Tuesday, June 15, 2010

So what does "progressive" actually mean?

Over the past few weeks a lot of people have huffed and puffed about the United Kingdom supposedly have a "progressive majority". This is seemingly on the basis that Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the Scottish Nationalists and Plaid Cymru, the SDLP and the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland (and maybe also Sinn Féin) and various micro parties are part of some grand "progressive family" of parties who would be expected to naturally come together against other parties, and that voters have voted for this combination.

Anyone who has heard Labour activists talking about the Liberal Democrats or the Scottish Nationalists can only find such a viewpoint surprising to say the least. And it goes higher - the election leaders' debates didn't just see Gordon Brown declare "I agree with Nick", but also "Get real Nick". It may also come as a surprise to voters who receive anti-Labour literature from the Liberal Democrats. And many other combinations.

The basic problem with this idea is that it assumes that voters share the same perspective on politics as party activists and commentators. I'm not sure this is the case. I think the Green Party predominantly takes its votes from voters concerned about environmentalism who don't particularly align themselves on the political spectrum, regardless of the fact that the Greens' other policies are highly socialist, together with a chunk of the "anti-big parties" protest vote. Similarly I think UKIP mainly takes votes that are first and foremost concerned about the European Union, together with protest votes, with only a tiny number of their voters, mainly ex-Conservative members, thinking they are part of some "conservative family" and merely marking exactly where they are in that family.

And how many voters actually have a clear idea of what "progressive" actually means? "Progess" means little more than "go forwards" or "advance", but that doesn't in itself carry an automatic political meaning. After all what party sells itself as "go backwards"? Every party talks about taking the country forwards in one way or another.

To most voters, "progressive" is just another fluffy word that doesn't convey a great deal and certainly doesn't leap out as a family of political parties where a vote for one of them is automatically a vote for the overall family. Political scientists and commentators may identity a tendency called "Progressivism", but it's not one that you normally hear politicians talk about much here. "Progressive" is just a nice word like "modern", "dynamic", "fair", "reform" or "change", used to make a policy or programme sound good but ultimately not really saying much more.

But aren't there parties that have used the "Progressive" name, I hear someone ask. Well yes there have been many, but they don't actually make it much clearer. Just glancing at "Progressive Party" on Wikipedia shows a huge variety of parties that use or have used the label either here or abroad, but they are literally all over the spectrum.

United Kingdom

  • The Progressive Party in London, basically the Liberal Party in local government elections from the 1880s onwards. It competed with the Municipal Reform Party, basically the Conservatives, and Labour, basically themselves
  • The Progressive Parties in Scottish local government basically the Unionists, Liberals and various independents in anti-socialist alliances, though some of these groups took on a life of their own. They grew in the 1920s but died out in the 1970s.
  • The Ulster Progressive Unionist Association, a brief-lived Northern Irish party in the 1930s and 1940s that urged more radical social and economic policies. Their leader sat at Westminster as a Conservative MP.
  • The Vanguard Unionist Progressive Party, a hard-line loyalist Unionist party of the 1970s with not-very-covert links to paramilitary groups.
  • The Progressive Unionist Party, the political wing of the Ulster Volunteer Force. It has a left-wing Unionist perspective.
  • The Progressive Unionist Party, the name initially adopted by James Kilfedder for his own micro party in 1980. Upon learning the name was also used by the UVF's political wing (then not very high profile), Kilfedder took a leaf out of The Life of Brian and renamed it the "Ulster Popular Unionist Party".

It gets even more confusing internationally:


  • The Progressive Party, based in New South Wales in the Edwardian era this was basically the state equivalent of the Protectionist Party, a liberal-conservative anti-Free Trade, anti-Labor party.
  • The second Progressive Party, again in New South Wales in the 1920s. A conservative and agrarian party it soon shed its urban wing and the rural rump became part of the conservative Country Party (now the Nationals).


  • The Progressive Party, a radical breakaway from the Liberals in the late nineteenth century.


