Political perceptions

As I have frequently written on this blog, I read a variety of British media, left and right. I tend to avoid the tabloid press unless some other source directly links to an article that appeared in one of them, and so my daily reading includes the BBC, Guardian, Independent, Telegraph, New Statesmen, the Spectator and ConservativeHome. I used to read the Times as well, but not since they’ve gone behind a paywall.

Because I don’t limit myself to media that favour one party or ideological slant, I am frequently both amused and dismayed by how each side perceives the other. For example, Guardian and New Statesmen readers (and columnists) accuse the Cameron Conservatives of being extremely right-wing, while the more right-wing posters  and bloggers on ConservativeHome often think Cameron’s far too left-wing, or people who think the Lib Dems were a left-of-centre party, when clearly their policies made them quite centrist, if not right-of-centre. It simply reinforces my belief that most people base these perceptions on their own beliefs, and too often are completely mistaken in where they themselves really are on the left-right political spectrum.

One of my favourite sites, Political Compass, has a chart mapping the political positions of UK parties in 2010. What it shows is that all three of the main parties are clearly right-of-centre in terms of economic positioning (because that is what left-right applies to – one’s economic position), with Labour being the most authoritarian of the three, and the Lib Dems the most libertarian. Further down on that same page, there is a fascinating chart showing how the parties have shifted over the years.

Now compare the Political Compass chart, which positions all three of the main parties to the right of centre, to the findings of a YouGov poll which asked people where they perceived themselves and the three main political parties to be on the political spectrum. You can read a summary of the findings on UK Polling Report, but it’s also interesting to look at the actual YouGov data (PDF). Sadly, YouGov doesn’t distinguish between economic position (Left-Right) and Authoritarian-Libertarian the way Political Compass does (which is far more accurate) so people are forced to confuse the two (as most people probably do anyway). In my opinion, Political Compass is the more accurate reflection of where the parties stand (or at least stood in the May 2010 election), and so I will use that to point out how badly people’s perceptions deviate from reality.

On page 3 of the YouGov results we find how respondents rated themselves on the left-right spectrum. Unsurprisingly, most people think they are quite centrist, after all, very few people ever want to think that the views they hold are in any way extreme. The poll found that 48% of those polled rated themselves as being between slightly left-of-centre (13%) to slightly right-of-centre (13%) with 22% simply centrist. Among those with declared voting intentions, 72% of Conservative party supporters ranked themselves between centrist (23%) to fairly right-wing (18%), with 31% being slightly right-of-centre. Sixty-six percent of Labour supporters fell into the fairly left-wing to centrist range (fairly left-wing 19%, slightly left-of-centre 26%, centre 21%); meanwhile, 67% of Lib Dem supporters viewed themselves in the slightly left-of centre (18%) to slightly right-of-centre (13%) range, with the majority (36%) identifying themselves as centrists.

So how did these respondents rate the parties? Overall, 57% of respondents rated Labour as ranging from very left-wing to slightly left-of-centre, with the slightly left-of-centre option being the most popular (27%). This range held across declared voting intentions, with 74% of Conservative supporters agreeing with that range (with 34% finding Labour fairly left-wing), as did 58% of Labour supporters (but most (39%) opined that the party is only slightly left-of-centre) and 55% of Lib Dem supporters (with 28% believing Labour to be slightly left-of-centre).

The Conservative Party is viewed by a majority of respondents (59%) as ranging from slightly right-of-centre to very right-wing, and, like for Labour, this range holds across party lines (68% for Conservatives, 65% for Labour supporters and 63% for Lib Dem supporters). Conservative supporters, however, think their party is mostly only slightly right-of-centre (48%) and only 4% think it is very right-wing, while 31% of Labour supporters think the Conservatives are very right-wing and only 8% think it is only slightly right-of centre. Lib Dem supporters are fairly evenly split when it comes to the Conservative party – 24% think it is slightly right-of-centre and 27% think it is fairly right-of-centre. Only 12% of Lib Dem supporters think the Tories are very right-wing.

As for the Lib Dems themselves, well, pretty much everyone agrees that they occupy the boring middle ground, which you’d think would be a good thing since a majority of supporters of all three parties view themselves as occupying that same boring middle ground! Overall, 48% of respondents said the Lib Dems ranged from slightly left-of-centre to slightly right-of-centre. Slightly more Conservative supporters viewed them as slightly left-of-centre (26%) while slightly more Labour supporters think the Lib Dems are slightly right-of-centre (20%), while most Lib Dems think their party is very much in the centre (33%).

