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Progressive confusion

May 14th, 2010 Posted in Uncategorized by

I’ve been hunting around looking for evidence of serious disaffection amongst Liberal Democrat activists with the coalition deal and it appears to be very limited.

Several self-described progressives have felt the need to apologise for the party, or more accurately the voters who didn’t choose to make a stable ‘progressive’ alliance possible. And they’re pretty miffed with the Labour party, who they were shocked to find, despite 13 long years of evidence they don’t share power, didn’t want to share power.

There has been one dignified if odd resignation by a blogger, interesting mostly for highlighting the paradoxes in the muddled thinking of people who quest for plural liberal democracy, but only if it means permanent government by the left.

Simon Hughes, a liberal I vote for in Bermondsey, has amply displayed the confusion in his responses on Question Time. He described the 6 million Liberal Democrat voters as voting for a “centre-left progressive government”.

They didn’t, they voted Liberal Democrat. When polling analysis has been done on LD voters, the majority self-define as centrist, not centre-left, and no one has the first clue what ‘progressive’ is supposed to mean other than been in favour of progress… who isn’t?

Simon also is one of many Liberal Democrats who holds his seat because centre-right (aspirational?) voters are prepared to lend him their support to keep out the socialists.

That Simon and friends have got into such a rhetorical muddle then is their own fault.

If you spend your time narrowing your democratic options by describing your own movement in respect of one small part of it (the centre-left), defining its difference negatively in respect of your opponents (‘a non-socialist alternative to Labour’), or using phrases that could mean anything to anyone (‘progressive’, ‘fair’, ‘social’ etc.) and arguing you want more democracy (PR), it’s harder to then to defend the logical consequence of real democratic choice if it doesn’t fit your model.

On the flip-side, Labour rhetoricians like Mehdi Hasan are enjoying themselves immensely ranting about betrayal and there have been wild claims of thousands of new members for Labour. By still banging on about progressive coalitions and tugging their forelocks some Liberal Democrats are simply fueling this narrative.

It might be better instead to recognise that in situations like this we will always seek to build the most stable liberal coalition possible.

And we have.

So now it’s time to let this broadly liberal government govern and stop apologising to people who are wasting time raving when they should be working out how to make their own side fit for sharing power in future.

29 Responses to “Progressive confusion”

  1. Rod Says:

    I would love to see the figures concerning the number of resignations from the party in the last few days compared to the number of new recruits. There are reports of a surge of new Lib Dem members and I know that I, as a long term but non-active supporter of the party yesterday chose to join for the first time. I hope and believe that there will be others who feel the same. Why now? Because I think the political bravery shown by the party deserves to be supported – especially through what could be some dark days ahead. Who knows whether this coalition will hold and prosper. But it deserves half a chance.

  2. Bdoug Says:

    Self delusion.The local paper here ran a story about a group of local students who set up a facebook page urging the LDs not to back the Tories.All Lib Dems voters, or rather, all former Lib Dem voters.Times that across the country and you get an idea what will be waiting for the LDs at the next election.

  3. Duncan Says:

    @Bdoug – I notice the NUS (fronted by Wes Streeting who campaigned for Labour during the election) are getting all hepped up about the abstention over tuition fees. I plan to keep reminding them of; “We have no plans to introduce University top-up fees, and have legislated to prevent their introduction.” – Labour Manifesto 2001

    Be thankful for Alex Salmond for once; he apparently doesn’t intend to let people forget (or be lied to) about Labour backbenchers (many reliant on FPTP)’s decision to scuttle the Lib-Lab negotiations.

    I can happily report that every one of the student activists here who helped out during the campaign is still with us and the feeling on the ‘Rage Against the Machine’ group remains high, no doubt due to the effective management of 17 year old Mevan Babakar (no, seriously) who has been consistent in her outspoken faith in the party leadership. We all believe that Nick did the right thing in putting policy ahead of… er… having a Tory government?

    I’m absolutely furious at the lies and spinning Labour has engaged in since the coalition deals – culminating with Andrew Adonis’ recent revisionist history in the Guardian, which you might almost believe if you hadn’t watched the live coverage and know for a fact that the order of events means his account cannot be accurate. Labour has decided to lie rather than be upfront, just as it did for the last 13 years.

