Firstly, I have to say I was disappointed. The Progress Annual Conference on Saturday wasn’t as unpleasant an experience as I’d expected. The last Progress meeting I’d attended was horrible — a crowded, hot and sweaty fringe at last year’s annual party conference, with speaker after speaker stridently promoting ideas and policies that seemed totally alien to me. Though I heard plenty of things I disagreed with yesterday, the ideologues present seemed strangely muted and defensive. As if they knew the party was no longer theirs. The Labour movement surroundings helped too, the TUC’s Congress House, and there no sign of the corporate world that made Labour Party conferences so horrendous when Blair was in government. And nor was it the sort of stage-managed rally which party conference remains.
And then, of course, there was Ed. I had been instinctively critical of his presence there at all. Why should Labour’s leader repeatedly speak at events of an organisation so opposed to making the break with New Labour which he has said is necessary. And yet, not only did he speak really well, but in the way he challenged the audience, I couldn’t have asked for much more. He took them where they always want us to be – outside the comfort zone. He told them how Labour in government failed to stand up to the rich and powerful:
the British public lost faith in who we stood up for. They thought that we had lost touch. They thought that we were too close to the powerful interests. Not willing to take on the banks, until it was too late. Not willing to take on the utilities enough as they began to drive up prices. Not willing to take on the media giants, even though everyone knew that things were not right.
The British people thought we were not always willing to stand up for the country, even when it needed it most. We became one of “them” rather than one of “us”.
He talked about how he’d also been warned against speaking out against Murdoch, against bankers bonuses and against electricity and train companies since becoming leader (by shadow cabinet members associated with Progress though he didn’t say that bit). But he had one so because it was right to stand up “against unaccountable concentrations of private and public power.”
And he used the anti-politics stance of so many to justify why Labour had to challenge the neoliberal view of the impotence of governments in the economy:
At our party conference I began challenging the old story. The story that globalisation means we are powerless. That we must tolerate irresponsibility at the top. That ever-more flexible labour markets are good for people.
He criticised the democratic credentials of New Labour in government:
In the old days, it was said we listened to the party membership but not the public. Then it was said we listened to the public but not the party. The truth is that by the time we left office, it seemed like we had stopped listening to both the party and people.
And in outlining his vision, he dared to use the “c” word:
A country not riven by class, wealth and income. A country where the economy works for all working people, not just a few at the top. And a country where we show politics can improve people’s lives.
It was hardly Bennism, but it made up for him being there. Even his gratitude to Progress for its contribution to internal party debate (“challenging old orthodoxies and championing change“) was double edged.
Stephen Twigg, former Chair of Progress, speaking in a break out session on “public service reform”, was one of those who seemed ultra-cautious and defensive. It was hard, for example, to find fault with the 5 principles he outlined which he said should govern reform:
- It should be based on evidence not dogma;
- It should be focussed on user needs;
- It should take account of professional advice;
- Power should be devolved.
- It should provide new solutions, and break down the silos and barriers which divide current services.
These are principles which would have prevented many of those New Labour reforms driven by the dogmatic urge to privatise and marketise, which centralised power and which ignored both users’ views and professional advice. Still, new Fabian general secretary, Andrew Harrop, was able to inject some additional and sensible cautionary advice — maybe 2015, after years of devastating cuts and facing continuing financial pressure, services could do with a period without major change.
It took the breakout session on “What should a modernized link look like?” to remind me just how far removed Progress are from the mainstream. The answer to the question seems to be “just like USDAW and Community“, only with a political fund that is “opt-in” rather than “opt-out”, and consulted but with little direct say over Labour Party policy. There was a great deal of hostility for the leadership of the affiliated unions that weren’t USDAW or Community, and even more for the leaders of some of those that aren’t affiliated.
Thousands of teachers were represented, it was said “by donkeys“. And particular animosity was expressed for those Labour MPs who were happy to share platforms with union leaders in the SWP or Socialist Party. “We know who they are“, said a member of the audience. I thought I did too, and was rather surprised when the main culprit was named as Tom Watson, formerly associated with Labour First.