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Progress are an obstacle to a Labour victory

I have certainly had a busy week at GMB Congress in Brighton, with not only the usual hectic conference schedule, but also a series of meetings with activists and officials within the union to plan the next steps in our industrial action against Carillion.

In addition, on Monday I moved a motion from Southern Region committing GMB to opposing the influence of the shadowy organisation with the Labour Party known as Progress.

This motion had been submitted after a vote from the Wiltshire and Swindon branch of GMB, it was supported by the Central Executive Council, and was passed unanimously at Congress. GMB in fact moved a similarly worded motion through Yorkshire Regional TUC, supported by UNISON, a few months ago; and UCATT conference also passed a motion critical of Progress.

Progress has since issued a rebuttal statement, which is ably responded to by Jon Lansman over at Left Futures.

However, the tone of the response by the Labour Right has been set by Luke Akehurst over at Labour List. (We should acknowledge that Luke is more closely aligned with the Labour First group, rather than Progress. Labour First might be described as representative of the traditional right within the party, who value the connection with the trade unions, while adopting a “moderate” stance on policy.)

Luke plays the red-scare card about my personal political history. Perhaps Luke should reflect on that a bit more. Labour lost 5 million votes between 1997 and 2010, and we lost the 2010 election. The factors which placed me outside the Labour Party were two-fold: firstly my main political interest from 2001 was in opposing the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, both of which conflicts have been proven disastrous; and secondly, the control freakery of the Blair era sought to actively discourage activists like myself from being involved.

When Luke lectures me about the need to defend inclusivity in the Labour Party, perhaps he should consider some of his own former statements. For example:

I actually think Progress should be engaged in a branch-by-branch, CLP-by-CLP battle to expose the weaknesses in Compass’ analysis and marginalise them as an organisation. It’s bad enough that some Government Ministers are giving credibility to this pernicious and subversive grouping by speaking at its event, let alone that the people who ought to be fighting them are publicising it. I really take a strong objection to Compass’ constant undermining of the party and in particular the Prime Minister and think that all right-thinking people in the party should have absolutely nothing to do with them.

Pot? Kettle?

In fact, like thousands of other people, I simply couldn’t bring myself to join the Labour Party when Tony Blair was leader. Although I did not rejoin the party until 2010, this website, www.socialistunity.com, had argued support of Gordon Brown, and for a Labour victory long before then, and in 2010 I signed the nomination papers for my sitting Labour MP, Anne Snelgrove, as her proposer; and I worked hard in that election to get out the Labour vote in Swindon, including mobilising activists from my GMB branch.

While it would be disingenuous for me to argue that my political past is typical, I am nevertheless perhaps representative of one of the strands of opinion that the Labour party needs to reconnect with if we are to win future elections. Furthermore, the Labour Party has traditionally played the gatekeeper role of encouraging those with a radical political past into the mainstream; which has provided a healthy synthesis of idealism and energy on the one hand, with the realism and experience of the mechanisms of power on the other.

Labour is a coalitional party, but it is also a reforming party that seeks to build a better, more just and more harmonious society. We need to ensure that the spectrum of opinion we appeal to is broad enough win elections, but we must also have policies that are not only pragmatic but transformational. Not just seeking to make minor adjustments and manage the status quo, but to boldly restructure our society where necessary to improve the lives of all citizens, but particularly to protect and advance the interest of the disadvantaged, the hard-working, and the under-rewarded.

In the face of economic crisis we need to empathise with the sense of economic insecurity that affects both working class and many professional and middle class citizens; and we need to offer the prospect of economic recovery, and a safety net for those in need. This cannot be done by emphasising minor differences with Tory policies, but only by proposing our own agenda for growth, jobs and social justice.

The policy horizons of Progress are too timid, and too trapped in the past, and they resist the type of bold thinking we need. Remember that the ground-breaking adoption of Keynesianism into the party came from the unlikely alliance of the moderate Ernest Bevin and the firebrand AJ Cook – had Progress been around at the time no doubt they would have opposed such radicalism.

Let us also reject the victim complex, and lurid fantasies of purges and expulsions from Luke and his co-thinkers. I believe that the ideas of Progress are wrong, but I want the opportunity for the trade unions and the centre-left to prevail against them on an even playing field. The problem with Progress is their excessive funding, their secrecy, and their sometimes destabilising behaviour.