  4. mpg Says:


    The Labour backbenchers aren’t lying about scuppering the deal. Dianbe Abbott stated explicitly that the majority feeling on the backbenches was that Labour lost and they should go. In fact she blames unelected people like Lord Adonis for trying to usurp the popular will.

  5. mpg Says:


    it seems that many on the right of the party, bloggers anyways, are really laying into the left. I would caution against such hubris. Political parties, by nature, are big tents and trying to accommodate ones party colleagues a necessity.

    Another point: it is a fact that some of our MPs campaigned as Stop The Tories candidates, while it may not be a problem for the party, it may turn out to be a problem for these MPs.

    Lastly, I would like to say is that the centre- left isn’t were the main challenge is to the party: I think it is the centre right. If we are able to help the Tories consolidate their place on the centre ground by being in a coalition, it is The Tories who are likely to benefit from this not us. Across Europe it seems to be the case that if a coalition succeeds the credit disproportionately goes to the major party. If things go badly, the juniour party gets a greater share of the blame. This is especially difficult for us because we don’t have PR and hung parliaments are a rarity in FPTP. If we are punished at the next election for doing to well or too badly in government, it could be a long time before we are given another chance. I sincerely hope there are people in the party who are already thinking of strategies to deal with the pitfalls of this new politics..


  6. mpg Says:


    FYI: Polly Toynbee, not exactly a fan of this coalition, is hailing it as more progressive than anything Labour did. The situation is alot more fluid than ideologues on all sides wiuld have you believe.

  7. Ross Says:

    For how many months have the media been going on about a potential hung parliament? How many times was Nick Clegg hassled by the media as to what he would do in a hung parliament situation?

    Nick Clegg made his position clear during the election and he re-iterated this on the morning after the election. And now people feel betrayed? What were these people expecting?

    Yes, there are differences between LDs and the Tories, but there are differences between the LDs and Labour. People should remember the mess Labour has made of our economy, the erosion of our civil liberties, taking us into an illegal war, the constant going back on their pledges…

    As for policies. Yes, the LD are having to give up some of their pledges. So are the Tories. It’s called a coalition. What were people thinking? We’re going to get PR tomorrow? Perhaps the LDs should have sat back and let the Tories go it alone with a minority Government. What would that have achieved? I bet you any money that Clegg would have got it in the neck for being weak if he hadn’t done a deal with the Tories.

    What I find so sad are the number of Tories and LDs who seem to want to undermined this and seem to want this to fail. What a miserable, backward looking bunch.

    As for those LD voters going on about, “I didn’t vote LD to get Tory…” Well welcome to the world of being a LD voter. Ever since I’ve been eligible to vote in 1987 I’ve voted LD, and guess what…I never got a LD government. In fact, I never got my local LD candidate into parliament – that’s what comes from living in Tory/Labour strong-holds. Well we now have LDs in government as part of a coalition with the Tories. As far as I’m concerned this is a case of watch this space. Maybe it won’t work out but for the time being I’m going to remain positive. Besides, as far as I’m concerned this is much better than having another term of the previous Government.

  8. Julian Harris Says:

    Cracking comment, Ross – agree 100%. I’d have considered posting something along those lines as a Guest Post.

  9. john brown Says:

    why you cannot find that much opposition to lib com coalition you might be surprised when future election whether theyre local or general elections there is a lot of lib dem voters that definatly didn’t vote for this and feel very strongly about it
    and if nick clegg thinks that the torys are going to agree with the proportional voting system he is mistaken

    if nick clegg wanted to be a tory he should have joined them in the first place i and my family are very disappointed in him

    from john brown

    ex lib dem voter

  10. Geoffrey Payne Says:

    I think you have to give Simon some respect. Normally when a Lib Dem wins a by-election, he loses it at the next general election.
    What Simon has done is win what was previously a safe Labour seat, and made it a safe Lib Dem seat, which it has been for over 25 years. A remarkable achievement.
    No Conservative politician has managed that.
    It is bound to be the case that Lib Dem MPs from seats that were previously Labour are going to be concerned that they will be characterised as being another Tory.
    Now it is true that there is some nice yuppie flats in Bermondsey. But are these aspirational voters on the centre-right? No doubt many are, but it was noticable where I was campaigning in Islington, there were many so-called “Champagne Socialists” living in the swish locations.
    Simon Hughes has made no secret that he is on the centre-left, yet even if he benefits from Tory tactical voters, no one could seriously claim that if he was not standing the Tories would win. Or that given the size of his majority, that he even needs their support.

