It is often said that in Britain there is a ‘Progressive Majority’ and that if the splitting of votes between left-wing parties did not occur the Conservatives would never win another election. This is an argument though based on lazy generalisations, false assumptions and a plain distortion of facts which, if fully examined, show that the ‘Progressive Majority’ in Britain is a myth.
If we accept the concept held in left-wing circles of the idea of a ‘Progressive Majority’ we can say that it is flawed for any number of reasons. Firstly, it is based on an incorrect view of British political history. For the idea of a ‘Progressive Majority’ to work there must have been points in history where the Conservatives were not in power and the ‘Progressive Majority’ made a visible impact.
The central underpinning of this flawed view of history is that the Liberal Party dominance of the nineteenth century was based on a ‘Progressive Majority’ whereas any cursory look at the period would show that the Liberal Party of the mid 1800s was not a progressive force when it was the dominant party in Britain. It could be argued, in terms of economics and social policy, that the Liberal Party was further to the right than the Conservatives.
It also assumes that one of the great reforming governments in British history namely the Liberal government of 1906 was a left-of-centre administration. This is plainly wrong because the government of 1906 (which included the anti-socialist Winston Churchill) was a centrist party possessing, if anything, more of an anti-socialist rhetoric rather than anti-conservative.
The great historical event, though, used by proponents of the ‘Progressive Majority’ to explain how the Conservatives, a party of the minority, were in power for the majority of the twentieth century was the formation of the Labour Party. The formation of the Labour Party – and its splitting the left-wing vote with the Liberals -gave the progressives a convenient explanation for Conservative Party success which, in their view, was a minority-interest party.
This however, is a flawed interpretation of history because it assumes that all voters of the Liberal Party were left-of-centre, when it was actually a mixture of both anti-Conservative and anti-Labour voters with some committed Liberal voters.
It also fails to take into consideration that when the Liberal Party declined in popularity and split, a large proportion of Liberal MPs and voters actually joined the Conservative Party. Therefore there was never a great bloc of progressive voters who were going to automatically vote Labour. Rather, a mass of centrist electors who, in era of dramatic polarisation, left their traditional cause and divided almost evenly between the Conservatives and Labour.
After the 1920s, for the next 40 or 50 years onwards, the Liberals were as much defined by being anti-Labour as anti-Conservative and they were probably much closer in outlook to the Conservative Party. The electoral pacts in the 1950s between both the Conservative and Liberal Parties – with a view to keeping Labour out – is testimony to this.
Further to this, there was also an assumption that the Liberal Democrats and their voters are basically an off-shoot of the Labour Party. In the case of the Social Democratic wing of the Liberal Democrats this was partially true but it does not take into account the much deeper and long-standing traditions of the Liberal part of the Liberal Democrats. Therefore proponents of the ‘Progressive Majority’ base their case partly on a warped view of British political history.
The modern belief in the ‘Progressive Majority’ is also has foundations in the assumption that those who vote Liberal Democrat, Green or SNP (and other socialist factions) is really a reluctant or repressed Labour voter. This is an arrogant presumption for numerous reasons.
Firstly, it supposes that all votes that are not Conservative are anti-Tory; conversely a good percentage of non-Labour votes are not anti-Labour. But if this was the case there would be no Labour-Liberal marginals because the lack of threat from a Conservative MP would nullify the need to choose between Labour and the Liberals – because the premise of the idea of the ‘Progressive Majority’ assumes all non-Conservative voters are really Labour voters.
Secondly, it suggests that some of the electorate are stupid and vote consistently against their own interests, because it is based upon a belief that if the electorate would only vote Labour they would get what they want. But for a century or more they did not.
Thirdly, it assumes that nobody votes for any other party other than the Conservatives and Labour because these parties represent a tribal dichotomy in British politics. It suggests that all the minor parties in British politics are really appendages of the Labour party.
Finally, it would suggest that when there was a weak Liberal presence the Labour Party would dominate but throughout history this has not happened.
The idea of the ‘Progressive Majority’ also assumes the left-of-centre parties and their supporters have the monopoly on progressive ideas. Yes, since at least the mid-1960s, the real radical reforms that have transformed people’s lives have almost all come from the right of the political spectrum – for example the sale of council houses.
We must also acknowledge a regional variation in “progressiveness” among Labour supporters. Compare a metropolitan Labour voter in London and a Labour voter in say a northern mill town. The former is more likely to hold left-of-centre economic beliefs and progressive views on social issues where the latter holds the same sort of economic beliefs but is very conservative on social issues.
The suggestion of there being a ‘Progressive Majority’ in Britain is based on a distortion of facts for the reason that it only works by adding together all the voters who did not vote Conservative as a homogenous anti-Conservative group.
However, this is not persuasive as no government since the 1930s has won over 50% of the vote and therefore, in any election since then, you could add together all the votes of the opposition parties and get a majority. Such calculations are mainly used when the Conservatives are in power to de-legitimise their victories.
The ‘Progressive Majority’ is a myth but it provides a heartening justification to a metropolitan liberal-elite to explain why the UK has, for most of the last 100 years, elected Conservative governments.