ 82 year-olds, whose only threat is to open up debate.

On tax cuts for the poor, public transport, meaningful international development and respect for the law because it respects you, we could construct a consensus that would be in tune with the British people and would, coupled with a determination to end discrimination in all its forms, represent a stout affirmation of our principles in policy. I haven’t even mentioned illegal foreign adventures or constitutional reform. This agenda, as laid out here, cannot be exhaustive, and I’m not in a position to make it so. But the Labour movement – CLPs, trades unions and individual members – can and we should start now. We must show that to democratic socialists, progress is the child of purpose. Our purpose must never become divorced from reality, but should – yes, Mr Blair – sometimes challenge that reality. We mustn’t go with the flow simply because it’s there: we want to make real progress.

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