So what does all this tell us? The majority of voters (at least those polled) view themselves as being centrists or very close to the centre, leaning only slightly right or left as the case may be, and this holds across declared voting intentions. Very few supporters of either the Conservatives or Labour see themselves at the extreme end of their respective ideological leaning – only 6% of declared Conservative supporters consider themselves to be very right-wing, and only 7% of Labour supporters view themselves as very left-wing. Lib Dems consider themselves extremely centrist. Supporters of a given party also see that party as being mostly quite centrist, in other words, in accordance with what they believe their own political leanings to be – 43% of Conservative supporters rank the party as being only slightly right-of-centre, while 39% of Labour supporters think their party is only slightly left-of-centre, and of course, Lib Dems see their party as mostly centrist (36%).

Perceptions of the political party leaders is also worth mentioning. Overall, 56% perceive David Cameron as being slightly to very right-wing, but most Conservative supporters think he’s only slightly right-of-centre (37%). Most Labour supporters think Cameron is very right-wing (35%) while Lib Dem supporters are rather evenly split in their opinion of Cameron as being either slightly right-of-centre (28%) or fairly right-wing (24%). Labour leader Ed Miliband is viewed by most respondents as ranging from slightly left-of-centre to very left-wing by 54% of respondents, and Conservative supporters overwhelmingly view him as fairly (34%) to very left-wing (25%). Labour supporters are mostly split between viewing their leader as slightly left-of-centre and fairly left-wing (25% support for each position), while most Lib Dem supporters think Miliband is fairly left-wing (29%). Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg gets the most interesting results, from Labour supporters at least. In general, people view Clegg, like his party, as ranging between slightly left-of-centre to slightly right-of-centre (46%), and most Tory supporters view him as slightly left-of-centre (24%) or centrist (28%). Lib Dem supporters view Clegg as mostly centrist (36%). Labour supporters, however, rank him rather evenly from centre (14%) to slightly right-of-centre (16%) to fairly right-wing (19%) to very right-wing (13%).

Given that everyone seems to be so close ideologically-speaking, with a majority of supporters from all three parties nicely in the middle or only sightly left- or right-leaning, it is truly amazing that there is such strong dislike of Conservatives among Labour supporters and vice versa. And yes, I’m being somewhat tongue in cheek here.

Obviously, how people perceive themselves colours how they view the parties they support and those they don’t. But what is clear is that most people don’t really understand where their own views actually position them on the political spectrum. It’s understandable that no one wants to think they are extremists, and if you surround yourself with people who largely reflect your own views, in real life and online, then you’re likely to think your views are quite mainstream, aka centrist. It seems rather obvious to me that most of the respondents in the YouGov poll can’t be as centrist as they all seem to think they are. If that were indeed the case, they’d all be voting for the Lib Dems.

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Contrasting approaches to maternal health

Earlier this year, as hosts of the G8, Canada’s Conservative government pledged to make maternal and child health in developing nations a G8 priority. However laudable the initiative, the government was heavily criticised for stating it would veto the use of any of its funds to provide women with access to safe abortions – even in countries where abortion is legal.

Fast forward a few months to the very end of 2010 and we learn that the UK coalition government, led by Conservative PM David Cameron, will put contraception and safe abortion at the heart of its efforts to help save women’s lives in poor countries:

Two documents set out plans for international development, which has a ringfenced budget. One focuses on the fight against malaria, to which the chancellor, George Osborne, is personally committed. The other envisages increasing efforts to save the lives of women in childbirth and their babies.

Safe abortion and contraception take centre stage in the framework on maternal health. There are 75 million unwanted pregnancies every year and more than 22 million unsafe abortions, 70,000 of which end in the death of the woman.

I suppose one could attribute this to the influence of the Liberal Democrats in government, or one could simply acknowledge that, while he is a Conservative, David Cameron is less of an ideological Conservative than is Canada’s Stephen Harper. The new government is simply carrying on with established UK foreign policy:

The UK has long been supportive of family planning, including safe abortion, even when geopolitical allies are not. When George Bush’s US government cut funds to overseas agencies that helped women seeking abortion, DfID increased its funding for reproductive health to try to fill the gap.

Like his predecessors, the international development secretary, Andrew Mitchell, strongly believes that women should have the right to choose whether or not to have a child.

