NS Essay - After two terms of Labour, the nation still largely thinks Tory

Ministers say they want to bring about a "progressive consensus". Since even the US neo-cons claim t

There has been a coup. The political artists formerly known as "new Labour" have been replaced at the highest echelons of government by a new group: the Progressives. And the leader of the "progressive" vanguard is none other than Gordon Brown - masquerading as the most Labour of the Labourites - who now calls at every opportunity for a "progressive consensus". The phrase featured 13 times in his 2004 conference speech and has recurred in every speech since. In competitive spirit, Alan Milburn, who has usurped Brown as the party's official election chief, managed a dozen mentions in his address to the Fabians last month.

The littering of "progressive" across every article and speech by the government's leading lights may simply mark the latest stage in the contorted attempts to find a label for Labour's philosophy, following on from "socialist", "social-ist", "social democratic" and the "Third Way". Indeed, some see "progressive consensus" as little more than the watery wine of the Third Way rebottled.

Branding yourself as the progressive party may be a smart short-term piece of politics. Few politicians, after all, are willing to describe themselves as "regressives" (even in the Tory party). Labour's latest slogan is "Forward, not back". In a recent interview with the Guardian, Milburn said: "The issue is whether we have a party that is reactionary or progressive, that is committed to fairness or, frankly, to injustice." Leaving aside the accuracy of the claim that the Conservative Party is committed to injustice, the lines are well drawn: Labour equals forward, future, progress; Tory equals back, past, reaction.

Certainly, the commentariat view is that the new emphasis on progressive values, and in particular a progressive consensus, is a purely rhetorical device. But, at least in Brown's mind, there is much more going on. While it may suit Labour to use progressive to sound cuddlier, he has greater ambitions. He wants to win the "hearts and minds" of the nation to create a "new common sense" that would underpin Labour policies and secure them from unpicking by future Conservative governments. This is an ambitious aim. What the serious progressives have recognised is that parliamentary representation, laws and policies are not enough. For Labour to succeed in its objectives it not only has to change people's votes, it has to change their minds. And this might mean a different approach to politics itself.

Historically, the term progres- sive has covered a multitude of approaches. In the US, the label has been used to describe Republicans who agreed with Theodore Roosevelt in finding their party too right-wing and those Democrats who found his cousin FDR too right-wing. There are today six progressives in the House of Representatives of Vermont (where else?).

In the UK, the terrain collectively occupied by the Labour and Liberal parties - in the early 20th century, as partners - has been marked out as progressive territory. Writers such as David Marquand regard the split between the two as the central di-lemma of modern politics.

Yet Labour's enthusiasm for the terminology of progressivism does not herald a more benign view of the Liberal Democrats, and not only because Brown - who knows both his American and British history - is not exactly a leading Lib-Labber. On a range of issues, including identity cards, trial by jury, Iraq and immigration, the gap between the former and putative members of the progressive alliance has rarely been wider.

This is a Labour operation: there is even a pressure group within the party called Progress, which runs a programme of research into the "progressive deficit" in the UK. But the goal of a progressive consensus raises a number of questions. What is the nature of the "progress" to which progressives - as opposed to their opponents - aspire? What constitutes a "consensus" around the values that progressives articulate? How far can politicians, and political institutions, influence the formation of social values?

Unfortunately, the definition of progress embraced by progressives has yet to be spelled out. In a speech to the Compass conference last year, the Chancellor set out his vision of a progressive nation of "ambition and aspiration where there is no barrier to achievement, no cap on talent, no glass ceiling on potential and where the common sense of the age is, indeed, that not just a few but every man and woman has the chance to fulfil their dreams and potential, and that Britain, leading by example, can become the first country of the global age where economic efficiency and justice advance together and where there is liberty, opportunity and security not for some but for all". Somehow motherhood and apple pie got left out.

