3. Progressive

When did everyone become a progressive? When did progressive become a noun? If you think this election is going to be characterised by battles over public spending, you are wrong. It is about who is actually a progressive - forward-looking, liberal, reformist. But surely they can't all be one?

Gordon Brown: "Let us be . . . proud to be progressives."
Nick Clegg: "Those orphaned by Labour's failures will find a better progressive home in Liberal values."
David Cameron: "We are the true progressives now."
George Osborne: "The torch of progressive politics has been passed to a new generation of politicians . . . Conservatives."

It's so confusing! You can hardly move for politicians positing themselves as progressives. It's as if they're breeding. And look how they shape "progressive" in their rhetoric. Clegg turns it into a home, cosy and safe. Osborne holds it aloft as a torch - like an Olympian, or an old man scrabbling for his keys in the dark. Elsewhere Brown describes the "global progressive family". It's like a group hug.

But it's hard to know what a word means any more when so many different people, who supposedly believe and espouse such different things, lay claim to it. You'd think one of them would catch on and come up with something different. You know: "Progressive? Not likely. Go to the Lib Dems if you want progress. We in the Conservative Party are the New Regressives - taking you backwards faster and further than ever before."

And then there's Glenn Beck, he of Fox News and infinitely reasonable views: "Progressivism is the cancer in America and it is eating our constitution."

What? A minute ago progressives were families and homes and torches. And now they're a monstrous disease with the ability to eat a crucial historical document.

You can't keep hold of the thing. It's the conger eel of words, co-opted in the name of good and evil and anything in between. Poor old progress. It probably just wanted a quiet life, plodding gently forward.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 29 March 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Hold on tight!