Why wise politicians call themselves progressives

Sometimes, people living and breathing politics get swept away with how overwhelmingly important their work is. They’re battling for the future of the country, so everyone else must be hanging off their every action.

It’s true that big political stories that say something important about one side or the other – like the bungled Budget – can cut through and change people’s minds. Repeated little things – like Cameron’s modernisation – can do the same if there’s enough pushing in the same direction. (But it takes a lot of little things: from polling questions about recall of news stories, a good rule of thumb is, “when you’ve said something so much you’re getting sick of it, the public will be just beginning to hear”)

But as anyone who pays attention to polls knows, most people, most of the time, don’t care what politicians are doing. Sometimes the politerati are so isolated from the rest of the country, they’re effectively speaking a different language.

This was brilliantly exemplified in my favourite poll question of the year – one that received far less attention than it deserves.

The question focuses on the word ‘progressive’. It’s a tough word to define in its current political usage, not least as Cameron’s adoption of the term means it can no longer be treated as code for being centre-left.

But it’s fair to say that it is generally used to indicate a desire for reform of public institutions, the removal of barriers to social mobility and an end to discrimination against minorities. It’s not as statist as the old left, nor as resistant to change as traditional conservatism.

So according to this definition a progressive politician is someone within touching distance of the political centre – neither a radical leftie nor a bastion of old institutions, nor indeed a rampant free-marketeer.

But ask the public who they think is progressive and we get a very different answer. Of the 13 people tested by YouGov, the most ‘progressive’ is Sir Richard Branson. More than twice as many think the Queen is progressive than that Nick Clegg is!

What’s going on is that most people are treating ‘progressive’ as a general positive term – perhaps in the sense of ‘takes things in the right direction’. Comparing favourability scores with progressiveness scores shows the two are closely linked: 79% of the progressiveness score is explained by the favourability score.

Remove the Queen from this – justified as she is so unlike any other political figure – and that relationship goes up to 96%.

So ‘progressive’ appears to be understood by the majority of people in a way that’s completely different from how it’s meant by the political classes. (I’m assuming by the way that it’s not the case that the causal direction is the other way around and the country’s favourability towards politicians is overwhelmingly driven by the extent to which they’re seen as reformers of public institutions, etc. Such people tend to be more popular than more extreme politicians but the correlation is certainly not close to 100%).

So politics watchers hear the word ‘progressive’ and think it means someone instilled in modernising third-way politics. The rest of the country hears it, and thinks it means ‘someone I like’. Perhaps this is a sign that politicians have very little to lose by calling themselves progressives!

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