Without a clear demarcation of the kind of progress sought, the term loses much of its salience. Does progress consist of more prosperity, democracy, equality, mobility, education, wisdom, gentility, technology, cultivation or aesthetic capability? Longer, healthier or fuller lives? Or perhaps, to be safe, a bit of each? Anyone can be progressive, so long as they can define progress on their own terms. Plenty of the Washington neo-cons see themselves as progressive, bringing economic growth by lowering taxes at home, and democracy by levelling cities abroad.

What Donald Rumsfeld and Gordon Brown share is a rational, Enlightenment view that the world can be made better, by their own very different lights. Critics of the very notion of progress, such as the early 20th-century philosopher Michael Oakeshott or his modern-day soulmate, John Gray, would condemn both for presupposing they know what would make the world better. For the anti-progressive Gray - writing on Oakeshott in his Liberalisms - the ideal society is a "civil association . . . among persons who, having no ends or purposes held necessarily in common, nevertheless coexist in peace under the rule of law". The contrasting, progressive view sees society as an "enterprise association" and "the state . . . as an organisation for the attainment of a definite end, or hierarchy of ends". The conservative view of government is based, argues Oakeshott, on "the acceptance of the current condition of human circumstances".

It is easy - too easy - for those on the left to dismiss this thoughtful version of conservatism, older and deeper than Thatcherism. At the most fundamental level, a progressive is someone who refuses to accept the current condition of human circumstances. To be in favour of progress is to be a critic of the present. Change is necessary because of the gap between where we are and where - according to a certain view of the world, and of the good life - we should be. But the new progressives have to work harder at articulating the nature of this gap, and how their view of progress differs from the "progressives" on the right. Reading between Brown's lines, the progressive Labour view looks to be that greater economic prosperity counts as progress only if it goes hand in hand with deeper social justice - for which read less poverty and greater income equality and social mobility. What, though, if we were to have ten years of economic stagnation, while at the same time redistributing income, eradicating poverty and sharing out life chances more evenly? Would this count as progress? Answers on a postcard to The New Progressive Party, 11 Downing Street.

To succeed on Labour's terms, we need a value system which supports not only entrepreneurialism but also the minimum wage; profit-seeking and universal training; acquisitiveness and altruism. There is a long way to go. After two terms of Labour, the nation still largely thinks Tory. Even with the policy frameworks put in place by Labour in a range of areas, the culture and the attitudes of Middle England to redistribution, welfare, poverty and immigration are essentially unchanged. Britain now has much of the hardware of social democracy, but the software of conservatism.

The Labour progressives have recognised the force of the statement by the late New York senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan: "The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself."

Brown, in his Compass speech, set out the challenge of building "a British progressive consensus that is . . . more than a set of policies and programmes pursued by the government alone but is a set of progressive views and values embraced by the people. Winning the battle not just for votes but the battle of ideas, we wish to build for Britain a shared sense of national purpose that is so deeply held that it will become the common sense of the age and will sustain and endure and outlast our generation."

To "lock in" Labour's achievements since 1997, the British people have to come to support the values that underpin them. If this is social engineering, Labour is following the ultimate engineer: Margaret Thatcher. In 1979, she said: "The mission of this government is much more than the promotion of economic progress. It is to renew the spirit and solidarity of the nation . . . we need to inspire a new national mood, as much as to carry through legislation." It is the sort of thing politicians say all the time. But she meant it. And she did it. At the end of her time in office, attitudes towards unions, benefit recipients, business executives, academics, civil servants and taxation had all altered.

Under Labour, support for a tax-funded NHS has risen, and the chances of being able to raise taxes to support higher health spending substantially improved. But attitudes towards poverty (including in the developing world), the environment and wealth have not budged. This will make it politically difficult for Labour to go to the electorate for higher taxes to fulfil its pledge to eradicate child poverty, in the likely event that this becomes necessary. It could be the same story with measures on pollution and congestion - it took "progressive" Ken Livingstone to face that one.

