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

Comments are closed

Latest

  • Comment Educating Labour: We need a school system that will deliver equity as well as excellence   

    Educating Labour: We need a school system that will deliver equity as well as excellence  

    Should Labour win the next general election its new Education Secretary will inherit a school system that has been subject to significant ‘diversification’ and ‘structural reform’ since 2010. The key question for many Labour members and supporters is should a new Labour government continue with this focus on system-wide reform or put its efforts and resources into teaching and learning programmes that are proven to raise standards? The past 50 years of school reform in England shows us that the […]

    Read more →
  • Comment Reaching new communities

    Reaching new communities

    This article is from Our Labour, Our Communities – a pamphlet of 10 essays by Labour PPCs, published by LabourList in partnership with Lisa Nandy MP. I am proud to be standing as the candidate for my hometown of Hastings & Rye, but I am equally proud to stand as a parliamentary candidate who is also half Chinese and half British. My mother is Chinese Malaysian and came to this country 41 years ago to be a nurse in Hastings and continues to […]

    Read more →
  • Comment Labour could lose out by not making it’s stance on Trident clear

    Labour could lose out by not making it’s stance on Trident clear

    Cutting Trident will be the price of support in a hung parliament. That’s the news reported from a meeting of the SNP, Plaid Cymru and Green leaders this week. With Labour’s slim lead and the SNP and Green vote threatening to impact on its share, this is a serious issue. Labour’s policy clearly states, ‘Labour has said that we are committed to a minimum, credible independent nuclear deterrent, delivered through a Continuous At-Sea Deterrent. It would require a clear body […]

    Read more →
  • Comment Featured Is Cameron “frit” of TV debates? Let’s try the empty chair threat

    Is Cameron “frit” of TV debates? Let’s try the empty chair threat

    Lord Ashcroft has told him he shouldn’t have done it in 2010. Lynton Crosby has told him not to do it in 2015. It’s no surprise that David Cameron is trying to wriggle out of televised leader debates during the General Election – even though he has said he is willing to take part “in principle”. Time perhaps to dust off one of Margaret Thatcher’s favourite barbs “He’s frit.” Neil Kinnock tried it in 1992 to try to goad John Major into […]

    Read more →
  • Comment Flexibility makes for good work, strong families and thriving communities

    Flexibility makes for good work, strong families and thriving communities

    By Stephen Timms MP and Ian Murray MP The Christmas period reminds us that modern life can be busy, hurried and demanding. The pressures of work, demands of family life and hectic Christmas schedules can prove stretching as we juggle competing demands. Increasingly the need for flexible work is driven by the complex shape of people’s lives; as parents go to work, struggle to make ends meet, perform career roles, take their children to school and activities and try and carve […]

    Read more →