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The end of Progress?

Consolidating Corbynism involves the transformation of the Labour Party from a vote-catching bureaucracy into a movement capable of winning power by prosecuting its class interests. This in mind, the decision of Lord Sainsbury to pull funding from Progress shows, if you like, some progress towards this goal. Needless to say this, which was apparently announced prior to the election to Progress staff, is a significant setback for the Labour right as a whole.

Progress was set up in 1996 as a praetorian guard of sorts for Tony Blair and New Labour politics. Presenting as an innocuous organisation known for sending free copies of its glossy magazine to leading local politicians and select ‘influencers’, it runs policy seminars, day events, and a full roster of fringe events at party conference. And complementing its outward facing activity is its role as a clearing house and cadre school for career-minded Labour right-wingers. As a matter of course it offered training events for would-be politicians, and some members could expect (and received) coaching for selections. It also provided network opportunities between ambitious party climbers and the PLP cognoscenti, where it has and continues to exercise disproportionate influence. Take a cross section of the parliamentary party today, and you will find a surprising number of honourable members who habitually attended Progress events before their passage into the Commons.

And we need to at least mention the politics, of which I’m sure most readers will be familiar. Progress is the keeper of the eternal flame lit by His Blairness to keep at bay the shadows cast by trade union influence and Labour’s socialist legacy. By stepping away from the party’s heritage, ‘forward, not back’ as the pithy Blairist slogan eloquently put it, Progress sought to carve out a post-ideological, post-political space for itself and mainstream politics as a whole. While the Master bestrode the Atlantic with earnest seminars in the Oval Office about the Third Way, it fell to Progress and friendly think tanks to put flesh on the brittle skeleton. Elected as New Labour and determined to govern as New Labour, the immediate intellectual project was one justifying ‘what works’. ‘What worked’ was Gordon Brown’s adherence to Tory spending plans for the first couple of years of government, followed by ‘prudence’: the extension of markets into more areas of social life. And there was the small matter of an increasingly punitive approach to social security. It was from Progress terms like ‘combining social justice with economic efficiency’ were conjured, that aspiration was understood narrowly as flashy gadgets and gaudy baubles for greater numbers, and market economics were enthusiastically spun as the most efficient and dynamic means of delivering services. Part of Progress’s job was to enure the old ideas stayed beyond the pale, and to assist (read mobilise for and stitch where necessary) Blair’s grip over the party machine from branch level all the way up to the NEC and conference arrangements.

Given its political history it is understandable why some view Progress as an alien body within the Labour Party politic. Unfortunately, making such a claim involves ignoring some inconvenient facts about Labourism’s intellectual pedigree. Progress’s outlook is fundamentally Fabian; politics is something that happens in government, and policy is about (the right sort of) parliamentary elites using legislation and government machinery to implement them. It’s the Labour analogue of Tory patricianism as it requires people to turn up every four or five years for elections, and then leave the rest of the business to the politicians. Hence the other stuff, the politics of the street, the organising of community groups, the unionisation of workplaces, all of it is secondary and subordinate to getting into government and implementing whatever tumbles down from the top. The electorate, the members, are mere bystanders.

Progress appears to break with the Labour tradition of right wing revisionism, but this is more at the level of appearance than political substance. While there are and were plenty of Progress-sponsored MPs from working class backgrounds, Blairism’s post-class conceit revealed itself to be very much a middle class affair. The penchant for suits and commodity fetishism (in the non-Marxist sense), its love for power for power’s sake, the top-down politics, the personnel officer approach to political presentation, and the hostility to trade unions that didn’t shut up and hand over the cash as per USDAW and Community appeared to jar with Labour tradition. Right wingers of the past, even if they did hail from middle class backgrounds, always paid lip service to the received party culture. That was gone here in the name of electoral expediency and, in more than a few cases, personal distaste. Old Labour was naff and tired, New Labour was shiny and young, the Y2K aesthetic materialised in politics. Hence its tensions with the old trade union right, why lash ups between Progress and Labour First for internal elections and the like were (and continue to be) more alliances of convenience than genuine love-ins. Its strength was also an expression of the weakness of the Labour movement. New Labour and Progress would never have happened had the industrial politics of the 1980s played out differently, had bastions of working class power in the mines and the nationalised industries successfully held out against Thatcher’s assaults. History would certainly have taken a very different turn.

