After a week of George Osborne attempting to claim the mantle of “progress” whilst defending the NHS, and an organisation called “Progressive Vision” calling for the NHS to be scrapped, PoliticsHome have published a poll which suggests that a) A third of people think that no political party is ‘progressive’ and that Labour is less progressive than the Tories, Lib Dems and the Greens; and that b) most people think that ‘progress’ means ‘reforming’ and ‘modernising.’
I’m sure that what PoliticsHome would like us to infer from these findings is that Labour is a busted flush, and it is hard to deny that it suggests that. But it also suggests something else: the word ‘progress’ has come to mean nothing at all really.
‘Modernise’ was used so much by Tony Blair that it became a busted flush. ‘Reform’ isn’t quite there yet but is essentially meaningless unless qualified with something else. ‘Progress’ alone remains a phrase in the political lexicon that politicians still seem to think they are in a battle to dominate.
I can’t help but feel that if you asked the public what ‘reform’ or ‘modernise’ meant most of them would say ‘progress.’ What this suggests is that all three words have become fuzzy marketing words rather than anything else. They are a substitute for meaning.
When everyone from the far left to the far right is claiming ownership of a term then it has essentially become meaningless and it is time to move on. It wasn’t always thus. During the Enlightenment, progress was linked to the notion that we are moving towards a perfected, utopian society. For a while the left held onto this notion whilst superimposing its own vision of equality and solidarity.
What’s worrying is the way political discourse has become dominated by these non-words. Pace Obama, “change” including “real change”, “the change we need” and “now for change” has become ubiquitous. Particularly in the UK a lot of people appear to have mistaken the accoutrements of the Obama brand for the core package and assumed that if you copy the former you will magically get the latter. When people on the other side of the world do this, we call them “cargo cultists” and patronise them.
It has always been the case that the two most effective political messages are “it’s time for a change” and “fear change.” In this time of comparatively value-free politics we appear to have confused the strategy for the philosophy.