| 7 mins read
David Marquand’s influential work of the early 1990s, The Progressive Dilemma, was a landmark volume: Marquand’s book addressed the most profound, long-term challenges that confronted the liberal-left in the UK, identifying the central question of how to mobilise a ‘progressive’ anti-Conservative majority that would not only win elections, but sustain a radical government to enact progressive social reforms. Marquand developed his thesis at a particular moment in the early 1990s when Labour appeared to be on the brink of electoral recovery, but was unexpectedly defeated in the 1992 general election. The centre-left had already suffered three losses at the hands of Thatcher’s Conservative party. Labour had recovered its position under Neil Kinnock, but still lacked a plausible governing programme. Elsewhere on the centre-left, the SDP had imploded and the Liberal Democrats had made a hesitant beginning.
In electoral politics, Marquand defined the dilemma facing British progressives as the challenge posed by the existence of rival parties around which there had coalesced deep ‘tribal’ differences, with roots stretching back to the late nineteenth century. This fissure repeatedly split the centre-left vote; it was a critical factor in allowing the Conservatives to govern for 72 out of the last 100 years.
At the level of ideas, the progressive dilemma was that intellectuals were ambivalent about whether to co-operate with the Labour behemoth. Marquand contended that Labour needed the liberal-left intelligentsia to develop a credible governing programme; politically these intellectuals had nowhere else to go after the eclipse of the Liberal party. But many thinkers remained decidedly ambivalent about the Labour party, disliking its tribalism and sectarian culture; both Keynes and Beveridge refused to join Labour.
This deleterious situation for British progressives was exacerbated by various structural changes in the later decades of the twentieth century which also appeared to favour the Conservatives. These included the electoral effects of class de-alignment, the decline of manual labour, the erosion of the traditional labour movement, the massive expansion of suburban housing estates, and the associated cultural changes wrought by material affluence. In the 1950s and 1960s, the New Left alongside Labour’s revisionists had drawn attention to the party’s inability to face up to the consequences of sociological change, which undermined the established cultures and practices of British labourism. The relative prosperity which the Conservatives cultivated in the growing regions and sectors of the UK appeared to entrench their electoral dominance, adding to Labour’s ‘Southern Discomfort’ problem. In these circumstances, Marquand wondered, could the centre-left ever win again?
An affirmative answer was provided by ‘New’ Labour’s election victories of 1997, 2001 and 2005; but the crisis that emerged in their aftermath indicates that Marquand’s thesis is far from redundant. The irony of these victories was that the ‘progressive alliance’ that both Tony Blair and Paddy Ashdown wanted to build in the mid-1990s was made much less politically imperative (for Labour) by the size of its 1997 majority. It may well be that this was a missed opportunity for political and social reform: to enact changes to the electoral system for Westminster and local government, to develop a more coherent approach to constitutional questions and European relationships, to embed environmental sustainability more deeply into public policy, and to uphold a ‘progressive internationalism’ that might have avoided the errors of pre-emptive war in Iraq.
The case for revisiting the Progressive Dilemma is that Marquand’s thematic concerns, and his highly influential historical thesis, continue to have considerable resonance: they are particularly striking in the context of the structural crisis facing the centre-left in the era of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. In key respects, the processes which Marquand discerned – chiefly the fracturing of the class identities associated with the industrial age – have become even more pronounced since the 1990s. And the centre-left now faces challenges which Marquand could not have foreseen, including the rise of forms of populism and nationalism that are threatening the very foundations of the British political system and state.
Our political culture has been deeply affected by the disillusionment generated by the experience of globalisation, the increasingly precarious nature of work, the impact of sharp reductions in local government and other areas of non-protected public spending, and disaffection with levels of immigration. There is a sense of anger and resentment associated with visible forms of inequality which the pre-Corbyn Labour establishment was slow to grasp. These shifts have led to the popularisation of new forms of protest and ‘identity’ politics including, most notably, the rise of nationalism in Scotland and, more recently, England. In the largest part of the UK, with over 84 per cent of the population, a significant process of national reawakening has been occurring over the last two decades. Notions of English national identity have come to acquire greater salience and meaning, especially for those living outside London and the metropolitan centres. Labour has clung grimly to the notion that ‘Britishness’ represents a progressive ‘non-national’ patriotism, and has disagreed internally about whether regional government or devolution to cities, and city-regions, represents the most effective way to address inequalities. The party’s unwillingness to engage with shifting patterns of national sentiment, most obviously in Scotland but also now in England, has left Labour out of touch with the most profound dynamics reshaping contemporary political life.
If the centre-left cannot amass a more pertinent response to the growing political cleavages of national identity, the risk is the Tories will dominate the electoral landscape, making the twenty-first century another Conservative century. Marquand’s (1991: 240) concluding words in The Progressive Dilemma are worth recalling:
"What is needed for anti-Conservative Britain…is a marriage between the communitarian, decentralist, participatory radicalism to which the Liberal Democrats are heirs, and the communitarian, decentralist, participatory strands in the socialist inheritance: a marriage, if you like, between Thomas Paine and William Morris."
As the liberal-left warily confronts the new dilemmas of identity politics and the populist insurgency, it will need all of these intellectual resources at its command. In such circumstances, Marquand is surely right that ‘such a marriage hardly needs official blessing’.