  11. blanco Says:

    “definatly didn’t vote for this”

    1. Learn to spell
    2. If you voted Lib Dem, why are you then shocked that Lib Dems form part of the government?
    3. The Lib Dems are not responsible for the Tories being in government. They would’ve been in government anyway. The electorate gave more votes to the Tories than any other party.

    Or can you not get it through your thick tribal skull that more than one party can be in power at a time, and the balance of parties is up to the electorate, not the parties themselves?

    I guess not. Vote Labour. They won’t ask any difficult questions.

  12. Andy Mayer Says:

    Geoff, Simon gets an enormous amount of respect in this household, I’ve two whacking great vote Simon Hughes billboards on my balcony still, but it also the case that his narrow narrative on the purpose of the party makes the current situation very hard for him.

    Tactically it may make perfect sense for winning Bermondsey, but Bermondsey is very unusual, and not a model many have been able to apply elsewhere. Were we able to win large swaithes of Labour seats by campaigning like Simon we should have expected to pick up Islington, Holborn etc. this time. But that’s a very big and separate discussion.

    The difficult question for defectors I think is if they believe the Liberal Democrats should only ever consider coalition with Labour, what was the purpose of being separate parties?

    For the rest of us it’s very clear we’re about campaigning for a liberal government. And for the first time we’ve got more of that then we ever thought possible.

  13. Niklas Smith Says:

    @Rod: I would love to see the figures concerning the number of resignations from the party in the last few days compared to the number of new recruits. There are reports of a surge of new Lib Dem members and I know that I, as a long term but non-active supporter of the party yesterday chose to join for the first time….

    There are definitely more people like you. According to our membership secretary here in Cambridge there have been at least five new members joining since the election (and Cowley Street may be processing some more, we don’t know).

    Even more heartwarmingly, a man sat down next to me in a café and was talking about how he thought the coalition was a great idea to his friend, while complaining that Twitter seemed to be full of people against it. I couldn’t help pointing out that I was a Lib Dem and in favour too :) He turned out to be eager to join the party, so he came along to the Q&A about the deal that we held with our new MP Julian Huppert and joined there.

    On the flip side, at least two Lib Dem bloggers have resigned from the party and Nich Starling looks as if he’s about to. But at the meeting no one was that unhappy. There were people who stressed the risks we faced, but no one who seemed to think that we had made a bad decision.

    I’m afraid local anecdote is all I can give. We’ll have to wait months to see the membership figures.

  14. Ziggy Says:

    I read the blog post linked to in the above post & according to Rob Fenwick Nick Clegg is a millionaire?

    He’s right to say that the cabinet isn’t representative of the country as a whole, but when has it ever truly been.

  15. mpg Says:

    @Niklas Smith
    “There were people who stressed the risks we faced, but no one who seemed to think that we had made a bad decision.”

    This is certainly where I stand. While a lot of LDs and general voters bask in the joy of government, I am worried about the implications for the party. A lot of people, I think, aren’t acknowledging the importance of the centre left, particularly among new members and voters. A lot of people are not not acknowledging the electoral difficulties we face.

    I admit that my pessimism may not be popular right now, but I remember Blair riding into government in 1997 on a tidal wave of goodwill. I, for one, will not be making the same mistake twice. I am looking for the devil in the detail.

  16. Geoffrey Payne Says:

    There was a lot of support from the centre left for the Liberal Democrats at the last general election precisely because the Labour party did not represent their views on civil liberties, the environment or on a genuine ethical foreign policy. On the economy it is left liberals like George Soros, Joseph Stiglitz, Paul Krugman and even Vince Cable who have been most convincing in their perspectives on how to tackle the crises, whilst those who argue for the old neo-liberal orthodoxy are the same people who got us into this mess to begin with. No wonder Vince Cable is feeling uncomfortable having to serve under George Osbourne. The risk for the Liberal Democrats is that they will lose this centre left component to their coalition and that will make them less electable at the next general election.

  17. Andy Mayer Says:

    Geoff, I’m fairly sure the number of people who voted Liberal Democrat out of admiration for Paul Krugman, and who would now vote Labour or Green for the same reason, are not a defecting constitency that should cause campaigners to lose sleep at night.

