Tuesday, 15 March 2011

The Emperor’s new progressive majority

With his LSE lecture David Miliband is back. We should be delighted: not, one would hope, because there are too many partisan squabblers who wanted him to lead the Party and can’t accept that he lost, but because we are all grown-ups and he is a huge talent which we cannot afford to waste.  But some of his speech is both disturbing, and remarkable, nonetheless.

First, it is disturbing because you realise how constrained he is by the awful combination of filial loyalty and media scrutiny. So, whatever he says needs to be said in a code so opaque that it seems asking the impossible for any speech to break new ground. As Sunder Katwala points out, when talking about British politics he is carefully higlighting points of convergence with his brother, determined not to provide a credit-card-breadth of difference between them. But these contortions ultimately twist his message. For example, one of the other points of convergence seems to be on the befuddled topic of community organising, which even the more committed members of David’s own campaign team thought its weak point. Much as we try to think otherwise, it is painful to watch David attempt to locate and reinforce these points of brotherly convergence.  The ultimate conclusion of all of this must be the obvious one, that it cannot be good for Labour for one of its true remaining heavyweight talents to be hobbled thus; to be neither in the Shadow Cabinet nor truly enjoying the freedom of the back benches.

But perhaps more remarkable is his quoting of Anthony Painter’s and Nick Lowles’ fascinating Searchlight report, “Fear and Hope – the new politics of identity”.  In the key passage, he notes “the danger of assuming a natural centre-left majority when values issues cut across political divides in a fundamental way”.

Or rather, he says that we should not assume a progressive majority – in specific cases: note the caveat. Report co-author Anthony Painter goes further in his own summary article – tellingly, with no caveats– simply: “there is no progressive majority in English politics”.  But essentially they are saying the same thing. And Painter’s comment is not ten-a-penny political commentary, but good research based on the attitudes of real people (for the record, back in January and based on no research whatsoever, we wrote here those same words: “there is no progressive majority”).

Now, the purpose of this piece is not to try and dissect the speech for differences between the Milibands, an exercise we can happily leave to the more hostile media. But, on this one point, let’s try and be honest and clear on David’s speech: it is difficult not to feel that the catch-all caveat “when values issues cut across political divides in a fundamental way” can be made to mean, er, whatever we need it to mean. Perhaps this is just in case someone concluded that he did not sign up to the progressive majority espoused by his brother. Or indeed, perhaps he truly believes the two are aligned on this (at any rate, we can certainly understand his reasons for wanting it to seem so). But neither does he thoroughly convince that he does not, too, reject the progressive majority.

Ed Miliband wrote unequivocally in the Guardian on 14 January: “there is a progressive majority”. But where is it? Where are these elusive progressives, who so happily voted in a right-wing government? The answer is, it seems, that they are everywhere, except in the square on the ballot paper marked “Labour”.

In British left-wing politics today, it appears there are many gifted tailors – let’s call them the Neal Lawsons of this world – who will tell us of the fine properties of this cloth or that, of this left-leaning demographic or that which will cover Labour electorally. And the fact is that, unlike Hans Christian Andersen’s Emperor, we are not naked. It’s worse: we are partially-clothed. It’s a borderline case, a skirt which is only just too short. Our friends are all torn on the thorny issue and no-one will tell us the truth, that our fine clothes don’t reach down far enough.

But, you say, hang on: isn’t this an old concept, didn’t even Tony Blair in 1997 think there was a progressive majority in Britain that we should target? Well, yes and no: George Orwell wanted to ban the word “progressive” for the very good reason that it is too subjective. You see, Blair had a very different idea of what “progressive” meant, including bringing in all of the Liberal supporter space – a feat clearly no longer possible, now it is split – and more. Right now, we reach out to leftish Liberals, with mixed success and they are small in number. Rightist liberals are out of reach, locked grimly into the Coalition. Resurgent nationalists have already eaten into our “progressive” vote in Scotland. But what we don’t do effectively is to reach out to disaffected Tories, or those unaligned centrists simply fed up with politics. We seem just not to understand broad church politics any more.  Cameron does.

In short: the evidence against the progressive majority is quietly stacking up, if we choose to hear it. At some point the voices of those who honestly think we are mistaken in sustaining its existence will get louder. Perhaps eventually they will reach a deafening roar; or, alternatively, perhaps they will be drowned out by the well-intentioned but wrong-headed idealism which keeps this myth alive.

But – let’s be clear – the Emperor in this case is not Ed Miliband, nor Neal Lawson, nor Neil Kinnock, nor any other figure. It is, simply, all and any of us who opt to sit here with our fingers in our ears.

This post first published at Labour Uncut.


  1. A heretics viewpoint. David will be "the best P-M we never had". Discuss.
    ZaNuLabour which the Milibands propped up for a decade denuded us of civil liberties, many "progressives" comme moi-meme, would never touch such a toxic brand again.

  2. Hmm, you are a heretic, aren't you? ;)

    I guess the next question would have to be, if not them, then who? Difficult choice.

  3. Labour needs a radical clean out. But is it all things to all men? (Therefore nothing to anyone?)

  4. On all things to all men, I'd say not - at the moment our appeal is to too narrow a segment of the population, which means there are large swathes of "real people" (i.e. those outside the very small world of left politics) who we don't connect with at all. In fact, for many of these people, being in opposition, we're not even on their radar.

  5. Is Labour left of centre? I will grant you that under Miliband it is far more appealing to white working class punters. It needs to repair the damage. Internment without trial, illegal DNA databases and ID card fiascos. I wish you luck.


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