This weekend, Progress – Labour’s Blairite faction – is again holding its annual political weekend in rural Lincolnshire, sponsored this year by the British Venture Capital Association. As usual it is addressed by several shadow cabinet members (Douglas Alexander, Liam Byrne, Ivan Lewis, Liz Kendall), but this year it meets widely accused of being a “party within a party”.
The Yorkshire regional TUC conference on 3 March, for example, passed unanimously a motion using this very term, a “party within a party”, calling on “all affiliated unions within the Region and individual union members of the Labour Party to take all practical steps to oppose the organisational and ideological aims of ‘Progress’ ”. The motion was moved by the GMB, and supported by Wendy Nichols of Unison, a member of Labour’s national executive.
The circulation of an anonymous dossier ‘A report into the constitution, structure, activities and funding of Progress’ to all Labour constituency party secretaries has certainly prompted widespread discussion within the party. “Progress has spent £2.9 million?! on what? doesn’t seem plausible to me – how much can a few pamphlets+seminars cost?” tweeted blogger Don Paskini, adding “just think, that could have been money spent on local organisers…”.
Whilst we would much rather it had not been anonymous, the dossier does raise some serious issues. Although the ‘rebuttal’ from Progress does clarify some minor points, it utterly fails to respond to the central objections. Since the departure of Tony Blair, the ‘Blairites’ have ceased to be the party establishment, loyalists to the leader; they have become a faction, albeit a faction with considerable support in the shadow cabinet. A faction that promotes its own programme, principles and policies and slates for internal party elections, and also trains and promotes suitable people for parliamentary selections.
A party that allows democratic debate – as I believe Labour is beginning to be again – cannot prevent the development of factions. They’ve always been part of Labour’s history, and have been arguably more a symptom than a cause of division within its ‘broad church’. And Labour, both in its own collective interest and in the interests of its members, has the right to regulate its factions. How it does so, however, is important if it wishes to safeguard its internal democracy and its values of tolerance and respect for others’ opinions.
The Left does not seek any proscription or expulsions on the right of the party now any more than than it did on the far left of the party in the 1980s. It agrees, on this occasion, with Luke Akehurst who tweeted “attack Progress if you must for its politics rather than attack its legitimacy,” if by ‘legitimacy’ he means the right to exist and campaign for its beliefs.
What Labour can and should expect – and formally required back in the 1980s when it established a register of non-affiliated groups – is that organisations operating within it do so openly and democratically, and ensure that their internal workings and finances are transparent. On that, Progress does not deliver. Unlike, for example, Compass whose annual report, available to download from its website, provides details of its membership, structure, funding and donors.
Labour – like all other political parties – also has a right to know where and how wealthy individuals or companies are buying influence. It may be sufficient to require that the information is published, rather than for returns to be made to the party itself. But the party could also consider a cap on political donations from any one source, perhaps distinguishing between individual or company donations and trade union political fund contributions which pool the small contributions of union members.
Either way, it is surely unacceptable for a single rich individual, Lord David Sainsbury, to be the source of £2.83m in donations to Progress between 2001 and 2011 (and no doubt more between the founding of Progress in 1995 and 2001) – 95% of all known funding (that is of donations over £7,500 regulated by the Electoral Commission created in 2001). Since it was founded in 1995, Progress has probably had a turnover of at least £6m, 75% of which probably came from Lord David Sainsbury. We should know, not have to estimate. And no organisation that valued its independence should feel comfortable without a far more diverse income stream.
We believe that the Labour Party NEC should consider the issues that have been raised about Progress, and whether it demonstrates a need for some light touch regulation of organisations operating within the party. They should also consider whether a cap, either absolute or proportional, on donations to such organisations (or to those over a certain size) from any single source is desirable.
If that happened, our political disagreements with Progress would not be over. However, internal debate might be able to take place on a more level playing field and we feel sure that Labour members could draw their own conclusions, for example, if they knew that recent Progress event sponsors have included:
- PricewaterhouseCoopers of a meeting on Competition and the Choice agenda at Labour’s Annual Conference 2011 – the company that boasts that “We have acted on more privatisations than any other financial adviser, from steel and heavy manufacturing to utilities, public transport, health and education services.”
- Bell Pottinger of the 2011 Progress political weekend – the company attacked by Wikipedia boss Jimmy Wales for ‘ethical blindness’ and which secretly taped claiming that they can influence David Cameron and other senior cabinet ministers.
- The British Venture Capital Association of the 2012 Progress political weekend – representing an industry of which according to the Work Foundation:
There remains a pressing need for additional regulation of the PE industry, focussing on: labour market impacts (ensuring the ‘democratic deficit’ is filled so that affected workers have information on future business plans and whether their jobs are secure); accountability (to ensure public scrutiny of a fast-growing sector and to aid effective regulation); taxation (to ensure appropriate levels of tax are being paid); and financial stability (a new code of conduct may be necessary to ensure conflicts of interest do not arise among managers being targeted for takeover by PE).”