The budget illustrates why it’s time to ditch ‘progressive’

11:20 am - June 28th 2010

by Paul Sagar    

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Last week’s budget should come as a slap in the face to a sleeping British left. The Con-Dems widely trailed their “progressive budget&#8221, with Gideon Osborne himself declaring:

Everyone will pay something but the people at the bottom of the income scale will pay proportionately less than those at the top. This is a progressive Budget.

Leftist sources have predictably responded by claiming this is not progressive at all. The New Statesman here has a fairly standard example too.

But part of the problem lies in the very term “progressive”.

As I’ve pointed out in detail, “progressive” is a stupid word to use in politics because it doesn’t mean anything. When leftists say they are “progressives” they’re saying nothing of substance, whilst vaguely implying that they are in favour of nice fluffy things like helping people, and the environment, and being pro-gay, and pro-women’s rights, and, y’know, stuff.

The basic aim is to attempt a differentiation from the political right without having to commit to anything of substance or principle, and hoping that vague feelings of warm fuzziness will guarantee support.

But because there’s no content behind the term “progressive”, there’s nothing to stop the Conservatives – or for that matter the Lib Dems – appropriating the word for themselves. And that’s exactly what they have done previously, and did yesterday.

This has (at least) a two-fold effect.

Firstly, by dressing the budget in the cotton wool of “progressive”, The Coalition could easily spin deeply regressive taxation changes and ideologically driven public sector cuts as being equitable, fair and representative of an “all in this together” austerity.

Secondly, because the left – and Labour especially – has shied away for so long of talking the language of being the left – of equality (rather than mealy-mouthed meritocracy), of redistribution, of the state as an agent for social justice (rather than just bank-bailouts and surveillance policing) – responses to the Tories become flat-footed and lose the initiative.

Slipping into the specifics of policy (about cuts, about VAT, about child benefits) is already too late. As the old saying goes: “in politics, if you’re explaining you’re losing”. The initiative is duly lost to the ConDem side, which simply has to reply that this is what a progressive budget looks like in these hard times. We’re all progressives now, after all.

Words matter. The British left needs to have a long, hard think about what kinds of words it wants to carry on using about itself, and whether it might not rather stake out some clear, commitment-filled ground that The Coalition can’t happily squat in for political advantage.

A good start, incidentally, would be to stop chucking around two other over-used terms. Instead of merely saying we need to control the “discourse”, and construct better “narratives”, it’s time to come up with the discussion to fill that discourse, and the story to go into that narrative.

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Paul Sagar is a post-graduate student at the University of London and blogs at Bad Conscience.
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Reader comments

“progressive” is a stupid word to use in politics because it doesn’t mean anything

I think in a US context, where it’s used as a replacement when “liberal” became a slur, and means “not the conservative/Republican side”, it has some meaning.

Importing the word and the approximate meaning to the UK completely failed, of course, since many of the UK Conservatives would be somewhat progressive by Republican/US conservative standards.

Absolutely agreed that there’s nothing to be gained from using it (outside of a narrow discussion of “progressive taxation” where it has an older and more definite meaning, but there the antonym is “regressive” not “conservative”)


Progressive is a horrible word and a woolly-headed idea, don’t abolish poverty, slowly reduce it.

Don’t defeat hatred just tolerate each other…

I think the word “socialism” needs to be reclaimed and made cool again.

The Left used to be predominately socialists then but now “Progressives” appear to be the majority and gave us 13 years of privatisation, spin, war and underachievement.



3. Luis Enrique


Aren’t you worried that the notion of ‘social justice’ is similarly empty / undefined?

For example, to some people ‘social justice’ might mean not having some families without jobs getting receiving the same in housing benefits as others earn in wages.

The Conservatives have laid claim to not only “progressive” but to “radical” as well.

All the more reason for noting the comments on the Budget by the IFS:

“Noting that Britain was facing the ‘longest, deepest, sustained cuts in public spending since the second world war,’ Robert Chote, the IFS director, said: ‘Osborne and Clegg have been keen to describe yesterday’s measures as progressive in the sense that the rich will feel more pain than the poor. That is a debatable claim. The budget looks less progressive – indeed somewhat regressive – when you take out the effect of measures that were inherited from the previous government, when you look further into the future than 2012-13, and when you include some other measures that the Treasury has chosen not to model.

