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Greg Clark MP and Jeremy Hunt MP: Conservatives are today's progressives

Shadow Cabinet Office minister Greg Clark MP and Shadow Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt MP summarise the arguments of their new paper: 'Who's progressive now?'

ConservativeHome warmly welcomes this publication.  Principle one of our manifesto is the idea that the centre right is now the home of progressive politics.  Earlier this year we editorialised in favour of a greater emphasis on the issues that Dr Clark and Mr Hunt now champion so eloquently.

Download a PDF of the paper here.

Clarkhunt For too long, Conservatives have allowed our values to be denigrated by our opponents.   Too often we have not challenged the Left's assumption that its motives are more noble than our own.  Nowhere is this more apparent than the use of the word 'progressive', which has become a synonym for left-of-centre values.

Yet throughout the history of British politics, the Conservative Party has regularly been the progressive party – the party of reform, the party that confronted vested interests and championed the disempowered, the party that was oriented towards the future rather than to yearning for the past, the party that was impatient rather than complacent, the party that was ambitious for what it could achieve for the country, rather than defensive in its management of decline.

In our pamphlet we describe six dimensions that, taken together, convey the essence of progressive politics:

  • an idealism that the world can be a better place in the future than it is today
  • a suspicion of uniformity and a respect for diversity
  • an active concern for position of the least fortunate
  • an antipathy to unmerited hierarchies
  • a concern for non-material as well as financial goals 
  • a sense of responsibility for the future, including the notion that we have duties beyond our own lifespan

Far from belonging to the Left, these progressive principles are a virtual statement of the values that are driving the Conservative Party.

Of course, it would be foolish to pretend that these values are not shared by other progressives in British politics. But a party of government should be assessed on its record of delivery. How progressive has Labour actually been?

It had a promising start. Independence for the Bank of England, devolution, reform of the House of Lords, the creation of a Department for International Development, a Freedom of Information Act – all demonstrated an early belief that the institutions that shape Britain could be changed and improved.

We have become a more open country, with much greater tolerance of diverse lifestyles and cultures, whether relating to homosexuality, disability or ethnic minorities.

But in important ways Labour has actually been remarkably intolerant of diversity. No one could describe the Racial and Religious Hatred Act as originally drafted as anything other than illiberal.

A centralised, top-down approach to government imposes uniformity over diversity.   Yet in education, health and local government, the Government has increasingly specified from the centre not only an extensive system of targets which schools, NHS bodies and local councils have been required to achieve, but has typically specified how it expects local institutions to operate.

No progressive expects people to know their place.  On the contrary, the dismantling of economic and social structures that have held people back unfairly has long been one of the most powerful motivations of a progressive temperament.

Yet social mobility in Britain today is lower than it was a generation ago – and lower than in almost all other European countries.   As the health Secretary Alan Johnson said: " It is actually getting harder for people … to leave the income group, professional body or social circle of their parents".

Not all of the blame for the decline in social mobility rests with Labour.   But after ten years of it getting worse, where is Labour's strategy to address the problem?

Labour's poverty-fighting strategy has run into the sand.  Child poverty is rising again and there are 600,000 more people in severe poverty today than when Labour came to power. Labour's central view of poverty – that poverty is earning less than 60% of the national median income – has been narrowly and specifically financial.   It has been the Conservatives, under Iain Duncan Smith, who have been leading the argument for a more humane and holistic view of the causes of poverty, which is essential to finding solutions.

So what is the scorecard on Labour's 10 years as a "progressive government"? Good intentions, countless strategies, huge allocation of resources…but extraordinarily disappointing results.

Tony Blair once predicted that this would be the Progressive Century. He was right, but it's increasingly clear that Labour won't deliver it.   It's time for Conservatives to stop cringing before the slanders of our enemies and instead stand up to claim the progressive banner as our own. 


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