Politics is about actions and about ends – not one or the other in isolation. In his thought-provoking recebt piece for ConservativeHome, Michael Merrick questioned the role for progressivism in the Conservative Party. He argued that ‘if all parties essentially agree on their vision of the ideal ends for society, then what makes the Conservative Party so different?’ and went on to argue that it is not enough to simply differ on the means for delivering a commonly held goal – that conservatism should defend different goals to the Left entirely.
To some extent we agree with Michael Merrick’s argument. We do differ on the ends we are pursuing to the Left. It is true that conservatives have a different view of the ‘good life’; that we cling to principles that the Left has abandoned; and decry values that they hold dear. However, being a progressive does not undermine one’s conservatism – rather, it enhances it.
The Progressive Conservative Project at Demos is committed to developing bold, practical policies that are both strongly progressive and deeply conservative. Yes, as Merrick suggests, part of what sets us apart from Labour is means – the ‘how’, not ‘what’. Conservatives understand the limitations of government and trust the vitality of the private and third sector. We prioritise individual freedom and choice. We distrust radical change for change’s sake – in doing so we acknowledge the role of civil society in shaping the ‘good life’ for the many.
But more than that, the distinction between how and what is arbitrary. Means often are ends. Take Michael Gove’s exciting education policies for example. Certainly, they aim for a progressive outcome: a good and free education for all; and it is an outcome Ed Balls claims to share too. But that does not mean that the policies are vapid, or cannot be uniquely conservative; nor that the means chosen – Swedish schools – are just a bland technocratic lever. In fact, the means chosen will themselves have a positive outcome: getting parents involved in shaping schools will not only drive up standards (the end), but will also create a precious sense of community, activism and power along the way too. So we do not have to fret so much if Labour happens to want to get to the same place by a different route. The argument is not just about efficiency or competence. This policy will deliver progressive ends through conservative means but will change society in a profoundly conservative way as well.
Moreover, the differences between Right and Left don’t end there. On some issues, whilst commonly subscribing to the need for a progressive solution, we have very different visions of what it might look like, and that will result in a different sort of society. When David Cameron launched our project in January, he outlined four key themes of a progressive conservative agenda; a fair society, equality of opportunity, greener politics and a safer society. Few in any party could disagree with the goals, but conservatives have a different ideal in mind when they use these phrases.
For example, The Progressive Conservatism Project’s new report Recapitalising the Poor outlines a conservative approach to ending poverty. It is progressive in seeking to expand opportunity but is also unmistakably conservative in its intention. We argue that ownership is key to understanding poverty, and that more owners means more independent, secure and independent citizens who are able to actively participate in our society. Whilst the Left is handicapped by their obsession with income, it is the Right who are able to build on their history of bold ideas and belief in capitalism to find ways of genuinely enfranchising the masses in our vision of a good and rewarding life. So, whilst we propose an end to the drip-feeding of welfare and the trap of perpetual dependency, the Left chooses to continue to patronize the poor with hand-outs and income supplements. We seek, as progressive conservatives, to address the root causes of social injustice – not simply to ameliorate the effects with compensation. In doing so we aim to create independent and robust families and individuals (a progressive aim) but also to save the exchequer millions and reduce dependency (a conservative aim).
This is not a question of simply dressing up leftist ideas in blue outfits. Few in the Labour party can bring themselves to acknowledge that ownership is an end in its own right.
For conservatives, who passionately argue against the overbearing influence of the state in our lives, it is surely vital to build independence and capacity in communities and families that have been trained to rely of the government for their daily bread. This is an example of how conservatives cannot simply capture the progressive space, but can mould it in their own image. Sometimes a small intervention by the state, well timed and well formulated, can produce a society where state intervention overall is reduced. We know, for example, that early intervention in the lives of children who are at risk of falling behind can improve outcomes for them and reduce the necessity of state involvement in their lives later on. The progressive instinct to intervene creates a conservative society where the need for further intervention is reduced.
Michael Merrick is right to worry that a Conservative Party that abandoned conservative ends would be betraying the cause it claims to serve and setting itself up for a fall when it inevitably fails. But progressivism is not the territory of the Left. It can and should be reclaimed by the Right. We have a vision of the good society, in which people and communities are powerful and independent, too. We care about meritocracy and opportunity as well. Progressivism has, for too long, been monopolised by the Left. Yet for many people running a small charity, trying to start a business, or working for a local authority or in an inner-city school will, Labour isn’t working. It’s time to refashion progressivism in the image of conservatism, both in the aims we seek and in the means we use to achieve them.