What Are Progressives For?

A Speech by Chuka Umunna MP at the launch of the 'What are progressives for?' pamphlet.


Can I start by thanking the Progressive Centre UK first for giving me the opportunity to write the pamphlet and then giving me this opportunity to give an overview of it today.

It was nine weeks ago we co-founded what is now Change UK and it has been a whirlwind. Cartoons were produced following our trip to Nando’s depicting our favourite dishes - Grilled May Chicken and Corbyn on the cob. Corbynistas who had been telling those of us who were Labour to back their leader or get out, denounced us when we did just that. The Tories bemoaned the loss of pro-European MPs to our group then showed their love for them by passing a vote of no confidence in one of the most high profile pro Europeans, Dominic Grieve.

Inevitably our departures from the established political parties were largely framed by reference to what we did not like, both culturally and politically, about them and the political establishment rather than what we stand for. So, I wrote the pamphlet to set out what I think progressive politics in Britain today is for and what we want to achieve.

A disunited kingdom

Before doing so now, we need to take stock of where we are at. I’d like to invite you to cast your mind back to 2012, which seems like an altogether different planet. Remember the opening ceremony of the London Olympics that year. The Queen parachuted in with James Bond. Mr Bean made an appearance. We celebrated the NHS. Tim Berners-Lee, the British inventor of the world wide web, sent a tweet live from the stage. Dizzee Rascal provided the soundtrack to a house party, there, in an actual house erected in the middle of the stadium with the world watching. The vision presented to the world was a country at ease with itself, not only proud of our history but proud of what we have become – open, humorous, decent, confident and modern. That is the Britain I love. That is the Britain I’m proud of.

However, we are not a “United” Kingdom, we are a disunited Kingdom. We are diverse but we are divided. The political and cultural divides, between the urban and the rural, our cities and our towns, the young and the old, between those with varying levels of educational qualifications, different ethnicities and classes is there for all to see. Our political system is broken and incapable of healing the divisions. Britain is crying out for change.

There are many causes of this fracturing but globalisation – the amalgamation of countries’ economies, the flow of people, capital, goods, services and ideas across borders – is at the root of it.

It has raised the standard of living of countless millions of poor people around the world. But in advanced economies like Britain it has brought wealth to too few and insecurity to millions on low and middle incomes. Jobs have disappeared as new technologies have transformed work, and factories were shut down or moved overseas. Wages in real terms are not forecast to return to pre-crisis levels until 2025 and most regions have yet to recover from the Great Recession of 2008-09.

The long-term trend towards each citizen enjoying a more equal share of the national wealth has gone into reverse. We have not invested sufficiently in or have appropriate skills and training systems to help people adapt to what is happening. The organisations created by workers to protect themselves and their families from the power of finance capital - trade unions and community groups - have disappeared or been weakened. Rapid and extraordinary demographic change has transformed the country. And it has all seemed like a storm threatening livelihoods, ways of life and, for millions, their sense of a national and local identity – something over which they felt they had little control.

The 2016 Brexit vote was a symptom, not the cause of how people felt about all of this. The irony is that so consuming has Brexit been, that so many of our country’s problems have simply not received the attention they deserve. For example, in my part of the world too many of our young people have been stabbing and shooting each other since Theresa May took office. This has been going on for a good few years yet only recently did she hold an emergency Downing Street summit on it. Brexit will do nothing to ensure they can be diverted away from violence and can tap into all the benefits modern Britain can bring.

A battle between two competing visions of Britain

So what are we today?

Whether you were for Leave or Remain was the big issue in 2016 and some have suggested that is what the European Elections, which will almost certainly be held on 23 May, are going to revolve around. But they are about so much more than that. They are about who we are as a people and what modern Britain stands for.

In the face of all this change and disruption there is a real risk that instead of coming together, as we have done. In the past, and rebuilding, the UK responds to the challenges of the globalisation not by asking ‘how can we solve these problems together?’ but by asking ‘who can we blame? This is at the heart of the xenophobic, backward looking nationalism of Nigel Farage, which has been adopted wholesale by the governing Conservative Party. On the other side there is progressive Britain, which believes we tackle these problems by being open to new ideas and people, inclusive, forward looking and determined to embrace the future for the sake of our children.

Progressive politics in Britain

But what is progressive politics?

Historically there has been a rich a vibrant progressive political tradition in our country. It is rooted in the social democratic centre-Left, the liberal, and One Nation Conservative centre-Right which have successfully worked together in times past to see our country through crises. We sometimes forget that Leaders and activists across political divides then, put their party interests to one side and came together in the Coalition government during the Second World War to defeat fascism. The subsequent 1945-1951 Attlee administration saw Labour in Government implement economic and social policies inspired by the Liberals John Maynard Keynes and William Beveridge, with a welfare settlement which was - in the main - preserved by the Conservative administrations in that era, a period often referred to as the Post War Consensus. That consensus vastly improved the material economic and social conditions of all people with the welfare state, educational provision for all, and it substantially reduced inequality.

It is precisely because the main parties refuse to put their party interests to one side and put the country’s interest first that they are incapable of bringing our country together to form a new consensus. Instead they have acted as the midwives to the current chaos.

