The new ‘progressive’ conservatism is a threat to the centre-left

Across Europe, the dramatic shift of political strategy is still poorly understood by progressives.

With major elections imminent in Germany and Norway, it is clear that centre-right politics in much of Europe is shifting dramatically – and the left has a long way to go in understanding what this means. This so-called ‘progressive conservatism’ eschews 1980s-style neo-liberal economics, but betrays renewed hostility towards centralised state bureaucracy. More significantly, ‘compassionate conservatism’ openly embraces the social freedoms of the post-‘68 generation, enabling Conservative parties to compete for votes in the centre. It is putting centre-right parties, notably Angela Merkel’s CDU in Germany and the Norwegian Conservative’s Erna Solberg, on the cusp of election victory.

The dramatic shift of political strategy is still poorly understood on the left. Merkel’s opponent, the SPD leader Peer Steinbruck, has been reduced to arguing that the CDU’s policies have been stolen – hardly a convincing prospectus for office. The more conventional tactic is to insist that centre-right is a ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’ – adopting an apparently moderate rhetoric which conceals neo-liberal policies intent on shrinking the size of the state, defending traditional conservative interests among the wealthy, financiers, and the establishment. This may have more than a grain of truth: Conservatives (notably Angela Merkel) have espoused a form of post-crisis austerity which has revived the dubious science of ‘monetarist economics’. Making swift and large-scale public expenditure cuts in the name of budgetary consolidation is a risky step in the face of an on-going contraction in global demand, whatever the tentative signs of eurozone recovery.

Nonetheless, social democrats need to be wary of glibly dismissing the new model of centre-right politics as 1980s-style Thatcherite individualism. After the Conservative Party’s historic victory in 1979, the British left failed to appreciate its radical potential: the capacity of Thatcherism to project itself as being on the side of major changes that were sweeping through the world economy, and the popular recognition of a new settlement between labour and capital to halt Britain’s relative economic decline.

So today, centre-right parties are rediscovering their winning ways by aggressively tacking towards the centre-ground. The German CDU's Angela Merkel has long been willing to lean towards the left, having governed throughout her first term in coalition with the SPD. The financial crisis has reinforced the determination of Germany’s politicians to demarcate the German model from the worst excesses of Anglo-American capitalism and neo-liberal globalisation. The German Chancellor appears determined to outflank her social democratic opponents from the left. The CDU programme includes a federal minimum wage, government action to curb rising rents in the housing sector, and legislation for gay marriage. Merkel’s policy to bailout Greece and frequent calls for European solidarity have been supported by the SPD, which can hardly better her pro-European stance.

Similarly, the Norwegian centre-right (where elections take place next Monday) declare their open support for trade unions, and their intention not to interfere with existing labour market regulations covering sick-leave and laws governing temporary workers. Sten Inge Jorgensen, a journalist at Morgenbladt attests: ‘The success of the Conservative party is the fruits of a long and carefully planned strategy to become a people’s party’. Against the discernible shift to the centre and new rhetorical appeal, the Norwegian social democrat’s pledge of ‘safe governance’ hardly inspires confidence.

Throughout Europe, progressive conservatism has varied forms according to divergent political traditions, electoral imperatives, and social conditions. The unifying ideological rationale, nonetheless, is the willingness to modify the commitment to liberal individualism which became the dominant strand of Conservative thought in the 1980s; and to combine it with renewed scepticism about the role of the centralised state, and the efficiency and efficacy of the public sector. This ‘progressive’ Conservative agenda has four pillars:

First, establish dominance on the economy: Conservatives have fought hard to seize the mantle of economic competence, portraying social democrats as 'deficit deniers' incapable of remedying the fall-out of the financial crash. Centre-left parties have appeared complacent about the scale of public debt, apparently unwilling to make ‘tough choices’ about the balance of tax rises and spending cuts required to steer a sustainable fiscal path. The centre-right has succeeded in redefining the narrative of the crisis as one of ‘public indebtedness’, rather than ‘market fallibility’. No party in the industrialised world will remain a serious contender for office unless it is a trusted economic manager.

Second, redefine the centre-ground: ‘progressive’ Conservatives combine scepticism about the public sector with a renewed commitment to the values of community and the public good. In Norway and Germany, the centre-right is seizing the mantle of progressive reform. They espouse a commitment to include the poorest and most vulnerable, creating a new role for charities and the third sector. At the same time, centre-right politicians tread carefully in reforming entitlements such as healthcare, pensions and social insurance, appealing directly to voters unwilling to rely on privatised provision.

Third, renew ‘traditional values’ in a modern society: another characteristic of the Conservative appeal is a desire to stand up for the virtues of belonging, morality, and family without alienating younger, prosperous and educated voters. This means reinforcing traditional ways of life, protecting communities from the impersonal forces of modernity and social change. The centre-right has learnt to do so in a way that assiduously avoids cultural conflict relating to the role of women (as Merkel offers a 100 Euro allowance for stay-at-home mothers), recognising individual rights to non-discrimination and equal treatment among minorities. The traditional affiliation with social democratic parties is being broken.

Finally, strike a pragmatic posture internationally: Conservative parties have largely discarded their nationalist and protectionist instincts in favour of selective international co-operation in the European Union and within global institutions. As a result, centre-right Conservative parties in Europe are more electable than in the past, reaching out to lower and middle-income groups while governing through competence and fitness to rule, rather than ideological dogma. This represents a recovery of the core Conservative tradition which influenced centre-right parties in Europe during the 1950s and 1960s, embodied in the Christian Democracy of Adenauer, and the ‘One Nation’ Conservatism of MacMillan and Butler.