    I do though think you are right that there will be some people who won’t vote Liberal Democrat again on the grounds they have no political objectives beyond keeping the centre-right out of power.

    As the Liberal Democrats are a party seeking power for liberal ends, not a pressure group seeking only to influence others, I can live with that, as I’m sure you could live with a handful of anti-socialist Liberal Democrat supporters leaving purely if the party did a deal with Labour.

    Outside left and right, as Democrats this is the politics we surely want. An end to majority governments with a minority mandate; and open consensus, compromise and coalition building, rather than cosy stich-ups within parties. Or do you believe the Liberal Democrats must be in permanent opposition lest we risk offending anyone who voted for us?

  18. Pat Says:

    seems to me that, just as conservative means opposed to change, and in favour of tried and tested alternatives where change is necessary, progressives are in favour of new exiting ideas which they see no need to test before use.
    The former state of mind produces a system that works- but taken to the extreme stultifies progress. The latter approach can easily lead to massive failure owing to unforeseen consequences. IMHO a balance must be struck as most new ideas don’t work out in practice but the ones that do are gold dust.
    BTW, liberalism is hardly a new idea- its been going for 250 yeaars minimum- and socialism is more than 150 years old- so neither can today claim to be progressive, whatever could be claimed for Adam Smith or Marx in their day.
    For myself, I favour liberal policies because they have, when tried, been shown to work- and I vote for whatever party seems most likely too get them implemented (not necessarily the party that likes them most).
    Who knows, with members of the Liberal party in Government, I and others may yet be convinced that the Liberals are actually in a position to implement liberalism, rather than merely preach it. So what the Liberal party stands to lose on one wing it stands to gain on the other- all to play for.

  19. Joel Says:

    Surely, too many people are missing the point.

    A party in government can do far more than one in opposition. It may not be perfect, but a lot better than the past decades of useless 3rd partyness.

  20. SadButMadLad Says:

    Progressive is a term nicked by the left to mean something totally different to it’s dictionary definition.

    Progressive -adjective: favoring or advocating progress, change, improvement, or reform, as opposed to wishing to maintain things as they are, esp. in political matters: a progressive mayor.

    However the left are taking it to mean the total opposite as they are against progress (witness the falling back of the UK in international league tables), or reform (see the imposition of thousands of new laws, mostly stupid). They are however for the imposition of the loss of civil liberties, state responsibility rather than personal responsibility, and state handouts rather than productive work.

  21. michaelmph Says:

    What an utterly meaningless adjective ‘progressive’ is. What do you LibDems mean by it? To Stalin, the last Labour government would seem progressive as they ever increased the size of the state, took more and more of your money in taxes, employed the majority of citizens by the state, turned the BBC into a pure NuLabour propaganda organisation, politicised the Civil Service, handed more and more control over our lives to unelected, unrepresentative, unaccountable Quangos, covered the country in CCTV and speed cameras and roaming SmartCars with cameras on the roof so that we became the complete surveillance state. It would be Stalin’s idea of Heaven. That’s progressive? Of course, I realise this is all NuLabourspeak, where sending people abroad to be tortured is termed ‘extraordinary rendition’. And you LibDems really want to be associated with all that? FWIW, I vote LibDem in my Borough to just keep Labour out.

  22. Ian Says:

    Speaking as a “normal” voter By that I mean a non activist or a member of any party I am irritated by some of the chatter related to what will happen next/ What the fall out will be/ it will be bad for us/ bad for them.

    To activists i sugest your Hard work over the last few weeks has been directed at people like me and it worked, i would normaly vote Tory, but my partner and I voted lib dem in what turned out to be a safe Tory seat on the East Coast.

    My Mum (also Tory) voted Lib Dem in Bedford and my staunch Tory Aunt (a real like Mrs Bucket) also voted Lib Dem in Mauldon.

    Perhaps you will consider my carefuly crafted piece below and pat yourselves on the back and please just forget about the worry which I am afraid just seems like teenage angst

    This new Government I hope will be a refreshing change. We have had to much tribal politics. 18 years of Tory 13 of Labour, on top of the parliament wide expense scandal, and a world wide banking collapse.

    My biggest fear was that the reaction to Messer’s Blair & Browns administration would result in an overwhelming majority for another party.