Likewise, New Labour’s and Progress’s love for the market only appears to break the Labourist mould. Remember, prior to Blair’s ascension in 1994 Labour politics were quite statist (or were more tilted toward the mixed economy) and were sceptical of untrammeled markets. These terms were entirely reversed and remain a key component of continuity Blairism. Remember, as recently as the 2015 Labour leadership contest Liz Kendall was advocating even more privatisation and marketisation of public services, the default assumption being that markets are good and efficient and state delivery inherently more wasteful and disempowering. Though, again, I would not argue this is a break within the received revisionist tradition of right wing social democracy but rather an adaptation to what it perceived to be the prevailing mood. After four general election defeats and 18 years out of power, capitulating to market fundamentalism and actively building a consensus around it in the name of electoral viability had a certain logic, even though it was the wrong thing to do.

Needless to say, the policy menu Blair handed down to his epigoni doesn’t meet the tastes of the party and the country anymore. After years of lean and bland fare, the party and public are turning toward tastier, more substantial (if not a touch traditional) options. Progress, however, have been out of sorts since 2010 when their man wasn’t elected leader. Over the following four-and-a-half years they took the hit for continued discontent and backbench bellyaching. Matters weren’t helped by the appearance of an anonymous dossier that was mailed to CLP secretaries outlining their funding and their activity. It was a clear shot across the bows from unions finding their feet and starting to assert themselves in the party structures again. It also forced Progress to become a more open organisation with a regular conference and internal elections for its strategy board – though in practice decisions were made by the full-time director in conjunction with the revolving door of key Progress MPs and Peter Mandelson. Then come 2015, the poor showing for Liz Kendall was a rude shock for the faithful as it demonstrated how shallow their roots were in the wider party. The appalling behaviour of some affiliated MPs in the Commons during the first year of Jeremy’s leadership followed by the defeat of the attempted coup marginalised them even further. This was congruent with the wider retreat of the Labour right and now, after the strong performance of Labour in the general election, what role for Progress?

Yesterday’s scenes summed the difficulty up. As Jeremy Corbyn addressed a couple of hundred thousand at Glastonbury, Progress members were in a telephone box booing a left wing journalist. With the withdrawal of monies by his Lordship, Progress will have to turn to their membership for cash. Perhaps the shortfall can be made up by going cap in hand to its MPs, its friends in Community and USDAW, and former supporters of its events – like the British Venture Capitalist Association. A whip around at conference with a bucket too.Whatever they do, Progress’s chief difficulty is political. How can you cling to market fundamentalism when it is on the slide in the Conservative Party, let alone Labour? What role in the party when electoral realities have collapsed their entire project? How can they detoxify themselves when they remain committed to stymieing Corbynism as it works its way through party structures? Where will the support come from as Blairist fundies among the membership drift away to the LibDems and/or private life? And what use as a career ladder now Progress are busily courting irrelevance? There are no easy answers to these questions for them.

A future beckons as a disco night at party conference where all that is spun are the greatest hits of 1997 perhaps. Because at the moment that is all they have to offer.