Of course, it would be wholly wrong to conclude that the ‘progressive’ Conservative agenda has few contradictions. Immigration, for example, remains a major fault-line within the centre-right, which is increasingly forced to choose between ‘traditional working-class’ voters who are defecting to far right parties, and liberal metropolitan voters who have largely embraced cosmopolitanism and globalisation. This is the choice that awaits David Cameron: his flirtation with Lynton Crosby’s ‘wedge’ politics may appeal to wavering UKIP supporters, but risks reviving memories of the Conservatives as ‘the nasty party’. There can be little doubt, however, that the new politics of ‘progressive’ Conservatism represents a potent challenge to centre-left politics.

Patrick Diamond is Vice-Chair of Policy Network and co-editor of “Progressive Politics after the Crash: Governing from the Left”

Angela Merkel is among the proponents of the dubious science of ‘monetarist economics’. Photo: Getty
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When Theresa May speaks, why don’t we listen?

Not many Prime Ministers have to repeat themselves three times. 

Theresa May is the candidate of Brexit and market panic. She ascended to the highest office because, in the fraught weeks after Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, she represented a safe haven for nervous Conservative MPs, the dependable family mutual that remained open while all along the Conservative high street, her rivals were shutting up shop.

Her popularity, as revealed in high poll ratings outside Westminster, too, owes itself to the perception that she is a serious politician in serious times, happily installed atop the ship of state to guide it through the rocky waters of Brexit negotiations.

May’s premiership has been defined by market panics of a different kind, however. The first is in the currency markets, where sterling takes a tumble whenever she pronounces on Britain’s future relationship with the European Union, falling both after her conference speech on 2 October and after her start-of-the-year interview with Sophy Ridge on 8 January. The second is in the opinion pages, where May’s stock oscillates wildly from bullish to bearish.

In the first months of May’s government, she was hailed as an Anglo-Saxon counterpart to Angela Merkel: a solid centre-right Christian democrat who would usher in a decade of conservative hegemony. More recently, she has been compared to Gordon Brown because of her perceived indecisiveness and repeatedly accused of failing to spell out what, exactly, her government’s Brexit objectives are.

In a symbol of the splits on the right between the Brexiteers and Remainers, the Economist, that bible of free-market globalisation and usually a reliable tastemaker as far as Westminster groupthink is concerned, began 2017 by dubbing the Prime Minister “Theresa Maybe”. Though May’s Downing Street is less concerned with the minutiae of what goes on in the public press than David Cameron’s, the contention that she is indecisive was a source of frustration.

There is an element of truth in the claim that May still views the world through a “Home Office lens”. One senior minister complains that Downing Street considers the Ministry of Justice as a “rogue outpost” of May’s old stomping ground, rather than a fully fledged department with its own interests and perspectives.

Yet even the most authoritarian of home secretaries would struggle to secure a conviction against May on the charge of opacity as far as her Brexit approach is concerned. She has hit the same grace notes with the reliability of a professional musician: Brexit means freedom from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and control over Britain’s borders, two objectives that can only be achieved as a result of Britain’s exit not only from the EU but also the single market. This was confirmed on 17 January in the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech in London.

David Cameron used to say that he would never have “a people”. Certainly, there is no Cameroon tendency in the country at large to match the generation of council house residents that became homeowners and lifelong Conservatives because of Margaret Thatcher and Right to Buy. However, there is, unquestionably, a Cameroon people or faction to be found at almost every rung of London’s financial services sector or at editorial meetings of the Economist, though it as at the Times and the Sun where the treatment of May is at its most noticably rougher than in the Cameron era. 

Michael Gove, her old rival, is not only employed as a columnist by the Times; he enjoys the confidence and admiration of Rupert Murdoch. That the Times secured the first British interview with Donald Trump was a coup for Murdoch, an old associate of the president-elect, and for Gove, who conducted it. It left May in the unlovely position of making history as the first prime minister to be scooped to a first meeting with a new American president by a sitting MP in modern times. It also attested to a source of frustration among May’s allies that she is, for all her undoubted popularity, still ignored or doubted by much of the right-wing establishment.

That condescension partly explains why her words are often listened to briefly, acted on hastily and swiftly forgotten, hence the pound’s cycle of falling when she makes an intervention on Brexit and rising shortly thereafter. The Lancaster House speech was designed to break this pattern. Downing Street briefed the most potent paragraphs at the weekend so that the markets could absorb what she would say before she said it.

As a result, the pound rallied as May delivered her speech, which contained a commitment to a transitional deal that would come into effect after Britain has left the EU. Some financiers believe this arrangement could become permanent, which once again demonstrates how much they underestimate May’s ability to enforce her will.

Being underestimated by Cameron’s people, in Westminster and the City, has the unintended effect of shoring up Theresa May’s position. A prolonged and sustained bout of panic would increase the pressure for a soft landing, but its absence makes it harder for Labour to oppose her effectively, although it has largely acquiesced to the Tory plan for Brexit, at least as far as membership of the single market is concerned. 

Yet for all the plaudits that the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech attracted, for all her undoubted popularity in the country, she is in the anomalous position of being a Conservative Prime Minister who has priorities on the European stage other than the preservation of the City of London and to whom Rupert Murdoch is not a natural ally.

As such, she may find that her deadlier enemies come from the right.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.