Progressive London?

Last Saturday I attended the inaugural Progressive London conference at Congress House, home of the TUC. Having heard little about it other than that it was a front to re-elect Ken Livingstone as Mayor of London, I went pretty much on a whim, it having been one of the many events and websites that I’ve become aware of lately by way of my sublimely hyperactive friend and colleague Charlie Mansell .

The Progressive London organisation (such as it is) having been around only a few months, its mission statement is still fluid. To a large extent, it will be determined by those who choose to participate in the discussion that it generates. My hope is that it can become some form of loose electoral coalition – transcending rather than replacing party allegiances, but being a reliable indicator of a candidate who is willing to work across party lines to achieve what is needed – a badge, if you like, of ‘progressivism’.

I hope to be part of this wider debate over the legitimacy, agenda and future positioning of Progressive London over the next year or so – more on which here from a blogger at Lib Dem Voice . But leaving that aside for the minute, I want to address a more fundamental aspect of this venture. The subject has received a good deal of attention on sites such as LabourList and Comment is Free of late, but I haven’t yet found a satisfactory answer. What does ‘progressive’ actually mean?

In the first panel session I attended at the conference, Liberal Democrat London Assembly leader Mike Tuffrey offered what I felt was a valuable opinion, saying that the true benchmark of progressivism is an eagerness to devolve power further from the centre and allow people to make more decisions about the ways in which their communities worked.

Though this is obviously not the whole of the point, and he went on to make other points, I thought he was onto something here. I believe in subsidiarity – devolving the power to make any given decision as far as possible. Tuffrey quoted William Gladstone, saying ‘Liberalism is trust of the people tempered by prudence. Conservatism is distrust of the people tempered by fear.’ (He added that socialism, in his view, was trust of the state tempered by distrust of the people.)

This government is widely perceived as having shown centralising, distrustful tendencies – though my view has softened lately; perhaps they just haven’t decentralised enough of the centralised state created by the Tories for my liking. Whatever the origins of the problem, I think this perception of the government is the key reason why the phrase ‘progressive conservatism’, which looks at first glance like an oxymoron and doesn’t improve massively at a second glance, has been able to gain some traction. Demos, for example, has announced a major new project around the concept.

Progressive London is a major part of the effort to reclaim the idea of progressiveness for the broad left, and – whether or not the term itself will endure – the empowerment agenda could and should be a focus around which to continue reconstructing the dividing lines that the would-be ‘progressives’ need. Conservatives believe in a political elite; progressives believe that democracy is for everyone, and that representative democracy isn’t some sort of panacea of civilization, but essentially a fudge that needs to be made to work as transparently and inclusively as possible.

The recent controversies over Heathrow and MPs’ expenses will have done the government no favours in building up these credentials. But legislation like the Sustainable Communities Act, which I’ve blogged about previously, could be the rallying point for a new progressivism in British politics.

If this is the way it’s going to go, though, the progressives have to answer a question – not just answering to the conservatives, but to themselves. Having lauded and fought for the power of communities, what do you do when ‘they’ make the wrong decision – plump for the Tesco over the wildlife reserve, or the tax cut over the improvements in services for children with learning disabilities? Suddenly, the abstract people towards whom you previously felt vaguely, liberally benign have become at best fools, at worst brutes, and in either case people whom it is imperative to keep out of the process of government.

I’ve not come close to working this one out yet. Anyone got answers? Hint: I’m looking for something easier than ‘be nice to everyone’.

Published by Majeed Neky, a project officer at The Campaign Company .

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