    A confusing result initially,but at least we will not be subject to the extreme views of either, which you might argue has been our problem since 1979, both tribes went on to long.

    This new government claim they will co exist for 5 years, we will see, they may need to, because it is time for us to take our medicine, after years of policies we can no longer afford, and the banking issues will make for tough times for all.

    It is early days but the Left should be regrouping
    taking time to work out where they went wrong and picking a new leader.

    All I have seen so far is they seem to be attacking the new government who haven’t done anything yet.
    In my view the new government should have time to prove itself.

    When I think back to Mr Bair’s first election victory there
    seemed to be a good deal of good will (at least to start with)

    Last Thursday’s Question Time on BBC 1 the lefts representative sounded like an unreasonable unpleasant spoilt strident comedic televisual portrayal of a
    mother in law.

    If the left are going to be a credible force I would suggest they do not repeat the mistake of the later part of the Major Government who some would say were perceived as too arrogant to listen.

    I wish this new government well I hope it will work and it is a shame that more people are not saying the same thing but I bet a fantastic number of people are thinking it

  23. Rob F Says:

    A point about the membership issue. I certainly think the Lib Dems will end this month with a net rise in membership, but there is an indication of the electoral problem facing the Lib Dems that while Lib Dem membership is up 1,500, Labour membership is up 10,000*

    A good many voters now see the Lib Dems as an extension of the Tory party, and simply saying they’re wrong, or they’re not paying enough attention to policy detail, won’t wash.

    I may have ‘dignified but odd’ engraved on my tombstone,



  24. Andy Mayer Says:

    You may be right Rob, but it’s a counsel of despair. If it’s the case that a significant proportion of our support is dependent on the party never doing deals, then the party will never be in government.

    The party has traded for a very long time on ‘vote for us to stop x’. Now in government it’s going to have to adjust to ‘vote for us to support y’. It makes more sense in the long-run if that ‘y’ is a coherent and distinct liberal platform, and part of that platform is pluralism.

    Otherwise and if the goal is some realignment of either the right or left then the quesiton is why bother being a distinct party at all? And if pluralism is not sold properly then we will struggle to defend coalition deals.

  25. Ziggy Says:

    According to the BBC’s Politics show 100 members have left the party in the past week but 400 have joined

    As for the misuse of the word ‘progressive’ well here’s an example.

    Other then libertarians its often progressives who most often campaign for the legalisation of pot, but they’re in fact campaigning for the relegalisation of pot which isn’t in fact progressive.

  26. The Remittance Man Says:

    Er, Chaps,

    I don’t think anyone voted for the current setup. A lot of people here would classify me as a rabid, swivel-eyed wingnut (I prefer Classic Liberal, myself, but each to their own) and I know I certainly didn’t. That being said, it’s the government we’ve got, for the moment at least, so let’s make the best of it.

    At least it’s not another NuLabour administration, and that must be a positive thing in everyone’s eyes, except the supporters of NuLabour, of course.

  27. Roger Says:

    Firstly let us get away from ‘Centre Left Progressive’. What does it mean? It is up to the people in bodies like Liberal Vision to educate people as to what is progressive in politics. I would argue that Liberalism is and always has been the progressive face of politics. Socialism hates the concept of the individual being allowed to flower.The right of the Conservative Party also dislikes the individual as everyone should defer to their superiority.

    We need to recapture the word Progressive and redefine it. Certainly if you told someone in the VVD in the Netherlands that they belonged to a centre left progressive party you might have a debate on your hands. They belong to the same group as the Lib Dems in the European Parliament. They have in D’66 a centre left liberal party.

  28. Westernmac Says:

    Interesting debate. As a libertarian Tory voter who resigned from the Liberal Party over the Lib/Lab pact, I was much puzzled by this ‘progressive alliance’ concept. Those words do not appear at all in the Lib Dem Manifesto and while the individual words appear in Labour’s Manifesto, they are not in remote proximity and in an utterly different context. So how can anyone claim the electorate voted for it – other than Toxic Al Campbell?

    I hope that what we now have will be a truly progressive government, pushing back State dominance, reforming some of Labour’s oppressive laws and giving more power to true local democracy. I sincerely do pray that the coalition works as, apart from Vince Cable, you do have some able politicians; some of whom even appear to possess integrity.

  29. Philip Young Says:

    Er? Where did Vince Cable go wrong then?