I could write reams on this issue, but my aim for this blog is to stay above the partisan fray, and I would find it difficult to further discuss this issue without certain political bias. Suffice it to say, I don’t disagree with the tone of the Don Martin column linked to above. Thus, I will stop here and wish my readers, whoever and wherever you are, a happy and safe  New Year.

All the best to all of you in 2011.

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New progressives

I apologize for my prolonged absence from blogging. As sometimes happens, real life events intervened in such a way that I simply was not able to properly focus on things political, which was at times frustrating, because there were a few events that did catch my attention and on which I wanted to comment.

One of those came courtesy of the 2010 Hugo Young Lecture which was delivered this year by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg (23 Nov 2010).

Some time back, I posted about my annoyance with the generalized assumption that a “progressive” had to be left-leaning. Clegg addressed this issue in his Lecture, and while I have certain issues with what Clegg said in his talk, I did find that he put forward some interesting points.

I think my favourite passage from Clegg’s speech is this one:

The new progressive test for any form of state intervention is whether it liberates and empowers people. There are some areas where a new progressive approach would imply more state intervention and investment, such as early years, narrowing educational inequalities and promoting a greener economy. That is why I have argued many times that it makes no sense whatsoever to use a phrase like ‘small state liberal’. It is not the size of the state, but what the state does, that matters.

I think it is that last sentence that resonates the most with me: it’s not the size of the state, but what the state does, that matters. This closely reflects what I have always felt, even if I failed to articulate it in that manner. I’ve always rejected the minimalist approach to government favoured by Libertarians because I do believe the state has a positive role to play in the life of a country, and in some instances, is really the only agent that can deliver certain services or programs effectively. However, there are certainly other areas which I believe the state has no real business, or at least, should definitely stay at arms length.

On the whole, I like how Clegg defines progressives. What I like less is his decision to create classes of progressives – namely “old progressives” and “new progressives”. As you may well guess, Labour are old progressives. The Coalition partners (most of them anyway – he probably has some doubts about some Tory MPs) are the new progressives. Clegg defines old and new progressives as follows. Old progressives emphasize the power and spending of the central state, and conflate the idea of progress with the control and reach of the central state. New progressives, on the other hand, focus on the power and freedom of citizens, and what matters is not the size of the state, but the relationship between the state and the citizen. My issue isn’t with the definitions, it’s more with Clegg’s labelling both “progressives”. I’d prefer to see the term banished from political discourse because it is so vague and meaningless now. Differentiating between “old” and “new” variants doesn’t solve this problem.

But as I read Clegg’s text, it struck me that what he’s labelling “new” progressives are what most would probably call “liberals”. Clegg says as much in this passage:

Not because there isn’t a clear divide here between old and new progressives. On the contrary. Old progressives pose a trade off between individual liberty and national security. But, for liberals, liberty is the guarantor of our security. It is a false trade-off.

Now “liberal” is yet another political term that has been hijacked (particularly in the US) to mean everything except what it traditionally has meant, so I can certainly understand why Clegg might be in search of a new name for what he believes. I’m simply not certain that “new progressive” is the way to go.

You can watch the lecture here, or read the entire text here.

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Political Bias and Perception

We all know (I hope) that our political biases colour how we view things. For example, someone with very conservative, right-wing views reading a newspaper such as The Toronto Star or The Guardian will not see their own views reflected in the editorials and commentaries (and probably not even in the way the news is reported), and so will tag those papers as being “liberal”, “left-wing”, etc. Ditto for someone more to the left who reads The National Post or the Daily Telegraph – they will call the paper right-wing. What is interesting to me is how media that tries to be as balanced as is humanly possible is perceived. Case in point, the Globe and Mail. If you read through reader comments, painful an exercise as that often is, you will see left-leaning people calling the Globe right-wing, while those with more conservative/right-wing views will accuse it of being part of that grand “left-wing/liberal” mainstream media conspiracy. I can only conclude then that the Globe must be succeeding in trying to be balanced, since those on each end of the political spectrum perceive it so differently. This applies to certain reporters as well. The Globe’s Jane Taber is an interesting example. Comments on her “Ottawa Notebook” contributions will alternate between calling her a stooge for the Liberal Party and being a cheerleader for the current Conservative Government.