What I want is for Labour to win the next election, and to win it by reinvigorating its connection with the aspirations of working people, with progressive intellectuals and that part of the managerial and professional classes who have a social conscience. Of course there should be no going back to the politics of 1974 nor 1983; but equally there should be no going back to the politics of 1997, of wheezes, spin and triangulation. Things have changed since then, and in so far as Progress is an obstacle to recognising the need for Labour to change accordingly then they need to be opposed. They have a disproportionate grip on the party organisation, and this also needs to be addressed.

The funny thing is, at one level Luke knows this. He supported Ed Miliband and Ian McNichol. Progress supported neither of them. Ed and Iain are a winning team, but we need to grasp the opportunities that their leadership presents.

Luke needs to be a little less paranoid, and to realise that there is a sensible pragmaitic left who want a genuine debate about policy, but that also recognises the need to have sufficiently broad appeal to win elections; and not only to win in the heartlands, but also in the swing marginals.

The truth is that Progress is probably a paper tiger. Many people seeking a political career have loosely aligned to them in the hope of patronage and support, in the same carpetbagger way that careerists seek to love up to the unions when it suits them. If open support from Progress becomes seen as a career liability, then their influence will wane.

What we need is the wisdom to look beyond the tired rhetoric of left and right, that Luke Akehurst seems so addicted to, and for us to work together to make the changes in the party necessary to give influence back to the members; to draw up not only a vision for a better future, but the detailed policy tasks that can make it happen; and then to build an election winning coalition, broad enough to take on and defeat the Conservatives and their Lib Dem allies.

See my website Vote Labour

11 Comments

  1. john P reid says:

    [deleted]

  2. John S says:

    This vendetta against Progress is a joke. They are a wonky London elite think tank which is unpalatable to many – but Labour is a plural party – room for all strands of opinion.

    If moves are genuinely made to expunge them from the Party it will be a big, big mistake.

    Many members in my local area may not exactly cheer when they see a copy of Progress but have generally the same reaction as when the latest CLPD constitutional change newsletter comes the CLP – eyes roll…..

    Most members are just good, loyal hardworking people who want a winning party – not infighting and Trade Union Gen Sec’s flexing their muscles.

    Get a grip and focus on what matters guys.

  3. Ryszard Konietzka says:

    And Progress members refusing to back or canvass for (democratically chosen by a 3:1 majority of members) Ken Livingstone in East London is also hardly a path for Labour victory, either, is it ?

  4. David Pavett says:

    I share Andy Newman’s distaste for the politics of progress but my agreement with him stops there.

    When it comes on how to react to the influence of Progress on the Labour Party I think that he, and the GMB, have got it completely wrong.

    Progress has impact because it is able to put ideas into a political space which is an intellectual vacuum. Anyone who read the Policy Commission documents for this weekend’s meeting of the National Policy Forum should need no convincing of that.

    Stopping the influence of Progress is not a matter of banning them. After all they only do what Left Futures and various other groups do (even if it is true they have donors with larger pockets). They organise as a pressure group to influence Labour Party policy.

    The real problem is that the left is not filling the policy vacuum with well researched and well argued ideas of its own. A study of the submissions to the Policy Commission statements reveals that only 34 CLPs out of 650 responded. Why was that?

    I know that the time was short etc., etc., but come on, if you have something to say …

    So, that is the real problem. The political vacuum being filled by crap from Progress needs to be filled out with something better from the left. Look at education. Where are the ideas from the left? Where are the analyses and proposals. Same thing for the other areas.

    I have an intense dislike of Progress and what I think they are doing but the answer is not to ban them. The answer is to fill the political space with much better material than they can produce. If we cannot do that because Lord Sainsbury isn’t subbing us then I think we should give up any idea of a radical project to reshape society.

  5. Chris says:

    “What we need is the wisdom to look beyond the tired rhetoric of left and right”

    No, what we need to do is fight tirelessly to ensure the victory of the left. Those things socialists have believed for the last 150 years? They’re all correct. The lesson of the 20th century is that we need to be stronger and bolder and hold our nerve. We can never again make the mistakes Labour made after the 1983 election. That’s all that matters.