“The IFS estimates that the squeeze on poorer families would increase in the second half of the parliament as welfare cuts kicked in and the two-year increase in child tax credit ended.”

And in the Telegraph:

“Pensioners came out as one of its biggest losers in George Osborne’s emergency Budget.”

“progressive” is a stupid word to use in politics because it doesn’t mean anything.

In economics it has a very specific and unambiguous meaning – so we can hang on to it. Progressive taxes are those where the proportion of tax increases with income; regressive the other way around. It’s why we can nail this nonsense about VAT not being regressive: as people’s incomes rise, the proportion of it they pay in VAT tends to shrink simply because better off people tend not to spend all of their income.

Agree about its use in politics though… Tends to be used by people who used to be on the left, no longer are but struggle to admit it.

I look forward to finding out the platitude with which you have decided to replace it!

7. Alisdair Cameron

Well said, Paul. I may disagree with you on some matters, but the use to ‘progressive’ as a masking justification for pushing through wahtever a politician has in mind is a real bug-bear. It’s been used for the most egregious neo-liberal crap from New labour (and is still being bandied about by David Miliband for his warmed-over ultra-Blairism: in a way it’s quite fitting that the Tories are adopting this term of the bullshitter . Seconded on the use of narratives, too.Telling stories and spinning is all well and good, but if when it becomes all you do, and ignores the realities,practicalities and plain difficulties, it’s dangerous

Couldn’t agree more.

By the by, could those of us who are both politically and economically _liberal_ have that word back, please? Or is it too much to hope that this website will be renamed ‘Authoritarian Conspiracy’…?

by dressing the budget in the cotton wool of “progressive”, The Coalition could easily spin deeply regressive taxation changes

Happy to laugh out loud at anyone who claims their policies are progressive but we also have to laugh at those who smear the policies of others as being regressive, I’m afraid.

One of the best reasons for losing the terms is that they have different nuances of meaning when referred to taxation than when used in relation to general political policies. Progressive taxation means that the rate of tax increases according to the increase in income. Regressive taxation would mean the opposite but I ‘m not sure such a system actually exists. It’s certainly not what you meant above.

Similarly, if we take regressive to mean opposing progress; returning to a former less advanced state this may make it a useful term with which to smear policies you disagree with but are you really suggesting that the policies were conceived with that intention?

You could, of course, argue that progress means any movement towards a more egalitarian society and that movement in the opposite direction is regressive. But you would then have to accept that Mao and Stalin were the ultimate progressives.

Much better to laugh out loud at anyone who uses the words.

Progressive is actually a perfectly clear word with a well-defined meaning. It is part of a 4-way classification scheme, with the other three elements being reactionary, conservative and revolutionary. I find that helps a lot when discussing and understanding politics: in particular attitudes to change, and the style of argument about it.

The thing about change is once you have made it, it becomes the status quo.

For example, being a conservative is about recognising and defending what is good about an existing society. Honest, non-reactionary small ‘c’ conservatives (which does include a big chunk of the current Tory party) can see gay marriages are one of the good things about current UK society. So they are no more against that than they want to brink back slavery.

The thing is, they are only in a position to defend that status quo because a previous, progressive government introduced a sequence of gradual, sequential changes, with each step serving to making the next possible, that would never have been tried by conservatives and probably not have been successful if done in one revolutionary leap.

In general, the good, successful things about the current coalition government are the conservative parts. They certainly don’t have any expressed interest in a gradual process of making things better. Almost all their language and plans, whether on the economy, civil rights or the constitution, is about avoiding things getting worse, defending against an oncoming menace. The different parts of it only differ as to the identity of the bogeyman.

So while there no doubt are individuals (or secretive factions) with progressive ideas inside the coalition, that seem to be the least common of the four approaches. That’s probably why they self-describe that way: to try and discredit the very idea. It’s the same principle behind the name Democratic People’s Republic of (North) Korea.

Properly exploited, this is a weakness – if they formally acknowledge progress is good, but never actually try to accomplish it, it should be easy to point that out. Few will be satisfied solely by vague impossibilist plans, or dark talk of dangers ahead, for long.