Since May, as I’ve immersed myself in regularly reading the British media online, I’ve frequently found myself quite amused at how the various sides perceive the other. Since I am not British and do not have any personal, vested interest in any of the political parties, I read a variety of sources. My daily fixtures are (in no particular order): the BBC, The Guardian, The Independent, The Daily Telegraph, ConservativeHome, New Statesman and The Spectator (mostly the blogs on those last two sites). I will occasionally read something from the more tabloidy papers, but only via a link to a story posted on something from one of the above sources.

For the unfamiliar, the above can be crudely classified this way:

Leftish and/or pro-Labour: The Guardian, New Statesman
Right-leaning and/or pro-Conservative: Daily Telegraph, ConservativeHome (obviously), The Spectator
Non-partisan: BBC, The Independent

What I find amusing is that readers of the Guardian and New Stateman will predictably lambaste any and all policies of the Coalition Government, and will be especially harsh on the Liberal Democrats and in particular Nick Clegg for supporting the Tories. There are regular comments about how it’s purely a Conservative government fulfilling the Conservative Party’s manifesto, that Nick Clegg is a closet (or not so closet) Tory, etc. However, if you toddle over to ConservativeHome and read the comments on the various blog posts there, you will regularly find Tories bemoaning how the Lib Dems have far too much influence in the government, how David Cameron isn’t a Tory at all, but rather a closet Lib Dem (well, at least a Lib, maybe not so much a Dem), how all the true Conservative values and, more importantly, manifesto pledges, have been tossed out the window, etc.  These same sorts of views can be found over on the Telegraph’s site as well.

Readers of The Independent and, interestingly, the Spectator (I’m referencing the blog articles on the Spectator site) seem to be a bit more nuanced, or, shall we say, realistic?

I think, often, people aren’t fully aware of their own political bias. Several years ago, when I regularly posted on a forum dedicated to Canadian politics, there was one member who was very right-wing and conservative in her views, but yet repeatedly rejected being labelled that way, claiming over and over that she was actually quite centrist. Over time I realised that she maybe thought her views were quite centrist because she mostly watched the US Fox News cable channel, and more frequently posted on US political forums that were dominated by right-wing posters. And since she probably agreed with their views, and surrounded herself with that sort of echo chamber, she saw that as being the more common, mainstream position – and anything actually more to the centre inevitably would be “left-wing”.

I think regularly reading a variety of media (and the comments of readers when available), actually helps me gain a clearer sense of things. If you weed out the extremes, reality must lie somewhere in the middle. I will admit that I find it much easier to do so when it comes to British politics. I have a far more difficult time reading strongly ideological media when it comes to Canadian politics. I should rephrase that – I can read columns that take an ideological position different from mine, but I have a hard time wading through reader comments – probably because it pains me to see so many people strongly agreeing with views that don’t sit well with my own. But at least I admit my own biases exist. This is much less of an issue for me when it comes to UK politics, because, as I’ve said, there isn’t the same level of personal investment/importance, because none of the government’s decisions impact me.

That said, I am noticing that I seem to be wavering on this front somewhat. I’m finding it increasingly difficult to read comments in the Guardian and New Statesman, for example, because so many of them seem to be to be gross knee-jerk reactions, particularly against the Lib Dems and Nick Clegg. A lot of of the comments at ConservativeHome actually scare me because the posters are so right-wing and conservative, but these are still easier for me to read because their attacks are usually aimed at the Conservative Party leadership for not being Tory-enough. They rarely aim any criticism at the Lib Dems, accepting the coalition as a necessary inconvenience.

I frequently find myself wanting to post on the Guardian comments a suggestion that people read comments on ConservativeHome and vice versa. I still think it’s largely beneficial to expose oneself to as many viewpoints as possible, even if some of them make your blood boil.

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Rethinking political labels

Recently, on ConservativeHome, Tim Montgomerie blogged asking “What is Right-Wing?” Montgomerie admits to being less than satisfied with most of the definitions found online, and invited others to proffer their own definitions of what constituted being “right-wing”.

I found this post and the comments made by readers interesting because I too have been struggling with definitions of late. It isn’t simply the definition of “right-wing” that troubles me; I am finding most political labels to be inaccurate, at times meaningless and frequently misused by others. “Right-wing”, “left-wing”, “progressive”, “liberal”, “conservative”, etc., all face the same problem: there is little agreement on what they mean.