5 Comments

  1. Bazza says:

    I was asked a while back about my involvement in Labour and would I consider a career (as a left wing democratic socialist) as a future MP?
    I replied that in a less than a few years time when I retire I may consider this but not as a career but as a working class socialist as a calling!
    But with some Labour members a metamorphosis seems to occur if they suddenly become Labour MPs and sudenly they seem to think they have become adults and we members are children (to be seen but seldom heard).
    But let us destroy a myth – MPs don’t know everything, it is just a con, a pretence; I know quite a bit but like everyone I am capable of reading, learning and researching but have a good socialist heart and commitmentv but I have never believed some Labour members (MPs) are more equal than others!
    Some right wing activists (when we try to get more power and say for grassroots members and trade unionists) like Progress argue almost as though they ar saying: no children, we are only children, we must leave it to the adults – as though we are incapable of being thinking human beings, of being moved by poverty, of being angry at injustice when I would argue WE ARE THE STARS and should make policy from our fantastic life experiences and we should our elect leaders and MPs too – no more appointmentism!
    So power to grassroots members and trade unionists!
    Yet there is an irony with the Right and their ‘Great Men and Women of History’ – they seem to have a lack of original ideas – we only have one life and will future generations know that they ever existed?
    But I have noticed at meetings some of these tiresome Right Wing people (who I would arguè hold working people down) actually enjoy fighting the Left when all they are really fighting is perhaps their own lack of reading and critical thinking and believe me I recently had to endure a meeting with a lightweight Labour MP (with a Neo-Liberal stance on Brexit) and the draining experience of having to take on these bores!
    And apparently the latest ruse of the Right I understand is to try at Conferenece to reduce the number of CLP places on the NEC and to give more seats to councillors (the prefects) and essentially to give more power to The Masters!
    But perhaps we are seeing the end of the era of ‘The Great Men and Women of History’ and perhaps soon it will be the time for The Great Masses of History!
    Apparently the Tories have started Parliamentary Selections already and we need these too asap in Labour before the next General Election and then it will be the time for 620 diverse left wing democratic socialist men and women STARS (with our existing STARS) to enter the stage (backed by and involving us).
    Solidarity!

    1. Maybe it’s not even a left-right thing at times. It would be hard to find a Labour MP who doesn’t say there should be more working class candidates. We hear it from all sides. Ed Miliband certainly proclaimed as leader. Yet to have more working class candidates instead of the stream of Oxbridge bag carrying spads would mean turkeys voting for Christmas. Why would these people give up their own to promote such a thing.

      I say it’s not always a left-right thing as working class Labour MPs are often on the ‘right’ side of social issues, many having a fairly conservative view on some of the issues that liberals get so involved with.

      The problem with the Party is that since the end of the war the much needed leavening that ex-workers brought into the parliamentary party has been reduced down to almost nothing. The opposite was true in the pre-war Labour Party.

      This hasn’t come about by accident. The up-rating of the PLP members’ educational levels was pushed for by Herbert Morrison in the selection process before the 1945 election. Since then the ‘gentrification’ has continued until we find ourselves in the position we have now with so few working class MPs.

  2. JohnP says:

    The current UK political zeitgeist is undoubtedly flowing strongly leftwards – the now quite evident failures of neoliberalism’s promise of “free enterprise driven prosperity for all” (strivers that is ) being more evident every day.

    However huge dangers for us on the radical reformist Left loom ahead. The extraordinary “soft neoliberal political coup” in France represented by that vacuous creature of French Big Capital, Macron, and his equally vacuous “En March !” pseudo party, arose on the back of the utter failure of Hollande and the Socialist Party to take on the power of the EU market structures . Hollande’s retreat from mild anti Austerity Keynsianism into entirely pro Austerity politics is what has provided the political demoralisation of the French working class, the collapse of the Socialist Party – and hence facilitated both “Macronism” and the radical Right populism of the NF.

    Whilst we understandably revel in the current disarray of both the Tories AND the Labour Right – the harsh reality is that a Corbyn General Election victory, say , within 6 to 12 months, would be achieved with the Party machine still firmly in the grip of the neoliberal Right , as with the majority of the PLP and local councillors. The totally predictable hostile response of the money markets to a Corbyn Election victory WILL result in an economic crisis which Labour is currently utterly ideologically and organisationally unprepared for.

    A retreat from the current radical anti austerity policy bundle by a Corbyn government constantly undermined by its own Party machine and PLP, would provide exactly the political conditions for “Macronism” in the UK.

    We haven’t seen the end of the PLP Right’s neoliberal ambitions, and treachery, yet awhile.

    1. Mervyn Hyde says:

      Wholeheartedly agree, We must ensure that we get the changes at conference that ensure the members regain essential powers.

      That means getting left delegates to conference in large numbers, the right wing are working flat out to get theirs in, by hook or by crook.

  3. John P Reid says:

    neo liberalism, appointing shami chakrabarti to the lords after just joining, has a cover up inquiry, is in the shadow cabinet within hours, at least chris Williamson getting appointed after being a MP for a week,had been a MP years ago

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