Progressive does have meaning; simply put it encompasses all those who want to see change for the better, particularly towards a more egalitarian society and as opposed to the small ‘c’, conservative, do-nothing approach or the assorted regressive and reactionary forces on the right.

It also allows a degree of international association and comparison with parties and movements where labels like liberal would be inappropriate or misleading. Some examples: in Australia liberal is associated with classical liberalism, small government and free trade whilst progressives might call themselves social liberals. In Russia & the term has little current meaning and has been appropriated by some quite unsavoury parties whilst progressive forces use a different language. The genuine centre left elements in US politics, who describe themselves as progressive, constitute less than a third of House Democrats and only three of the one hundred U.S, Senators are further left of the those called liberal (who probably would be Conservatives in a UK context), see for a little background.

As others have pointed out, Progressive does have some meaning. It’s just that Tories want to attach themselves to that meaning.

13. paul barker

There was an interesting poll in the spring, asking people to say how progressive various parties were. Labour came last. Whatever the Public mean by “progressive”, its not you.

14. Luis Enrique

No, “those who want to see change for the better” will not do – every political variant sees itself as wanting to make chances for the better. I’m not sure what definition Soru has in mind – it sounds a bit like “gradual or incremental changes for the better” which adds a bit of detail (gradualist) but is no use either. Sunny, what do you think it means?

15. Luis Enrique


I’ve thought a bit more about yours. Both left & right, and all stripes in between, may see themselves as introducing changes for the better, but some changes are more like reversals, whilst others are more like trying something new.

That gives “progressive” a meaning. Not one I find very attractive (it sounds too much like a bias against conserving / reversing, to my mind. Sometimes experiments fail and old ways need reverting to) and also perhaps not immune to Paul’s critique, in so far as Tories can claim to be progressive in this sense too – all they have to do is introduce changes-towards-the-new in a rightwards direction.

It’s just that Tories want to attach themselves to that meaning.


And they will more and more because they know they will get every self-respecting leftie jumping up and down in apoplectic rage every time they use the term.

Just as Sunny enjoys liberals jumping up and down because he’s hijacked their big word for his blog title. 🙂

@ Paul Barker

Whatever the Public mean by “progressive”, its not you.

I take it you mean “not Labour” but your point holds good for the (Green) author of the OP.

This is how the public voted in response to a question asking them to list which parties were progressive:

Conservative: 22%
LibDems: 22%
Green: 17%
Labour: 12%

(PoliticsHome interviewed 1192 adults by email between 12-13 August 2009. Results were weighted by party ID to reflect the UK at large.)

How about “Angry nice people” as opposed to “Angry nasty people”?

Is it not rather indicative of a movement without direction that the left is more concerned with what to call itself than what to do? Framing debates and presenting positive labels are all very well, as Paul states, but perhaps the best way of doing this is to actually have a set of ideas which define you; even Paul’s post still seems to be playing with semantics, rather than challenging the left to get radical and actually suggest something different. I doubt the left is dead, but it does appear more interested in its own navel than in actually engaging in constructive ideas at the moment (and to avoid the obvious – feel free to exempt the Greens from this if you wish).

“Progress is a comfortable disease.” – E.E Cummings.

@17 – brilliant!!

22. Scotch Dan

It’s laughable that Cameron refers to himself as a “progressive conservative”. That’s a paradox and a half!

The reason why Labour call themselves progressives is because they can’t call themselves socialists anymore, and they can’t call themselves liberals because they’re not that socially liberal. They couldn’t really call themselves anything other than progressives.

Hmm, when I think of the term “Progressive Conservative” I think of former Canadian PM Kim Campbell – and those of you with long memories won’t need be to remind you of what happened to her when she went to country.

Until they went belly-up last year, Ireland’s alliance of economic liberals and social libertarians called themselves Progressive Democrats. But then the party allying itself with the European United Left–Nordic Green Left calls itself Ourselves Alone, so what’s in a name?

25. Mike Killingworth

This discussion is only possible because the Labour Party no longer knows what political space it can occupy.

If it returns to being a traditional social democratic party – one that Gaitskell let alone Healey or John Smith could have recognised – it will be out of office for ever: the electorate has moved to the right. Yet it is wholly unclear what political space (it used to be called ideology but that word is so “twentieth century” you can’t even tweet it) Labour can occupy to the right of social democracy that the coalition parties, singly or together, couldn’t colonise first.