  • The Progressive Party, a centre right conservative, liberal-conservative & populist party


  • The Progressive Party of Canada in the 1920s and 1930. It combined a farmers' party with an initial appeal to western alienation, though soon became a national force (much like the New Democratic Party and Reform Party did so in later generations). Federally the party was never terribly coherent and its remnants wound up in either the Liberals, the forerunners of the (social democratic) New Democratic Party or the Social Credit Party. So it comes as no surprise that the main federal legacy of the Progressives was in the name of the Progressive Conservatives. At the provincial level several Progressive or United Farmers parties (or in Newfoundland, then not yet part of Canada, the Fishermen's Protective Union) had more success but ultimately proved to be mere flash parties.
  • The Progressive Conservative Party of Canada. Founded in 1867 it used many different names throughout its history ("Conservative Party", "Unionist Party", "National Liberal and Conservative Party", "Liberal-Conservative Party", "National Conservative Party" and "National Government", some of these names reflecting recruits from the Liberals). In 1942 the party recruited John Bracken, the Progressive premier of Manitoba, as its federal leader. Bracken agreed on the proviso that the party add "Progressive" to the title, though this was not a formal merger. The party lasted until 2003 when it merged with the Canadian Alliance to "reunite the right" and form the present Conservative Party.
  • The Progressive Party of Manitoba, a breakaway group from the New Democratic Party. It took a socialist line but opposed special support for interest groups such as the trade unions, feminists or minority groups. It soon dwindled to obscurity.


  • The Progressive Party founded in 1913. It advocated a clear constitutional state with strong central government, individual liberty and a peaceful foreign policy. It split in 1916.

  • The Progressive Party, historically an agrarian party of farmers & fishermen, it has increasingly adopted a liberal line.

  • The Donegal Progressive Party, a tiny southern neo-Unionist party, now defunct, that predominantly drew its votes from the Protestant community.
  • The Progressive Democrats, a slightly larger party, now defunct, that took an economic liberal and conservative liberal approach, combined with a hard-line Minister for Justice. It was a member of the European and international Liberal family, but by UK standards it very much Orange Book liberalism. Unsurprisingly just about every UK Conservative I knew who had a preference amongst Irish parties opted for the PDs.


  • The Progressive Party, a liberal party of the 1950s. In 1961 it merged with another party to form the Liberal Party, which eventually formed part of Likud.

New Zealand


  • The Progressive Party, a go-slow party in the pre-independence era that appears to have been a conservative party.

South Africa

South Korea


United States
  • The Theodore Roosevelt Progressive Party of 1912. A somewhat populist vehicle for Roosevelt's bid for the White House when he failed to capture the Republican nomination, it was broadly against big business having too much influence over politics and for regulating the economy to protect the middle and working classes. The party's reliance on Roosevelt was shown when it faded away after he declined nomination in 1916.
  • The Robert La Follette Progressive Party of 1924. A similar breakaway from the Republicans, this time under Robert La Follette, Sr., it again largely served as a single election party with its big names drifting back into the Republicans federally, although La Follette's son created the Wisconsin Progressive Party in the 1930s but disbanded it in 1946 and returned to the Republicans.
  • The Henry Wallace Progressive Party of 1948. This time a breakaway from the Democrats centred on Henry Wallace, it supported universal health insurance, the end of segregation and the end of the Cold War. After defeat it soon faded away.
  • The Progressive Labor Party, a revolutionary Communist Party founded in the 1960s.
  • The Vermont Progressive Party, a state based social democratic & populist party.
  • The "Progressive Party" label has been used in a few other places, such as a vehicle to support Eugene McCarthy's bid for the Presidency in 1968, or the present day name for the Missouri state Green Party.

Oh and the European Parliament once had a grouping called the European Progressive Democrats. This combined the French Gaullists, the Irish Fianna Fáil, the Scottish National Party and a random Dane. Like its successor bodies, this was basically a vaguely national conservative alliance of convenience mainly created by the home countries having multiple parties on the right. (The SNP's membership pre-dated their move to the left.)

In this list I've ignored a few "Progressive" parties where the articles either say nothing about their ideology or just called them "reformist" as "reform" is a process not a destination and on its own not a very meaningful term.

This list contains both left-wing and right-wing parties, as well as parties that sit outside the spectrum. This incredibly unscientific look shows us is that the "Progressive" label has been in practice used all over the place to mean all manner of things. But it also shows the label is now rarely used in many English speaking countries, especially those with a similar party system to the UK - it's disappeared in the Conservative merger in Canada, it's now used only by a one-man band in New Zealand (and said band may soon disappear altogether), it's long disappeared in Australia and so forth. Even where the party system is different it's disappeared recently in Ireland with the PDs in Ireland and long ago in the US (except in the odd state).

So if "progressive" has no real clear resonance, where precisely are the voters who self-align to the so-called "progressive majority"?

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