The biggest problem for me is that most people tend to lump economic philosophy and positions on various social issues into one box. This means that for many, perhaps even most, “right-wing” means someone who economically is largely pro-free market, cuts taxes, slashes spending, etc., and at the same time takes what most would probably define as “conservative” positions on various issues, i.e. anti-gay marriage, anti-abortion, might not believe in climate change or at least opposes things like a carbon tax, anti-drug decriminalization, “tough on crime”, etc. Of course the opposite of that is the “left-wing” position which economically would favour more government intervention and control, and would take what are generally considered “progressive” or “liberal” stances on the above issues: pro-gay rights, pro-freedom of choice, pro-strong environmental protection measures, etc.

However, while I don’t doubt for a minute that there are individuals, perhaps even quite a few, who do fall quite nicely into those boxes, be it the one on the left or the one on the right, most people’s political and economic views are more complex than that. They might straddle both boxes; after all, it is possible to have a very “progressive” stance on social issues, but at same time, be very fiscally conservative, for example.

I prefer the approach that The Political Compass uses. “Right” and “left” apply to one’s economic position. The more right-wing one is, the more one favours the free-market and laissez-faire capitalism, while the more to the left one is, the more they favour government control of the economy. Someone in the centre recognizes the value of both – and seeks to balance them: free-market yes, but with rules in place.

The right and left labels, however, do not work when it comes to the social dimension of politics. Issues such as the environment, human rights, law and order, etc., are not ideological. They are not “right-wing” issues or “left-wing” issues, nor or they conservative or progressive. It is how people attempt to deal with these issues that we must measure. What the political compass test does is measure where people stand on a Authoritarian-Libertarian axis. To quote from the Political Compass website:

Both an economic dimension and a social dimension are important factors for a proper political analysis. By adding the social dimension you can show that Stalin was an authoritarian leftist (ie the state is more important than the individual) and that Gandhi, believing in the supreme value of each individual, is a liberal leftist. While the former involves state-imposed arbitrary collectivism in the extreme top left, on the extreme bottom left is voluntary collectivism at regional level, with no state involved. Hundreds of such anarchist communities existed in Spain during the civil war period

You can also put Pinochet, who was prepared to sanction mass killing for the sake of the free market, on the far right as well as in a hardcore authoritarian position. On the non-socialist side you can distinguish someone like Milton Friedman, who is anti-state for fiscal rather than social reasons, from Hitler, who wanted to make the state stronger, even if he wiped out half of humanity in the process.

The chart also makes clear that, despite popular perceptions, the opposite of fascism is not communism but anarchism (i.e. liberal socialism), and that the opposite of communism ( i.e. an entirely state-planned economy) is neo-liberalism (i.e. extreme deregulated economy).

In other words, the more one seeks to control individuals, the more authoritarian they are, while someone who prefers the government keep their nose out of our daily life is more libertarian. Supporting the so-called “War on Drugs” would be an example of an authoritarian position, while favouring decriminalization or even legalization of some or all illicit drugs would be more libertarian position.

What does all of this mean for me as a blogger?

For me personally, it means I get very frustrated with how some refer to certain politicians, governments and policies. For example, I frequently encounter comments on various UK media sites which refer to the Liberal Democrats as a “left-wing” party. This is usually from people who voted for them because they didn’t like Labour, but disliked the Conservatives even more, and are shocked that the Lib Dems ended up in a coalition with the Tories, a “right-wing” party.

However, according to Political Compass, the Lib Dems are not a left-wing party. They are to the right of centre when it comes to economic policy, but not as  strongly in favour of free market liberalism as are the Conservatives (or Labour for that matter). However, when one looks at the Lib Dems stand on various social issues, they are far more libertarian than either the Conservatives or Labour, which is perhaps why they are considered a left-wing party by many – because many equate such positions as being left-wing, rather than libertarian vs authoritarian.

The UK Conservatives are far more right-wing than the Lib Dems on the economic scale, which is what the whole right/left thing is – economic policy. They are also more authoritarian than the Lib Dems, but not as authoritarian as Labour (all of this according to Political Compass). Labour, meanwhile, is slightly more right-wing than the Lib Dems, and the most authoritarian party of the three main ones. Thus the Lib Dems are the most “left-wing” of the three parties when it comes to economic policy, yet they are still indisputably right of centre. They are also the most libertarian of the three parties. But they are not a left-wing party.

I think the question Tim Montgomerie asks – “What is Right-Wing?” is the wrong question. I think what he is trying to define is “What does it mean to be a [UK] Conservative?” It is very clear to me what being right-wing means – it is someone, or a party, that favours a free-market approach to the economy. Of course, there are varying degrees of support for that approach, but in general, someone on the right will seek to minimize government interference in the economy, and will favour deficit and debt reduction, lower taxes and other related measures.