A single, simple but telling example: I was told yesterday about the threats to a centre in Dover which tries to help a particular group of asylum seekers – unaccompanied children. Needless to say, both the clients and the staff are threatened with abuse on a regular basis, and the whole place will close soon when its grant is axed. What can we do to protest? Nothing effective until we recognise that the cause of asylum is the concept of “citizenship” itself. But how many of us are prepared to campaign against that?

By what right do we demand jobs for ourselves and our children when the consequence is starvation in Africa, Latin America or Asia? Because that’s what the globalisation of the reserve army of labour means – it means who starves.

And above and beyond all that, the “peak” problem as first the oil, then the water and after that the doof run out has only one, Malthusian solution. Reduce the human population of the Earth by about half.,

26. Mike Killingworth

[25] Sorry, pressed the wrong button!

I intended to conclude “Reduce the human population of the Earth by about half. And there is no socialist, liberal, progressive or even compassionate conservative way to do that. It will be done by wars, with the regular use of biological and chemical weaponry, both between and within states.”

all they have to do is introduce changes-towards-the-new in a rightwards direction.

Thing is, there really isn’t any coherent definition of ‘rightwards’ that doesn’t boil down to nostalgia for some imagined era or other. Different groups pick the 1980s, 1950s or 1890s: noone short of the Taliban wants anything earlier.

Almost every year, the GDP grows: there is a special word for a year in which we don’t get richer. GDP is by no means a perfect measure, but its growth is not a pure statistical artefact: something real is happening. Every year that things happens, we are richer, and so further away from the situation that conservative economics was designed to describe, the assumptions it makes.

A society with only a 1950s amount of wealth more or less has to work a certain way. The only way to really go back to a society that worked that way would be to first destroy all that excess wealth, and then start the gradual process of adjusting to that new reality.

Which I suppose is one explanation for the recent budget. Doesn’t seem likely they will get away with it, though…

“and they can’t call themselves liberals because they’re not that socially liberal”

Well, they don’t want to call themselves liberals because in every country in the world aside from the USA “liberal” means centrist or a watered down version of old-fashioned classical liberalism.

It is not the word progressive that is the problem but the tory scum who lie through their teeth and would sell the mothers for an extra few quid.

They have just decided to use a form of Right wing projection.. IE use language that means the opposite of what it means.

But as long as the gormless Lib Dems act as patsies for the tories this will continue.

Rarely do I find an article here that I entirely agree with. This is one.

I’ve been thinking along similar lines for some time. But it’s not just “progressive” that means nothing. What is “liberal”, what is “left”, and what is “right”? What is a “socialist” for that matter?

These terms have no meaning: what are their opposites? How can we determine if someone is a “socialist” or not? How is it measured?

We have a supposedly right-wing coalition party who (to me) are very obviously Blairite left-liberals, and a supposedly left-wing Labour party who (to some) are very obviously Thatcherite free marketeers. And who can say who is wrong, given that such concepts are not defined? No wonder we have all ended up in this political malaise where all the parties look the same.

Like you say, create the discussion, tell the story. Say what you want instead of hiding behind fluffy and meaningless terms. If all the politicians could do that, it would be worth our while to listen. *That* would be progress.

31. Chris Baldwin

Quite so. Come back to socialism.

“Progressive Conservatism” (an oxymoron if ever there was one) was launched by the Demos, (the wing-nuts, wing-nut astro turf) last year.

“Double-Dip Dave” Cameron introduced the launch and Letwin claimed Cameron’s Tories were “progressive Conservtives”.

Reading Sagar, the perpetual student’s exquisitely. nuanced stuff, I’d have thought Demos and him were made for each other.

Go for it propellor head!

For all those claiming that progressive is a useful word, quick question: who is against progress? There have been some over the years who have denounced “progress”, but they are few and far between.