The progressives need first of all to be clear about which values they want to encourage, and then decide how best to inculcate them in the population. The key values underpinning Labour's agenda are that care should be valued more highly than cash; that short-term sacrifices are necessary for long-term gains; that children's needs rank above those of adults; that the state should not only reduce poverty but also restrain inequality; and that public services should be delivered by publicly owned institutions. (Though, come to think of it, there may not be a "progressive consensus" around the last two in the cabinet.)

Some of the new progressives suggest that these values are inherent in British culture, and that Labour simply has to do a better job of connecting them to its own policies.

The Brownite minister Douglas Alexander writes in Progress magazine: "Labour's own internal polling shows we are today a nation whose innate character is progressive and socially democratic, with concerns that speak to fairness, duty, liberty and equality."

On the face of it, this claim is implausible. If it is really the case that Britain is "innately social democratic", then Labour's incompetence throughout most of the 20th century must have been greater than even the harshest critics suggest. Some elements of British culture, such as the insistence on "fair play", might support centre-left policies. But if Brits were really determined to be fair to those who have earned a decent retirement, to meet their duty to grant their elders the greatest freedoms in old age, and reduce inequality, they would be queuing up to pay extra tax to raise the state pension.

Labour has to do more than retro-fit its policies to enduring British values: it has to change them. This is no easy task. It takes time, courage, single-mindedness, clarity and persistence to change minds. Most importantly, it requires a degree of honesty about the choices being confronted.

What tools are at hand? Politicians can use laws, institutions, example and persuasion. Laws can critically symbolise a change in direction: legislation legalising abortion or same-sex unions, or banning smoking or smacking, reflect and reinforce value-change. Laws around social and behavioural issues are the ones that attract most attention, and therefore do the most symbolic work. But the establishment of child trust funds or CO2 emission targets is equally important; the trouble is that Labour treads warily around issues that might rub against the nation's conservative grain.

Another way to shift values is to build institutions. Once an institution is in place, it often becomes hard to contemplate its loss, and those associated with an institution become its advocates and defenders. If an idea can be successfully made into an institution, and then a profession, it will be difficult to dislodge. This explains some of the drive for childcare centres in every town. The policy rationale is shaky, but the advocates of state-supported childcare know that it will be much harder for a future Conservative government to shut these centres than to remove childcare tax credits.

Politicians can also change values and attitudes simply by leading by example. Values are shaped in part by the actions of those in positions of authority. So, to take a random example, if a government is trying to shift attitudes towards family-friendly working, it should ensure that the working practices of its own legislators set a shining example.

Last but not least, politicians can shape and reshape values through persuasion. Even the Harvard Business Review thinks so: "To create a receptive environment, persuasion is the ultimate tool" is the conclusion of a current article.

Building a "progressive consensus" is a uto-pian goal, akin to the hope of the German political philosopher Jurgen Habermas that, through a perfect deliberative democracy, all parties will come to agree. Even ancient Athens never managed that. Pericles always had enemies. But the idea of fighting not only for Labour policies, but also to win the nation over to Labour values, is of incalculable value. It will take, as the new progressives realise, a different kind of politics: more local, more conversational, more diverse, less tribal.

There is therefore a supreme irony that Gordon Brown is the one who is leading the charge for the establishment of a progressive consensus. He is renowned, in his personal political style, for secrecy, didacticism and centralisation. Gordon is not a thousand-flowers-bloom sort of guy: unless, that is, all the planning and planting has been done in accordance with a five-year Floral Departmental Plan. And he has always been more of a policy wonk than a persuader - indeed, his own friends have characterised him as the "Scottish engineer in the bowels of the ship".

The historian Peter Clarke has brilliantly distinguished between the "moral" and "mechanical" reformers of the centre left. So far Brown has excelled as Labour's architect of policy reform - as the Ubermechaniker. He appears, however, to have grasped more securely than his colleagues the accompanying need for reform of social values. It remains to be seen whether he can put the ideas lying behind his call for a progressive consensus into action. But Gordon Brown as both a mechanical and moral reformer would be a formidable politician indeed.