But such an approach isn’t limited to Conservatives, or even conservatives. Economic policy alone isn’t sufficient to define one as a conservative. It is the social dimension that would be a more important consideration.

The UK Conservative party is a big tent party, meaning it attracts a variety of people with differing positions on various issues. This isn’t unique to the Conservatives, of course. The same is true for Labour and the Lib Dems, as well as the Liberals and Conservatives in Canada, and the Democrats and Republicans in the US (and probably many other parties in many other countries, but I will limit myself to those with which I have more than a passing familiarity). Among the supporters of those parties, one will find a wide range of positions on various issues. In the case of the UK Conservatives, you will find some who are quite libertarian in their stand on issues such as gay rights, climate change, etc., while other members and supporters will have much more authoritarian views. Yet, there must be some common values or beliefs that bring people with such different views together, and that is what Montgomerie should be trying to identify: what beliefs in other areas define a big- or small-c conservative. That might prove to be more difficult.

The point of this post is not to try to answer that question for him. Rather, I am trying to point out the inadequacy of the political labels we tend to use. Everyone has their own interpretation of what they mean by terms such as “right-” or “left-wing”, and this can cause much confusion. So let me explain how I will be using such terms on this blog.

If I describe something as being to the “right” or “left” (or centrist, for that matter), this will be in reference to that person’s or that party’s economic policy only. This will not be a comment on their stance on various other issues. As much as possible, I will avoid using terms such as “liberal”, “conservative” and especially, “progressive”, simply because I know that my own personal definition/understanding of how I use those words won’t be the same as those of my readers, and this will create confusion. For example, I don’t have any problems calling David Cameron “progressive”, but I know a lot of self-defined “progressives” would object very strongly to the idea of Cameron being one. If I need to refer to how someone or a party positions themselves when it comes to a particular issue (other than economic issues), I will use the libertarian-authoritarian scale. If I do feel a need to use labels such as “conservative” or “liberal”, etc., I shall attempt to define how I am using those terms. That way, even if a reader disagrees with my use of such a term, they will (hopefully) understand how and why I am using it in that way.

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Progressively confusing

I used to have a blog called Vues d’ici, in which I mostly blogged about various aspects of Canadian politics.

A few posts were different, addressing matters not specifically related to Canadian politics. I was reminded of one of them recently after reading an opinion piece by Tony Wright the Guardian entitled “We can’t all be progressives“. In his article, Wright, a former Labour MP, writes:

“So now we have progressive Conservatism implementing a programme of “progressive” cuts, adhering to what George Osborne christened a “progressive budget”, with the Liberal Democrats as progressive partners. If everyone is now a progressive, either the term has to be dumped or a serious attempt has to be made to give it some meaning.”

The reason why this piece reminded me my old blog is because I once wrote a post questioning the assumption that “progressive” was synonymous with “left-wing”. Contrary to what Mr. Wright says above, I would argue that “progressive” already has a well-defined meaning. A quick scan of various online dictionaries reveals that they are all rather unanimous in how they define progressive when used in the political sense. Here are just a few examples.

From Dictionary.com:

1. 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.
2. making progress toward better conditions; employing or advocating more enlightened or liberal ideas, new or experimental methods, etc.: a progressive community.

From theFreeDictionary.com:

1.  Moving forward; advancing.
2. Proceeding in steps; continuing steadily by increments: progressive change.
3. Promoting or favoring progress toward better conditions or new policies, ideas, or methods: a progressive politician; progressive business leadership.

From eHow.com:

Definition of Progressive Politics (in the US sense)

Progressives’ main objective is to change the status quo. If the country is isolationist, they are expansionists; if the country’s economy is industrial, they favor a return to agrarianism. They favor small government in a time of big government programs and government intervention in big money-markets. They are not revolutionaries because they believe in American democracy and the responsibility of government to address the needs of its citizens.

Progressive politics is not Democratic—or Republican. It adapts with each election and change in the domestic economic landscape and world circumstances. Progressives favor more change than Republicans or Democrats but are more conservative in outlook than populists.

The value of progressivism in American politics may be its ability to open up new ways of thinking about old problems.