The devil is in the detail: what does “progress” mean, and how do we bring it about? Thatcher thought that stripping down state provision and privatising industries whilst smashing the unions was “progress” – progress towards a free-market Hayekian society. The left would, I think, rather contest both her definition of progress and her means of getting there. But the point is, because “progress” is what you make of it, the word is essentially open to anyone. And because it doesn’t have firm connotations such as “social justice” (to answer Luis’ point) which refer to things like desert, economic opportunity, resources distribution and class disadvantage (which an be argued, debated over and challenged within a fairly constrained framework informed by historical experience as well as ethical and economic thinking), or tribal entrenchments which guarantee self-selecting usage (like “the left” or “the right”) the term “progressive” is up for grabs, and its warm fuzziness can be used by Double Dip Dave as easily as Barack Obama.

As regards good old Captain Swing – whom I once annoyed on an LC comment thread by saying he lacked any nuance in his analysis of Tony Blair – i’m glad to see he’s keeping up his personal vendetta against me. For anybody who would like to see a really good example of The Captain getting all potty mouthed and rather emabarrassing himself, go here:

Judging by the time of posting (2.30am) I’d guess The Captain had taken a few too many rums and shandies with the cabin boys..

For all those claiming that progressive is a useful word, quick question: who is against progress?

Few people are explicitly against it: a surprisingly large amount of people think it is impossible, or never think about it at all.

Political difference are 1% different values and 99% differences of belief in what is possible.

Thatcher thought that stripping down state provision and privatising industries whilst smashing the unions was “progress”

Any evidence for that view? Seems to me she was more motivated by a belief that contemporary trends (increasing wages, more free public services) were unsustainable, and her actions were the only way of avoiding catastrophe. _There Is No Alternative_ is inherently an argument from pessimism.

@ 32. Paul Sagar

Oooo that smarts….

I wasn’t drunk as it happens, I just keep unconvnetional hours and I stand by what I posted.

We mere mortals can only gaze at your work in mute admiration. Many of your posts are so exquisitely nuanced they are like like the work of some French post-modernist philospohers, i.e. nearly totally unintelligable except to others who share your weltanschauung.

Some may call it bullshit bingo, but perish the thought!

Give my regards to Oxford, my ex grew up there.

And keep up the cheerleading for Mr. Tony!

Somone has to do it besides John Rentoul and Martin Kettle…..

“go for it propellor head!”

What the hell is a propellor(sic) head? Given your use of “wing nut” I suppose its an Americanism of some kind.

On last week’s Question Time Ed Balls described the LonDervative budget as “regressive” thrice in as many breaths. Remarkably, the loveable fraud never found the time to mention where it was regressing to.

@ 26 tim

A propeller head is some wonk usually in a think tank, or on a blog who not only ‘thinks the unthinkable’ but also ‘thinks the unintelligible’.

Demos is the ultimate think tank for the propeller heads and wing nuts. At last election it supported the Lib-Dems, it’s been a long journey…..

Founded by in the ’90s by Marxists, one a former Communist, it was initially ‘Tony Blair’s favourite think tank’ it’s pamphlet on “re-branding Britain” Britain TM, was one of the texts for New Labour’s dalliance with ‘Cool Britannia’.Remember that?

The pamphlet outlinied the idea of Britain as a modern “cultural hub”, and it made the recommendations about “libraries at airports”, as well as suggesting that people in the arrivals lounge should be greeted with “a mouthful of British food”. Yum Yum!

Demos first research director was called Perri 6. Crazy name, crazy guy!

He was certainly a busy fella cos during the 1990s Demos declared “the end of politics”, “the end of unemployment”, “the end of social democracy”, “the end of 200 years of industrial society”, the end of “traditional definitions of what it means to be a man or a woman” and the end of “class-based left-right politics” (again).

How prescient!

A publication on women , was centred around the fictional lives of five stereotypes ‘Networking Naomi’, ‘Frustrated Fran’, ‘Back to Basics Barbara’, ‘Mannish Mel’ and ‘New Age Angela’.

Demos suggested a ‘British Liberty Day’ “to celebrate the post-1689 Whiggish liberal British culture of constitutionalism, rights and commerce”

Another report out forward the ideas of the introduction of “time-limited marriages” and a “week of celebration of physical activity”. Each July. In Manchester.

Still the pamphlets came! One claimed that hairdressers – “the most authentic voice on the high street”, apparently – might be a useful sounding-board for local councils, and that more of our politicians should step outside the Westminster grind “by writing poetry”.

