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3 September 2009

The new progressives

There is a common belief across the four new ideological trends that the state must be restructured

By Stuart White

Ideological positions are imprecise and fluid things. Any effort to define them risks oversimplification. It risks reading too much into currents of thought that are not yet fully developed and drawing distinctions too sharply. It risks covering some developments while ignoring others that might be no less important. Yet, caveats aside, the effort is important. It helps us to see where progressive politics might be going and to assess which direction it should take.

As set out on the previous pages, four ideological positions seem to be emerging: two republicanisms, two communitarianisms. While it is possible to separate these ideological perspectives, there is also some degree of overlap between them. In the recent Demos publication What Next for Labour?, all four of the perspectives are found within the same covers. So what are the points of overlap? And where do the perspectives nevertheless differ?

Restructuring the state

All four perspectives are critical of the existing British state and, perhaps, of conventional conceptions of the social democratic state more generally. There is an apparently common language of “empowerment”. However, the perspectives can disagree strongly on the form which that “empowerment” should take. For example, centre republicans see empowerment as being centrally about choice mechanisms in the public sector, but this is anathema to left communitarians.

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Left (and perhaps centre) republicans favour a complete refounding of the British state on the basis of popular sovereignty. They support calls, such as that made by the all-party campaign group Unlock Democracy, for a citizens’ convention process to generate proposals for constitutional change. Right communitarians, certainly Phillip Blond, find the whole theory of the modern sovereign state questionable. Blond looks to a neo-medieval model of fragmented sovereignty in opposition to the modern ideal of unitary democratic sovereignty.

Remoralising society

Three of the perspectives – the two communitarianisms, and the left republicanism – share a concern about mores. There is an anxiety about, indeed hostility to, a social ethos that is individualistic, consumerist, materialistic. There is a concern to “remoralise” society, to promote a society in which people lead lives that are much more informed by a sense of the common good. The centre republicans are criticised by those from the other perspectives as perhaps being too reconciled to contemporary individualistic mores.

Again, however, there are differences. For at least some left republicans, it is important that the common good should be understood fundamentally in terms of specifically civic and secular ideals such as liberty and equality – a point of agreement with the centre republicans. Barack Obama’s inauguration speech is seen as a model in this respect. Right communitarians tend to see secularism as part of the problem to be overcome. Left communitarians are ambiguous in this area. They sometimes incline to a political language of the “good life”, a language that has some illiberal connotations. But it is not clear how this language relates to classic arguments in political philosophy about how to conceive the common good.

Expanding the role of civil society

Arguably, all these perspectives espouse increasing the role of “civil society” relative to the market and the state. This is linked to the themes of restructuring the state and remoralising society. It is reflected in the interests that many of the perspectives take in organisations such as the broad-based London Citizens alliance, a grassroots body that “works with local people for local people”. It also marks a point in common with the theory of “associative democracy” set out by the sociologist Paul Hirst in the 1990s.

However, the perspectives do not necessarily all have in mind the same definition of “civil society” or the same picture of what it is supposed to contribute. In the left perspectives, there is perhaps more emphasis on civil society as a site of political mobilisation. And while all the perspectives seem receptive to civil society’s picking up greater responsibilities in the provision of welfare, here, too, there are disagreements. The left perspectives will see the central state as retaining at the very least a key role as a collective financer of provision, even if production is sometimes transferred to the third sector. Right communitarianism might not be comfortable with that.

Spreading asset ownership

Three of the four perspectives – the two republicanisms and right communitarianism – share a focus on widening asset ownership. This is not something one sees much focus on in left communitarianism (perhaps the idea is seen as too individualistic). But again, even where there is agreement on the general idea, there may be disagreements on the direction of policy. The republican perspectives, centre and left, stress asset ownership as a right. The right communitarians, on the other hand, are concerned to offer wider access to capital in more conditional ways that promote what they see as pro-social behaviour. The republican perspectives, centre and left, see a role for tax policy – for example, inheritance and capital gains tax – in a strategy for promoting a more equitable distribution of wealth. This is not on the right communitarian agenda.

Obviously, the new ideological terrain mapped out here is provisional and approximate. But it does provide a framework for making some sense of the current debate over the future of progressive politics. Going forward, we can ask: What are the strengths and weaknesses of these perspectives? What are their ambiguities? How might they enlighten one another? And how might progressive politicians and activists – of whatever party (or none) – draw on them in a constructive way to achieve real change?

Stuart White is a fellow of Jesus College, Oxford, and a member of Demos’s advisory council.