Nowhere does it say that a progressive has to be left-wing (unless one interprets “liberal” as meaning left-leaning). Progressiveness simply means you favour change, reform, doing things differently. It doesn’t say you have to change things to make them fit with a more socialist approach, or that the reforms proposed have to be of the left-wing variety. One simply has to challenge the status quo. It’s natural that a former Labourite such as Mr. Wright will disagree with some of the changes and reforms the UK Conservative-Lib Dem coalition is introducing, but that doesn’t mean that some of their changes aren’t progressive if they indeed mark a departure from how things are currently done. They can still be progressive policies, simply not left-wing policies.

Progressives can be leftists, certainly. But they can also be centrists, or right of centre. No particular political ideology has a monopoly on wanting to improve or reform how government operates. People on the left with disagree with reforms introduced by those on the right or centrists, just as those on the right won’t like the changes introduced by a more left-wing government. But if “progressive” means open to change, reform, doing things differently, not preserving the status quo, then quite a few of the measures proposed by the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition are indeed progressive.

For example, yesterday, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg officially launched the Your Freedom website, on which people can suggest laws they’d like to see repealed, laws that make people “feel under threat” and “serve no real purpose”, and will also be able to propose ways to reduce bureaucracy. The government isn’t beholden to actually repealing the laws proposed, but the government insists they will all be considered. This certainly strikes me as a new way of doing things, and should lead to some reforms and changes. People may not agree with which laws get repealed – right now one of the most popular suggestions calls for repealing various drug laws, particularly those affecting the use of cannabis, and it is doubtful the government will move in that direction, but that doesn’t mean this isn’t a progressive initiative. Tied in with this program, Clegg stated in an interview with the BBC (viewable here at time of writing) that they were also starting a new process by which when a minister proposed a new regulation, he or she had to repeal an existing one at the same time – a “one in one out” rule.

The real issue here is that “progressive” has become confusing. As stated above, I disagree with Wright that the term has to be dumped or more clearly defined. I believe the definition is quite clear. The problem is that at some point, progressive became synonymous with “left wing”, and so only the policy changes introduced by leftist parties could be rightly considered “progressive”. No one would dare call anything Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives did “progressive”, yet her government certainly transformed the United Kingdom. People on the left deplore her reforms and the changes she introduced, but no one can argue that she didn’t introduce reforms and new ways of doing things. Thus the problem of attributing an ideological stance to “progressive”: when centrist or even right of centre parties use the term, as does the coalition government in the UK, people on the left say the term has been “hijacked”, and dismiss it as meaningless (as per the first part of this podcast).

People will always disagree over what constitutes progress, or what is a progressive idea or policy. Or even when there is agreement that a certain goal is progressive – such as furthering individual freedom, the different ways of achieving this will be considered progressive by some, but not by others, depending on their ideological beliefs. But in the end, if a policy does move something forward, in some way, that is progress, and therefore, progressive.

Of course, I doubt there will be much agreement on what constitutes “moving something forward” either…

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Political Realignment

This post comes with a huge caveat: I am not an expert on UK politics. I do have a general sense of the parties, but I don’t follow goings-on in the United Kingdom very closely. Or rather, I haven’t until this most recent election. Consequently, some of what I say here may be very simplistic – if not simply wrong – and if anyone who is better versed in UK politics wishes to correct some aspect of this post, I would welcome that.

I have been reading, repeatedly, in recent columns and op-ed pieces in the UK papers, that with this coalition of the Conservative and Liberal Democratic parties, we may be witnessing something greater than a pragmatic arrangement between two parties to hopefully provide stable government. Rather, what may be afoot is a radical realignment of  politics in the UK.

As most know, there are three main parties in the United Kingdom: Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats (Lib Dems).  Labour used to be a very left wing party, with strong union ties. That changed in the 1990s, when Labour became “New Labour”. Under Tony Blair’s leadership, the party’s constitution was overhauled, including the dropping of Clause 4, which committed the party to nationalising pretty much everything. You can see on this chart prepared by Political Compass how far Labour has moved politically since 1972 (scroll down the page – it’s the second chart below the one showing the parties’ positions in 2010).

In that same period of time, the Conservatives have also moved – becoming more authoritarian and more right-wing economically-speaking, while the party that has perhaps remained the most consistent over the years is the Lib Dems.