But it was not all fun and games. Demos’ report ‘The Self-Policing Society, Began: “We have left behind the old argument. The tired old ideological conflicts have been replaced by a new common sense.”

And what did this “common sense” entail? The need to “bring back shame” . “A radical and to some disquieting suggestion would be to return to some latter-day form of the stocks for burglars.”The shame it would generate would make it a powerful form of punishment, though it would possibly foster even more violence.”

Food for thought there eh? Not even Michael Howard or David Blunkett, two of our more, er, ‘robust’ Home Secretaries have suggested bringing back the stocks.

Strangely New Labour began to distance itself from Demos for some reason. So Demos commenced a project called “Progressive Conservatism” and flirted with ‘Red Toryism’. But Cameron does not seem that keen on it now as he once was.

Then at the election Demos, fatally, gave the Lib-Dems its seal of endorsement. And stated politics as usual will end. Again.

What a long, strange trip it’s been….

But like I said: Demos and Paul Sagar = made for each other.

I have a feeling that “progressive” is used in its American sense a lot. Essentially, a belief that State action can make life better for all. The government should do this, the government should do that.

It’s a near synonym for “Statist”.

Of course, under a wide definition of ” State action can make life better for all” I too would be a progressive. It’s just that life would be better of the State stopped doing some of the things it already is.

“Progressive taxes are those where the proportion of tax increases with income; regressive the other way around. It’s why we can nail this nonsense about VAT not being regressive: as people’s incomes rise, the proportion of it they pay in VAT tends to shrink simply because better off people tend not to spend all of their income. ”

Ah, but it’s not quite that simple. There are things which are zero rated and certain special low rates as well. No, I’ve not run the numbers but it’s entirely possible that VAT is progressive at very low incomes and only regressive at middle incomes for example. If almost all of your income is going on food and rent (and heating say, at 5% VAT) then you’re really not paying very much of it, either in total or as a percentage of your income. As your income rises you spend more on vattable items, meaning that it’s progressive. Then, as your income rises again so that you’re saving (as you point out) it then becomes regressive.

As I say, I’ve not done the numbers to see whether that is actually true but it most certainly is possible that it is.

40. Luis Enrique

I’ve always wanted a propeller beanie

41. Scotch Dan


“Well, they don’t want to call themselves liberals because in every country in the world aside from the USA “liberal” means centrist or a watered down version of old-fashioned classical liberalism.”

That’s very true. But let’s be honest New Labour are essentially centrists. Labour have a touch of socially liberal policies but on the whole they’re not that socially liberal – ID cards anyone?. Also Labour aren’t going to call themselves liberals when there’s already the Liberal Democrats – for the apolitical that would be just too confusing.


“For all those claiming that progressive is a useful word, quick question: who is against progress? There have been some over the years who have denounced “progress”, but they are few and far between.”

Those against progress….? Conservatives maybe? 😀

Progressive is a perfectly reasonable word to use in the context of economics. A tax is progressive if it takes a progressively higher proportion from those who have more money and regressive if it does the opposite. The word, when applied to taxes or the overall stance of a budget, does not have any value judgements associated with it. It is not designed to imply that politics is unidirectional with a clear goal, any deviance from which is A Bad Thing.

Seeing the word progressive as being synonymous with the liberal left merely shows economic illiteracy.

Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. Liberal Conspiracy

    The budget illustrates why it’s time to ditch ‘progressive’

  2. John West

    RT @libcon: The budget illustrates why it’s time to ditch ‘progressive’

  3. Justin Baidoo

    RT @libcon: The budget illustrates why it’s time to ditch ‘progressive’

  4. Louisa Loveluck

    Good post on @LibCon why it's time to ditch the term 'progressive':

  5. Mark Wallace

    RT @libcon Why it’s time to ditch ‘progressive’ <- good to see a bit of sense about the "p-word"

  6. Adam Sargant

    the left – and Labour especially – has shied away for so long of talking the language of being the left – of equality

  7. Anna

    RT @libcon time to ditch ‘progressive’ // totally agree just = politician speak

  8. cheap

    The budget illustrates why it's time to ditch 'progressive …: Firstly, by dressing the budget in the cotton wool…

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