And they have ceased to be the broad churches the main parties in a two-party electoral system need to be in order for our political system to function properly. That is why we in Change UK left them. We were literally driven out because, through those parties' words and deeds, they had turned their backs on progressive values.

The truth is the three strands of progressive British politics in 2019 have far more in common today with each other than the forces which dominate the established parties. This led us to the inescapable conclusion that our politics needs to be reconfigured to better reflect modern Britain and that now is time for the different progressive political traditions to come together under one roof – a new progressive party. Change UK.

Progressive values

And what are the values that underpin this politics?

I set out six key values underpin in the pamphlet: a United Kingdom; reciprocity; work; family; democracy; and patriotic internationalism.

A “United Kingdom” should do what it says on the tin. Individual freedom and the ability to lead happy, fulfilling lives relies on a strong society. So collectively we should ensure everyone is provided with the tools to reach their full potential to live a life they have reason to value, and where those who cannot provide for themselves are properly supported. So, we stick together - we look out for our fellow citizens. We don’t abandon them to market forces.

Reciprocity is vital. So, as an individual if you put in the graft and play by the rules, the economy will reward you, and in return for the support we enjoy from society through the state, we all have individual responsibilities. In fact, every actor in the economy – companies, banks, trade unions etc. – understands they stand in a reciprocal relationship with others. They should be driven by a purpose, and the goods and services they produce acknowledge this truth and so aim to better society through what they do.

At the core of our beliefs is the value of work. It not only provides us with the means to prosper economically but it has a value in and of itself that gives purpose, identity and mission in life. Our mission in policy terms should therefore be to ensure work pays and provides a level of security in a fast-changing world.

Yet we acknowledge there is more to life than work. Family life, in all its forms, and the importance of the place where people live are the building blocks of the communitarian ideals to which all progressives subscribe.

We believe that our parliamentary democracy in which our elected representatives deliberate, decide and provide leadership, held accountable by their whole electorate is the best system of representing the views of the British people - not mob rule by minority cliques who hijack local parties. Whereas the populist left views much our mainstream media as a huge inconvenience incapable of appreciating the messianic qualities of their leader, we view a free press as vital in our democracy. On the populist Right, the rule of law and an independent judiciary are denounced as “enemies of the people, we see them as integral to our democracy. Of course, there must be protections for minorities and curbs on concentrations of power.

Finally, because we are patriots, we are internationalist too. We will protect the sovereignty of the nation state which is the UK but we cannot build a good society at home in isolation from the global forces which are buffeting our people around. Where appropriate, we should pool power and work closely with other nation states which share our values to shape the world we live in and protect the environment and our planet. We believe being open to embracing new ideas and new people enriches what it is to be British, it need not undermine it, and expands the horizons and opportunities for our children.

Progressive politics under attack

For too long this politics and these values, taken together, have been dismissed as ‘centrism,’ a term which is thrown around as an insult. ‘Centrists’ stand accused of seeking to maintain the status quo and being blind to the urgency for change when the opposite is true. As the new Opinium polling which James and his team will set out shortly illustrates, progressive ideas and values are alive and well, and command popular support in our country.

For too long we have been defensive about our progressive politics - never has it been more vital that we go on the offensive because that kind hearted, progressive Britain which is generous in spirit, and should be open to new ideas and people of different backgrounds, is under threat like never before.

We see it in the coarsening of our political debate, dominated by abuse, threats and those who shout the loudest. We see it in the toxic discourse around immigration, where immigrants are blamed for all our problems. We see it in the rising tide of hate crime. We see it in the setting up of different groups and parts of the country against each other, into “them” and “us”. This is what lies behind Nigel Farage and his Brexit Party, UKIP and the Tory hard right. It is ugly and we have to take it on and that starts with resolving this Brexit mess.

People are tired and fed up with it but dancing to the nationalist’s tune will not bring our country together. With parliament gridlocked the only way to resolve this is by giving the British people a People’s Vote so that you we can vote based on what Brexit is today, not the undeliverable fantasy that we were told it would be three years ago. That is what Change UK is arguing for and because Brexit as it was sold cannot be delivered, we will be campaigning to Remain.

But progressive Britain cannot take on the nationalists and the xenophobes by sitting on the fence, which is precisely what the official opposition is doing on a People’s Vote according to its own Deputy Leader. Worse than that, my friend Andrew Adonis, who has previously championed a People’s Vote and Remain as the only way through, since having been adopted as an MEP candidate he has been forced by Jeremy Corbyn to wave the white flag and sponsor Brexit which he has spent the last three years telling us will be a disaster in any form. I have written to the Labour leader challenging him to get off the fence, to back a People’s Vote and remaining in the EU - the ultimate antidote to the nasty, divisive, xenophobia being offered up to people at these elections.

For our progressive politics can unite Britain. It provides the basis for the renewal of Britain through a new coalition. Left and right, workers and owners; Remainers and Leavers; social democrats, liberals and One Nation Tories.

Workers and owners ultimately rise and fall with the fate of their enterprise. Remainers and Leavers have similar domestic grievances, but different ways of transposing these onto the Europe debate; different political traditions have some different emphases but often agree with each other more than they might realise or care to admit. This way we can heal the wounds, build bridges and lift our country to its Olympian potential.

Chuka Umunna is MP for Streatham and Chairs the advisory board of Progressive Centre UK.


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