Theses on Progressive Conservatism

I

Republicanism, communitarianism, John Lewis, EasyCouncils, co-operatives, mutuals, the ethic of engagement, the reinvention of the firm, motivation and productivity in employee ownership and a market economy based on common ownership. Suggestive of the fact that from both the left and right a convergence will soon take place that seeks to undermine the legacy of Thatcher, or an effort from both the left and right to pretend to the electorate that they have their interests at heart? Maybe something else, but it is all rather indicative that what is fashionable in British politics today is the return to community – this will have large cultural effects as well – and the surpassing of current modes of government and market structure.

II

Progressive conservatism, a project by Demos and led by Max Wind-Cowie, rolls with this contingent, and like the Red tory Philip Blond, is avowedly anti-Thatcherite with regards to an embrace of greed and yuppie idolatry. There is a wider reason other than to change the course of politics for this emergence, and time has a lot to do with it, namely that 13 years have passed of a New Labour government, poverty gaps are still rather large – perhaps larger than in the eighties, and even before the recession took place – and the Tories are an electable force to be reckoned with in the North now.

Furthermore, industrial plants are closing down, there are massive job losses, like with the current events in Middlesbrough with the Corus steel factory, with little that Labour can do about it – even if Peter Mandelson, First Secretary of State,Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, had acted a little sooner – and by disavowing Thatcher (whose image is synonymous with factory closures) a new generation of Tories seek to throw off their nasty party image.

III

Despite what some on the right have called Cameron’s lefty language on community empowerment, there is nothing inherently different in the new emergence of co-operative theory and capitalism, in fact even the LRC document cited above on common ownership actively endorses competition among worker owned industries so as to increase ingenuity and innovation. Perhaps it is less that the right are moving to the left, and that the left are moving to a new capitalism.

Progressive conservatism most definitely seeks to save capitalism, but on the way hopes to replace what it sees as a crippling (and basically laziness promoting) benefits system with a recapitalisation programme – with the idea that if capitalism – in a slight modification of those famous words by Winston Churchill – is the worst form of economic system, except for all the others, should the poor be destined to poverty in the duration?

IV

However, of course, problems arise from within the progressive conservative programme. Firstly, a charge that Wind-Cowie has on the way our benefits system is operated is that the state decides what money one deserves, and by this way decides what that individual or household should do with the money (in the form of housing benefit, for example). This won’t do for progressive conservatism. The poor, on their way to being recapitalised, should be given vouchers to ‘save and to accrue assets’ (p.21). But this can only work if the state promotes an ideal for what people do with their income support. Now, I’m sure that Wind-Cowie isn’t against people who need a sum of money be provided for their living arrangement, what his main anxiety is that the state too much decides what income support is to go towards, but I’d say this is thoroughly a better tailored system than assets – cynically I’d say there is little difference in the two other than the fact that one has to hope their assets grow in order that that person be able to pay the gas that month.

V

Another problem is the problem of choice – in the same vein as thesis iv. The document states

It is wrong that money that is designated for individuals’ use – because of need, illness or entitlement – is spent at the discretion of the state and not of the person.
(p. 58)

This is in a part of the document that seeks to revolutionise housing benefit for the better, saying that the government  should not be subsidising landlords. A noble sounding, real progressive element, right? But this as a mode of choice falls well short. The option, when the state no longer subsidises housing benefit in the way we know now, is for the government to instead give the individual the choice – which is to subsidise the landlord! It would seem on reflection that the best that the progressive conservatives can do is not give straight to the landlord himself, but give you the choice of whether to pay him or not, which if you want to keep your house or flat, you will have to. No choice there then. Which is not directly the Tories’ fault – but it does nullify their claim to change.

VI

The progressive conservatives will not change the system, they will only trivialise it. Futile attempts to promote the Singaporean system in the UK (p. 34 – though we know this is a false analogy), the illusion of choice in housing benefits, and the option of assets instead of a tailored benefits system – without the underlying patronisation that runs throughout, suggesting that benefits are for, and only promote, laziness – are all part of their master plan. Aren’t we in trouble.

VII

Even anti-Thatcher Tories patronise benefits claimants (else why bother with poverty recapitalisation – I fail to see a difference for the individual) – is this the best they have to woo the North, who have been hit with recent job losses?

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