Don’t mention the P-word

The Tory-Lib Dem alliance claims to be the new progressives but on a raft of measures they are provi

Call yourself a "progressive"? You're not alone. It is the one label that unites the political and media classes in this era of the "new politics". Who, after all, could be opposed to progress?

The Times's in-house Cameroon - and former Tory parliamentary candidate - Daniel Finkelstein is, however, dismissive of the term. Progressive, he wrote in a recent column, is the "sort of word that communists used to use in the 1980s when they were organising conferences that they didn't want you to know were financed by the Soviet Union". Real people, he added, "don't use it".

Perhaps. But the politicos do - and not just on the Labour left. "Progressive conservatism . . . will be the underlying philosophy of any government I lead," David Cameron proclaimed in January 2009. "The torch of progressive politics has been passed to a new generation of politicians," George Osborne declared in August 2009, "and those politicians are Conservatives." In September 2009, Nick Clegg claimed the Liberal Democrats were replacing Labour as "the dominant force of progressive politics".

Poor show

So have we, by chance, via the back door, ended up with a Labour-less "progressive alliance"? The coalition's record in office so far has been pretty impressive. To the dismay and annoyance of Labour loyalists, the Con-Dem (Lib-Con? Con-Lib?) government has made progressive noises on a host of important issues, from abolishing ID cards and curbing the use of CCTV to scrapping the third runway at Heathrow and ending child detention in the asylum system.

But is this enough for the coalition government to earn the precious mantle of "progressive"? Hardly. Protecting civil liberties and the environment, as well as social liberalism and constitutional reform, are necessary but not sufficient conditions of a progressive political philosophy. At its core, there has to be concern for the poor, for redistributing income and reducing inequality.

Judged on these criteria, there is a progressive hole at the heart of this new government. Neither its Conservative nor Lib Dem parts came into office with a clear, coherent or costed plan for poverty reduction. In fact, the word "poverty" does not appear anywhere in the seven-page coalition agreement published on 12 May, nor was it mentioned in the Queen's Speech on 25 May. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) says the new government has not "set out any concrete details" as to how it plans to meet the legally binding targets that aim to eradicate child poverty in the UK by 2020. (The Child Poverty Act 2010, passed by the Labour government in the so-called wash-up before the election, commits the new government to reducing child poverty to less than 10 per cent over the next decade.)

Labour's record on child poverty is far from perfect. After 13 years in office, child poverty in the UK remains worse than in most other European countries. The target of halving child poverty by 2010 will be missed. But there are now 600,000 fewer poor children than there were in 1998. And the annual report on households below average income, published by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) on 20 May, showed that child poverty numbers fell by 100,000 in 2008/2009 - an admirable achievement in the first year of the worst British recession in almost a century.

Iain Duncan Smith, the non-progressive ex-Tory leader now in charge of the DWP, chose to bury the report by breaking with recent precedent and releasing the figures without a press conference. Instead, he issued a statement describing Labour's approach of targeted benefits to the poor as having "failed" and repeating the classic Tory mantra: "Work, for the vast majority of people, is the best route out of poverty."

Yet the latest figures from Duncan Smith's own department show that 57 per cent of children in poverty live in working households, compared to 49 per cent in 1998/99. For these children, their parents being at work has not been a route out of poverty at all. Such complacent, disingenuous rhetoric is an ominous reminder of the Thatcher years, during which indifferent Tory ministers presided over the biggest increases in child poverty and income inequality since records began.

Cameron is not Thatcher - yet. And the Lib Dems have been a positive influence on the more unreconstructed elements inside the Conservative Party. Contrary to expectations - and Labour spin during the election campaign - the coalition has protected the winter fuel allowance, free TV licences, free bus passes and Sure Start Children's Centres. And on 24 May, David Laws, the Lib Dem Chief Secretary to the Treasury, said that the coalition's spending cuts - of which he will be the public face - would be made in line with "progressive values".

Cold comfort

But has that been the case? Is it progressive to abolish the Future Jobs Fund, which has provided 117,000 paid placements for unemployed young people with councils and charities? Is it progressive to axe the Child Trust Fund for rich and poor, which helps families save for their children's future? Is it progressive to cut the number of university places in the next academic year by 10,000? Is it progressive to spend up to £17bn on raising the tax threshold to £10,000, from which the three million households in the poorest quarter of the population, who pay no tax to begin with, will gain nothing? Is it progressive to reverse Labour's rise in NI (a progressive tax) while refusing to rule out a rise in VAT (a regressive one)?

“For years, Labour ministers would say that inequality would be higher if we hadn't acted, or that child poverty would have gone up further without our tax credits," wrote the former Labour cabinet minister James Purnell on 17 May. "We may now be about to experience the cold comfort of the counterfactual."

So far, on the issue of tackling deprivation, the omens are not good. If Cameron and Clegg preside over a state-slashing, benefit-cutting administration in this parliament, poverty will undoubtedly rise and their claims to be progressive will sound hollow. "Don't you dare lecture us about poverty," Cameron said in his speech to the Tory conference in October 2009. Fine, Dave, no lectures. Just remember that it is the most impoverished members of our society who need the most support from your "progressive" government.

Mehdi Hasan is senior editor (politics) of the New Statesman.

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