Progress is not just about reform – it’s about social justice

August 12, 2009 1:08 pm

Osborne DemosThe Labour movement column

By Anthony Painter / @anthonypainter

“The torch of progressive politics has been passed to a new generation of politicians – and those politicians are Conservatives.”

Yes, you read that right. It was the opening salvo in George Osborne’s speech on progressive conservatism to Demos yesterday. It’s a matter of personal taste but the word ‘progressive’ – ill-defined and often value neutral – was always a hostage to fortune. Well, now the Conservatives have taken it hostage.

Who on earth would have believed that a frontline Conservative would ever extol the virtues of progressivism? Not only that, who would have predicted that the Conservatives would not only go toe-to-toe with Labour on progress but would actually make an audacious bid to wrench it from its grasp. But are these Conservatives really ‘progressive’?

The striking aspect to the George Osborne speech was that he placed Cameron-esque progressivism in a Conservative historical tradition. I’ll give him Baldwin, Butler, Shaftesbury and even Disraeli. Strangely, he omitted Peel who would have been first on my list and the inclusion of Margaret Thatcher in the list stretched credulity beyond breaking point.

He also outlined a global context to his brand of progressivism. Pointing to Sweden’s independent schools, America’s charter schools, and education reform in Australia and New Zealand, he placed Conservative proposals firmly in the reformist camp. But ultimately, that’s what it seems that he is arguing for: reformism rather than progressivism.

For Osborne’s concerns seem very much focused on finding different ways to improve public sector efficiency rather than drive an agenda built on values: equality, capability, and opportunity. Some of the ideas may well be interesting in an era of tight public spending growth or even cuts. But if ‘progressive’ is to mean anything, it is not just reform. It has to be about social justice too. Of that, we heard almost nothing from George Osborne.

And herein lies one of the difficulties for conservative progressivism. When David Cameron uses the construction ‘progressive ends, conservative means’ he is suffocating ‘progress’ at birth. For once you start to pre-judge the means, the ends become further from reach.

If we say that it is right to prioritise the improvement of education for all then that poses a question. There has to be pragmatic search for the best way of achieving that. It could constitute a whole variety of reforms and approaches. But once you say the means have to be one approach or another then you lose sight of the ends. That is why conservative progressivism – if it is to be more than the reformism proposed by George Osborne – will inevitably fail. You will have the conservative means but not the progressive ends.

But the left is just as guilty of this. Earlier this week, John Harris, in a breathtakingly divisive article where those he agrees with were celebrated while the motives of those he did not were impugned, stated:

“Labour is either the party of equality and the restriction of the market or there is no point in existence.”

Really? The left exists almost solely to restrict the market? Again, we are going back to old bad habits where we confuse means and ends – just as the Conservatives are doing. And some of us thought that had been ditched along with the old Clause IV. New Labour’s shortcomings are palpable and it is not the right solution for these times. But the notion that there are no market-based solutions that can advance progressive or social democratic ends is crazy.

Sticking with education, surely the aim is to create a system where there is equality of access to very best education that can offered? This may sound idealistic but why not?

Now let’s take what is happening in some of the poorest schooling districts in the United States under the charter school initiative. Schools in Watts district of Los Angeles – site of the famous race riots in 1965 – have been taken over by an organisation called Green Dot. Its agenda is simple:

“First, we create and operate high-achieving public schools where nearly all students graduate and go on to college. Second, we help parents throughout the city organize to strengthen their neighborhood schools. Finally, we push the Los Angeles Unified School District to move boldly to improve the city’s public schools.”

The results? 81% graduation rates compared with an LA average of 47%. California Department of Education calculates an Academic Performance Indicator for schools and school districts. Green Dot schools get 704. LA as a whole gets 593. All this has been achieved in partnership with trade unions and local communities. Access to the schools is via a lottery.

Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone is more sceptical of partnerships with trade unions. Nonetheless, its success has been just as astounding in a very poor part of New York. The market, non-public sector is delivering for the least advantaged children in America. Are we meant to ignore that fact just because the left is meant to be about ‘restricting the market’? What’s worse is that anyone proposing anything resembling the market or non-public means is instantly de-legitimised as being a New Labour throwback. It’s stultifying and energy sapping.

The Conservatives are blind to the benefits and importance of high quality, committed public sector delivery. Elements of the left are blinding themselves to the major benefits that the private and voluntary sectors can offer. To secure the ends of social justice, there needs to be pragmatic open-mindedness towards the means.

The post-credit crunch Labour party will face a formidable challenge in a Conservative party that is willing to steal its language and clothes. It would be easy to react to this by vacating the contested terrain. That would also be a disaster: politically and practically but they are not the most important considerations. It would be a disaster for the party’s ability to fulfil its mission. It could hinder the creation of a Britain that is more equal, with more opportunity and achievement, and so more socially just. If we fail in that then what is the Labour party for?

Photo: bowbrick, Flickr

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