From what I understand, Conservative leader and now Prime Minister David Cameron isn’t as conservative as the bulk of his party. He’s apparently even said that he’s happier to be ruling in coalition with the Lib Dems than he would have been leading a Conservative government with a small majority (from a Guardian column – I’ve not found the actual quote anywhere). Several reports have commented on how Cameron never seemed entirely at ease with some of his parties policies, and these were the ones that were dropped (apparently quite quickly) during negotiations with the Lib Dems. Cameron has also quickly shut down the 1922 Committee. This is a committee of Tory backbenchers (formed in 1923 after the 1922 election) and provides a way for Conservative backbenchers to determine their views independently of frontbenchers. On 19 May 2010, Cameron suggested altering the 1922 Committee to include ministers in the decision-making process, angering some backbench MPs. On 20 May 2010, the party voted to approve the change, with 168 votes in favour and 118 against. Most backbench party members were have said to have criticised the move and voted against it. (Edit: Cameron has backed down from insisting ministers help choose the chair of the commitee.)

Meanwhile, perhaps Nick Clegg, leader of the Lib Dems, isn’t as “left-wing” as he’s been portrayed. It’s important to remember that the Lib Dems were formed in 1988 out of the merger of the Liberal Party and the Social Democratic Party. The SDP itself was formed by former Labourites who felt Labour had become too left-wing. The Lib Dems are certainly the most pro-Europe of the three main parties in the UK, and while Clegg certainly defends that stance as party leader, it would seem that on a personal level, his approach to Europe is more guarded. In 2004, he contributed to The Orange Book, a collection of essays which stimulated the realignment of the Lib Dems. Clegg’s essay argued for a repatriation of powers from Brussels, which was one of the demands of the Tory right for the Cameron government, and one that has been included (albeit somewhat watered down) in the new coalition’s agreement. This essay from The Independent explores in detail the many areas where Cameron and Clegg would be in agreement – while their parties perhaps less so.

There is already a degree of anger among the Conservative backbenches over some of the initiatives of the Coalition government. I’ve not read as much about the general sentiment among Lib Dems supporters and backbenchers, but some party officials have resigned, and former leader Charles Kennedy spoke out publicly against the coalition with the Conservatives.

Meanwhile, Labour itself may be going through some convulsions in coming months. A leadership race is on to replace Gordon Brown. The left-wing of the party may seek to reassert itself. I don’t know enough about the Labour candidates to comment on where they might take the party, should they win the leadership race, but there is, I’m led to believe, tensions between “New” and old Labour.

The picture that is emerging, to me at least, are a series of possible political realignments and potential party splits. There does seem to be a section of the Conservative party – led by David Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne, that is decidedly less radically conservative (in the Thatcher sense) than are quite a few (most?) of the backbenchers, and party supporters. They are more centrist, more progressive, probably more closely aligned to the Liberal part of the Lib Dem party. From what I understand, Cameron had worked hard since becoming leader to move the party more towards the centre, and the coalition probably presents him with a great opportunity to continue in that direction.

I don’t know enough about Lib Dem internal politics (admittedly, I know nothing about that) to say if there are actually any real tensions between the Liberal and SDP wings of the party. The so-called Orange wing (led by Clegg and David Laws) would seem to be closer to Cameron’s vision of what the Tories should be; however, I don’t know if the SDP faction would be more comfortable with New Labour (given that they felt old Labour was too left-wing).

Ideally, it might make more sense for Labour to split into two – a very left-wing, Old Labour branch, and a more moderate, social democratic branch (New Labour but a bit left of centre and less authoritarian), which the SPD wing of the Lib Dems could rejoin. That would leave the Liberal wing of the Lib Dems free to merge with Cameron’s “Liberal Conservatives” (he’s described himself as such), while the old guard, Thatcherite wing of the COnservatives could go off alone or merge with UKIP (which I take it are mostly Conservatives who really, really hate anything Euro-related).

Of course, such party splits and mergers are unlikely to happen since it would make it more difficult for any party to win a majority in a future election. Better to hold one’s nose and remain a big tent party. Blame First-Past-the-Post for that. I think if the UK adopted a proper form of proportional representation (i.e. anything except the Alternate Vote), you would see these divisions and political realignments happen, because coalitions would be the norm and would demand it.

Further reading:

David Cameron already has coalition trouble – with his own party
Yes we’ve ditched some policies, but I’m still a Tory PM
Easy to see why Cameron prefers his new friend to his old ones
Why I couldn’t support Clegg’s deal with the Tories
‘Conned” grassroots Lib Dems rebel over Tory coalition

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