Speaking at Cross Purposes? The Rhetorical Problems of ‘Progressive’ Politics



On 22 January 2009 David Cameron launched the ‘Progressive Conservatism Project’ at Demos, a think tank previously associated with the centre-left. He made clear that he considered this a new departure both for the Conservative Party and for the country. His words were widely interpreted as an attempt to distance the party from Thatcherism and to move towards values more usually associated with the Lib–Lab ‘progressive tradition’ in British politics. This paper questions the efficacy of this rhetorical strategy in reorienting voters' impressions of the Conservative Party. It uses a 2012 YouGov/University of Nottingham survey to show that the word ‘progressive’ is not well understood by the British public. A plurality of survey respondents felt unable to define the word, and those who did tended to use politically neutral terms such as forward movement, improvement and change. Very few defined it in terms of liberalism, left politics or social justice. Moreover, while many respondents did view Conservative politicians as ‘progressive’, they included Margaret Thatcher within this. The idea of ‘progressive conservatism’ might have seemed attractive to voters in that it signified optimism and change. However, for the majority, it is unlikely to have indicated a shift to the left.