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Let us welcome Progress conversions to plurality

Blairite Shadow Cabinet member, Ivan Lewis, in his speech to the Progress political weekend, responded to “the anonymous briefers who have sought to undermine Progress in recent times“. What he said included the words: “Let us encourage plurality. No individual or section of the party has a monopoly of wisdom.” Let’s unreservedly welcome that conversion. The Labour Left has always believed in plurality.

Ivan Lewis is not alone in Progress. Robert Philpot, its Director, says (in response to questions raised by Michael Meacher about the governance, funding and activities of Progress) that he has “always believed that, as a party, we are strengthened by all those who are genuinely committed to the election of a future Labour government having their say…. Labour is stronger for being a broad church, both organisationally and ideologically. Let’s keep it that way.”

This is consistent too with comments and tweets by some other members of Progress — who are of course well practiced in being on-message — so there does appear to have been a conversion. New Labour was not a broad church. Pluralism was not encouraged. Dissent was not tolerated. The line came from the top and no-one would prosper if they were off-message. The whips and party staff were there to enforce that iron discipline. As Progress-backed NEC member, Luke Akehurst, put it: Labour party staff :

should not be neutral referees. They should be able to promote the candidates and policies of the elected leadership of the party against their internal critics. Back in Morgan Phillips’ day … there was none of this nonsense about neutrality, the party staff explicitly had a role in giving the left a kicking. Ah, the good old days!”

Progress are obviously aware that New Labour’s record on tolerance and pluralism is much criticised. According to another report of the Progress political weekend:

Luke (Akehurst) also took the time to highlight that evidence of New Labour’s ‘control freakery’ pales in comparison to the disciplinary machinery of the immediate postwar period: over half of Labour’s MPs broke the whip at some point under Blair or Brown – absolutely every single one of them would have been thrown from the party under Attlee, where a single infraction against the whip cost you party membership. Bevan, having built the health service, found himself out of Labour for two years for such a crime.

It is true that Labour rebels in Westminster did not have the whip withdrawn (though Luke himself argued for the reimposition of the old disciplines) but they were far from tolerated. They were ostracised, but rather than martyr them, Blair’s command and control machine did their best to ensure that, when they retired or were defeated, their replacements were compliant, on-message and ideology-free. Reshaping the PLP, with help from Progress (founded, I now read in Paul Richard’s Labour’s Revival: The Modernisers’ Manifesto with cash left over from Blair’s leadership campaign) was one of Blair’s most important legacies to the party.

But what about Ivan Lewis’s attack on the “anonymous briefers“:

Never again are we going to put up with a culture of poisonous, destructive briefing in our party which tries to kill ideas. We say fight ideas with ideas; fight the Tories and the Lib Dems not members of your own party and movement.

Again, a theme echoed by Robert Philpot who refers to “destructive infighting” and “divisive, factional warfare“.

The practice of “poisonous, destructive briefing” and “destructive infighting“has indeed been pernicious. It did, of course, its greatest height in Labour’s history (especially in relation to real political differences) in the acrimonious running battle between Blairites and Brownites. Unfortunately it persisted well into this parliament: take for example, the “barrage of open or thinly coded attacks from Blairite zombies” as it was described by Seumas Milne this January that persisted until the Blairites met and resolved to abandon any challenge to Ed Miliband in this parliament. Indeed, the campaign of leaks from the Blairite apparatchiks in the party machine in the last two weeks are yet more examples.

The Labour Left does not want a period of destructive infighting. We want a period of serious open debate within the party about policy and strategy and organisation. We want it on a level playing field, not one in which advantage can be bought by wealthy men and hostile corporations. We need a party with sufficient internal democracy that its members really get to make the choices, which we do not yet have. Will Progress join with us to make this happen?

I regret that the dossier circulated to all CLPs was anonymous. That was not helpful (though it does not invalidate the contents). But, as far as I know, the dossier did not come from any Left organisation. Luke Akehurst has said he is “99pc sure it has not come from the left but from someone disgruntled that Progress hasn’t backed them“. Certainly the Left would not advocate some of the ‘solutions’ the dossier advocates — we do not wish to see the party controlling the activities of groups within the party.

However, we do believe that the dossier raises legitimate issues of openness, democracy and transparency and the party would be well advised to consider them. Appropriate, light-touch regulation is possible.

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