  6. Duncan says:

    An interesting article, Andy. I’m glad you appear to rule out expulsions and purges – I do think Paul Kenny might have chosen his words a little better, because the problem is that that idea is abroad now, whether there’s reality behind it or not.

    This whole thing is a bit of a mess, to be honest. I understand Progress have gained members in the last few days, hardly the aim of the exercise. I also fear there will have been an increase in votes for the Progress slate in the last few days of the NEC votes (hopefully not enough to make a significant difference, but we shall see.

    The Progress people haven’t covered themselves in glory. The extraordinarily over-the-top responses from some, especially Dan Hodges and Luke Akehurst, have backfired on them to some extent, but the main damage from any of this is going to inflicted on the left, and as much on those who have nothing to do with it as those who seem to think this is something worth pursuing.

    There are some on our right-most fringe who would like nothing better than to see the party pull itself apart and for us to lose the next election providing they can gain two things from it: one, they can blame the left; and two, they can replace Ed Miliband with one of their own. The talk of the last few days (which I totally accept has not borne much resemblance to the content of Andy’s motion) will have given those people renewed hope. If you read the zeal in the ramblings of Dan Hodges or Peter Watt, that’s not fear or trepidation you can perceive, it’s joy: they thrive on left bashing; if there wasn’t a left for them to bash they would invent one.

    As I’ve argued elsewhere, any rule changes to do with groups will not ultimately have much impact on Progress – they have the size, the funds and connections in the party machine to ensure they will be largely immune. It is left groups that will find themselves under ever-increasing scrutiny, and fine print and hurdles will ensure that left groups are hamstrung and restricted from the moment new rules are on the book. We all know how discretion works in relation to rules: you are flexible with people because they’re volunteers,etc, etc… unless they’re on the left. Then you throw the book at them to ensure they can’t do anything. Changing rules on groups will add to that, not stop it.

    This is also a distraction from what we should be doing: winning the arguments against Progress.

    I do agree that there are issues relating to Progress that could be addressed, but those who are very concerned about lack of democracy in Progress confuse me a tad. If Progress members want more internal democracy in their group, I assume they’ll agitate for it? They don’t need us to impose democracy on an unwilling Progress population! I read occasional comments on Twitter that seem to imply some kind of Progress Spring… The issues relating to funding are more interesting, but I still feel that it’s a bit of a dead horse we’re flogging.

    There have been some good articles about policy on Left Futures lately – let’s make the policy arguments, and leave the manipulation of machine politics to the rightwingers who always rely on those kind of tactics.

  7. Ray McHale says:

    I want to go back to the politics of 1974 and 1983. The politics of Compass are hardly more radical than Progress because they are not willing to fight to end Capitalism.

    Progress have a lot of money, and a lot of people contributing articles – mainly those employed in politics, based on a massive system of patronage, or full-time TU Officials. Most support practically every Blairite idea which has paved the way for the privatisation of the NHS, social housing, Education and many other services, and continued to undermine trade union rights. A number of trade unions should be looking at the written contributions to Progress made by their employees.

  8. Duncan says:

    Surely it would be more positive for GMB and UNITE (and others) to talk to the LRC, Compass and others, with their chequebooks, about producing a nice glossy broad-left magazine, or else inject some much-needed funds into an existing publication like Briefing?

  9. john P reid says:

    Ryszard Konietzka, what part of East london was that, It owuldn’t be tower hamlets where Kien Kivingstone deviously Implies voting for The Non laobur candiadte Lufthur rahman, so if they didn’t come out for the labour mayor choice but only voted for laobur on the assembly ,at least it’s not voting for anyone else

    Wheres your proof that the poeple of East london didn’t vote for ken,even if they didn’t campaign as hard for him as they had in previous times.

  10. Andy Newman says:

    It was actually. Labour won the seat, and I would never have stood against labour if that was ever in doubt. I was however – at that time – prepared to make life difficulet for a Labour MP who had not only supported the Iraq war, but who had supported it explicitly for the illegal objective of regime change.

  11. john P reid says:

    seeing as i wouldn’t have prevented livingstone’s mayioralty i should have stood against him for Mayor when he supported the illegal regime change of the IRA,

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