Nick Clegg, progressivism, and New, New Labour

Nick Clegg, latter-day UK Deputy Prime Minister and the parliamentary leader of the Liberal Democrats, is in the thick of some truly interesting times in British politics. Coalition life has been generally smooth for him and his party since the May 6th election, but it is also proving politically disfiguring, particularly if recent polls are to be believed.. He and the Liberal Democrats are at grave risk of being cast betwixt and between the fashionable, small-l liberalism of their philosophical cloth and the considerably less fashionable fiscal brutality being spearheaded by Chancellor George Osborne. In recent months, whatever it is that the Liberal Democrats believe seems to have been subsumed by this war that their senior Coalition partners are waging on the national debt. Are the billions of dollars of mooted public sector cuts really a function of necessity given the fiscal climate, or are they more just an expression of the Conservative Party’s base political wants after a decade in the political wilderness? It would be naive to suggest that there is not a bit of both in play.

On Tuesday last week, Clegg delivered the Hugo Young lecture at Kings Place in London, at the invitation of The Guardian. In the lecture, Clegg grapples with the question of what it means to be “progressive” in today’s political environment. We can hardly be surprised that he has spent some time considering this topic; this is a question that threatens the very identity of the Liberal Democrats as a party. Can the Liberal Democrats really still be thought of as “progressive”, locked as they are in a kind of Faustian pact with the Tories?

It is an important question for Clegg and indeed the broader party and their supporters, and it will only become more important as the electoral cycle plods inexorably towards 2015. Clegg’s intellectual mechanism for dealing with the question and to defend his left flank is to divide “progressives” into two lumpen camps; “old progressives” and “new progressives”. Labour, of course, are cast off as embodying the “old progressive” cause, and the righteous Liberal Democrats hailed as the future of progressive politics in Britain:

The need to make choices is revealing an important divide between old progressives, who emphasise the power and spending of the central state, and new progressives, who focus on the power and freedom of citizens.

There’s some clear sleight of hand and over-simplification being employed here, particularly as Clegg goes on to define exactly what he perceives the differences between old and new progressives to be:

Old progressives are straightforwardly in favour of more state spending and activity.

Old and new progressives also take a different approach to tackling poverty and promoting fairness. Old progressives see a fair society as one in which households with income currently less than 60% of the median were to be, in Labour’s telling verb, “lifted” out of poverty.

For old progressives, reducing snapshot income inequality is the ultimate goal. For new progressives, reducing the barriers to mobility is.

New progressives want to reshape the tax base fundamentally, towards greater taxation of unearned wealth and pollution, rather than of people.

In essence, “old progressivism” just happens to be all the stereotypical centre-left viewpoints that one tends to associate with social democratic parties in the 1980’s. which Clegg projects onto modern Labour. “New progressivism” (in case you didn’t know), just happens to be all the middling, individual-centric rhetoric that Clegg no doubt perceives his party as uniformly believing in and Labour as uniformly opposing. “Political pluralism”? Why that’s conveniently a “new progressive” concept, exemplified, of course, by Clegg’s conservative coalition. Distilling this even further, we might well conclude that the Deputy Prime Minister is trying to cast himself as a Blairite, and position his party as a kind of “New, New Labour”, in league with the old enemy.

This theme is reflected by Clegg’s willingness in his speech to agree with Ed Miliband and Labour on values, but not on policy mechanisms for implementation. On the one hand, he expresses his agreement with Miliband’s recent observations that the United Kingdom is a “fundamentally unequal society” and that “for some people, the gap between the dreams that seem to be on offer and their ability to realize them is wider than it’s ever been before.” He goes on to scoff at Miliband’s attachment to the top 50p income tax rate, conveying all the while that he thinks that Labour’s heart is in the right place but its head is trapped in the past. It is a bold, but ultimately defensive stretch to the left, and a futile one while Clegg still has his stronger leg planted in David Cameron’s hack and slash Conservative camp.

Just where do these Liberal Democrats stand? If the Deputy Prime Minister is to be believed, they are sticking to the middle of the road come what may, and stand to be slowly crushed between the hulking semi-trailers of the major parties during the next five years. It is not good enough for Clegg to stand with the Tories whilst proffering the occasional olive branch to the left. The voters that matter to Clegg and his party are going to want to see something in the Lib Dems that distinguishes them from the Tories as this term rolls on; gentlemanly argreements with Ed Miliband on a few philosophical debating points aren’t going to cut it.

Cross-posted at Larvatus Prodeo.